Maps and views blog

3 posts categorized "Captain Cook"

06 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 2

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Hello and welcome to Group two of our British Library world map world cup. 

In every world cup there tends to be a group of death. This group is the football equivalent of Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain all together. So I hope the following descriptions, links and images will provide you with what you need to choose between them.

Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals on Friday.

1. Vesconte-Sanudo Mappamundi.

Drawn in Venice or Genoa in around 1325 (Add. MS 27376*).

Blog add ms 27376

This map is an extraordinary hybrid between a traditional 'mappamundi' and a portolan or sea chart. It was drawn by the Genoses chartmaker Pietro Vesconte to illustrate Marino Sanudo's mysteriously-titled book 'Secret book of the Faith of the Cross.' The book was presented to Pope John XX in order to persuade him to give his blessing to a Christian Crusade to invade the Holy Land. Other maps in the book illustrated the route to the Holy Land and the goal of the proposed mission: Acre and Jerusalem.

The world map is particularly clever because, most unusually, it consciously played down Christian iconography in order to present the Pope with an image of Christianity in crisis.

Link to digitised copy:

Further reading: David Woodward, 'Medieval Mappamundi' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987). 

2. World map by Pierre Desceliers, 1550.

Drawn in Dieppe, 1550 (Add.MS 24065).

Blog Add Ms 24065

Descelier's map is perhaps the crowning achievement of the Dieppe School of French chartmakers; a large planisphere focused upon navigational information (it has dual orientation indicating that it was to be viewed upon a table) but also corresponding to the idea of a visual encyclopedia of everything occurring in the world. The map contains the arms of Henri II of France and the Duc de Montmorency and could have been owned by either. Of particular interest is its depiction of areas of North America then only recently encountered by Jacques Cartier and the unusual arrangement of South East Asia and Australasia entitled Java La Grande that would flummox Europeans up to and beyond the journeys of James Cook two centuries later,

Link to digitised copy:,_1550_-_BL_Add_MS_24065.jpg

Further reading: Sarah Toulouse, 'Marine cartography and navigation in Renaissance France' in The history of cartography volume three, part two: cartogrpahy in the European Renaissance (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007).


3. Joan Blaeu world map, 1648.

Engraving on 21 sheets, printed in Amsterdam, 1648 (Maps KAR.(1-2.).). 

Blog Maps KAR 1-2

Blaeu's gargantuan map is regarded as the high water mark of Dutch cartography, and that's saying something given the quality of 17th century Netherlands cartography. There are two main reasons for this high regard. Firstly, the technical skill and artistry involved in creating such a high-quality printed map over 3 metres wide. The second is the range and quantity of first-hand geographical information it shows. Blaeu was chief cartographer of the Verenig Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), charged with compiling charts from the latest information gathered from company ships. Instead of secreting this commercially sensitive information like the Portuguese and Spanish did, Blaeu stuck it on a publicly available map. For the Dutch, nothing was more important than business.

The map was used as the model for the giant floor mural of Amsterdam Town Hall. There are a small number of copies still in existence, this one was owned by Charles II. 

Link to digitised copy:

Further reading: Cornelis Koeman, Günter Schilder, Marco van Egmond, and Peter van der Krogt, Commercial Cartography and Map Production in the Low Countries, 1500–ca. 1672 in The history of cartography volume three: cartograpy in the European Renaissance (part two).


4. Ch’ ōnhado (Map of All Under Heaven), c. 1800.

Woodcut, printed in Seoul (Maps C.27.f.14.)

Blog Maps C.27.f.14

This incredible map, which is part of a set of maps showing the world and regions of Korea, is one of select group of Korean world maps produced during the late 18th and 19th centuries. They show the world oriented to the east and centred upon East Asia. Look carefully and you can make out the eastern coast of China, Beiing a large red symbol, with the yellow river and Great Wall nearby. The rest of the world are scattered islands on the periphery. These maps were far more basic than earlier Korean-produced maps, and it has been suggested that one of their intended audiences was tourists.

Link to digitised copy:

Further reading: Gari Ledyard, 'Cartography in Korea' in The history of cartography volume two book two: cartography in the traditional east and East Asian societies (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).

11 June 2020

Great Barrier Reef ‘discovery’

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Exactly 250 years ago today Captain James Cook ‘discovered’ the Great Barrier Reef the hard way when his ship Endeavour ran into it on the 11th June 1770 and nearly sank. The Reef is located in the Coral Sea off the north-eastern coast of Australia and stretches some 2,300 km (over 1,400 miles). This unique marine ecosystem is the world’s largest structure made of living organisms which UNESCO declared a protected World Heritage Site in 1981.

Add MS 15500  f 1 detail1

Detail from Part of the southern Hemispher[e] showing the Resolutions track through the Pacific and southern ocean’ by Joseph Gilbert taken during Captain James Cook's voyage in the Resolution through the Pacific and Southern Oceans (1772-1775) showing the coast of Australia with the Great Barrier Reef depicted as unconnected shoals and small islands. Add MS 15500, f 1

Maps and charts drawn by Captain James Cook can be found among the British Library’s collections as well as other documents related to his voyages, including Endeavour’s log book. According to the captain’s log on Monday 11 June 1770 the conditions were good with ‘fine weather and smooth sea’. Cook was aware of underwater obstacles and was cautiously navigating through the maze of rocks and shoals recording depth soundings regularly, when suddenly just before 11pm the ship collided with a rock (which he later realised was a bank of coral).

Add MS 8959  f.125

Detail from the Captain’s log dated 11th June 1770 reporting the incident (folio 125r). Log-book of the Endeavour, Lieutenant James Cook, Commander,  from May 1768 to July 1771, Add MS 8959, f. 125r

After 23 long hours of desperate attempts to re-float the ship (including throwing cannons, iron and stone ballast, casks, even oil jars, overboard to lighten the vessel) Cook and his crew finally managed to get Endeavour off the reef. They made their way to shore where on the banks of the river at the site of modern Cooktown repairs were carried out.


 Add_ms_7085_39 detail
A chart of part of the sea coast of New South Wales, on the east coast of New Holland, from Cape Tribulation to Endeavour Straits; drawn by Lieut. James Cook, 1770. Second image: detail showing the locations of the incident and a makeshift harbour on the Endeavours River. Add MS 7085, f 39

Cook never fully realised the vastness of the Great Barrier Reef, nevertheless the maps and charts compiled during his voyages were extremely detailed and provided the basis for further exploration of the Australian coastal waters. They were gradually improved upon through painstaking surveys carried out over the following years by various Admiralty captains and naval officers. A series of navigational charts produced by the Hydrographic Office covering the region were constantly updated and reissued with corrections well into the 20th century. Sir David Attenborough recalls using Cook’s charts as late as the 1950s when sailing parts of the Great Barrier Reef.

10491.e.18 p20

Chart of the Northern part of the Great Barrier Reef including Torres Strait & yt adjacent coast of New Guinea published in A sketch of the physical structure of Australia..., 1850. 10491.e.18

Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reefs

Coral Sea and Great Barrier Reefs ... from the surveys of Captains Flinders, P.P. King, Blackwood, Owen Stanley and Yule, 1802-50 ; the outer detached reefs, and line of Great Barrier Reefs from Captain Denham, R.N. 1858-60 compiled in the Hydrographic Office by Mr. F.J. Evans, 1860. Maps SEC.14.(2763, 2764.) Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

The Great Barrier Reef is home to the richest biodiversity on Earth providing feeding grounds, nursery areas and living space to countless marine species. The Reef is incredibly important not only to the oceanic life, it also helps to shield coastal ecosystems by reducing erosion and absorbing wave energy during storms and hurricanes. In recent years alarming reports about the impact that climate change has had on the Reef highlight issues such as rising sea temperatures, pollution and bleaching factors contributing to coral damage, ultimately leading to gradual languishment and death of portions of the Reef.

Maps play an incredibly important role in environmental projects and conservation initiatives which rely on the most up to date data and work closely with mapping agencies surveying the ocean floor which help scientists to understand and address the issues posed by the challenges climate change.

30 April 2020

Antarctica: A brief history in maps, part 1

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Antarctica presents many unique challenges to cartographers: as the last continent to be explored, its vast landmass – half as big again as Europe – is largely inaccessible, covered by sheets of mostly featureless ice, and shrouded in perpetual darkness for half of the year.

In this 200th anniversary year of the first known sighting of the continent, this first of two articles gives a whistle-stop tour through maps held in the British Library that chart Antarctica’s gradual emergence from obscurity into light.

Stuck awkwardly at the bottom of the conventional world map, Antarctica is poorly served by many map projections, which distort it out of recognition. On occasion, its lack of military or geopolitical significance has provided a convenient excuse to leave it off the map entirely, as seen in the United Nations logo. Yet this image of the continent created by the Mercator projection does bear a surprising, if superficial, similarity to some of its earliest depictions, long before it was discovered.

Map of the world on the Mercator Projection

Mercator projection. Image created by Strebe, taken from Wikimedia Commons

From ancient times it was believed that a southern continent must logically exist to counterbalance the weight of the known northern hemisphere. In a world map first published in 1570, Abraham Ortelius perpetuated this belief with a southern landmass depicted prominently, but drawn entirely from conjecture.

Map of the world published in 1570 by Ortelius

[Typus orbis terrarum], 1598. BL Maps C.2.d.7.

The continent eluded several voyages of exploration to the far south, so that over time it became untenable to maintain the tension between the boldness and extent of the coastline’s detail, and the uncertainty of the label, ‘Nondum Cognita’ [‘not yet known’]. On this circa 1690 imprint of a map originally published by Dutch mapmakers Hondius and Janssonius, a polar projection is adopted, focussing interest on the blank centre. Recent voyages had documented islands of ice trailing through the empty seas, and the appearance of these on the map indicate where the continent is not. The mapmakers made no attempt to delineate the area that is still labelled ‘Terra Australis Incognita’.

Map of the southern hemisphere published in 1690 by Hondius

[Polus Antarcticus. H. Hondius excudit], [1690]. BL Maps * 88710.(2.)

James Cook was the first to circumnavigate the pole, during his second voyage (1772-75), but the continent itself eluded him. Two years after his return the chart below was published in a record of the voyage. It is updated with many new findings, and features ‘the Tracks of some of the most distinguished Navigators’, which now encircle and crowd the blank centre. The focus here is on what is known, rather than what is not, and the label seen on earlier maps, ‘Terra Incognita’, has been replaced by, ‘The Ice Sea’.

Chart of the southern hemisphere published in 1777 by Captain James Cook

A Chart of the Southern Hemisphere, in A Voyage towards the South Pole..., 1777. BL 10025.f.20.

Fabian Bellingshausen, commander of the first Russian Antarctic expedition (1819-21), is regarded by many to have been the first to set eyes on the continent. A reproduction of his manuscript chart of January 1820 shows a patch of blue at the lower edge that marks the first tentative departure from blank space near the pole – and indicates a feature that would later be named the Fimbul Ice Shelf. The original manuscripts are preserved in the Archives of the Russian Hydrographic Office and were published in facsimile in 1963. During the Cold War some British and American commentators cast doubt on their interpretation, and on the Soviet claim that a Russian had first discovered the continent.

Facsimile of a manuscript chart of the Southern Ocean made in 1820 by Fabian Bellingshausen

[A facsimile of the MS chart drawn by F. Bellingshausen...], 1963. BL Maps 1.c.57.

Only two days after Bellingshausen’s sighting of the ice shelf in January 1820, Edward Bransfield, an officer in the British Royal Navy, sighted the first land feature of the continent, now known to lie at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The discovery appears on a map published in 1844 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. A short red line accurately delineates a portion of the terrestrial coastline for the first time, and bounds a region now called the Trinity Peninsula (just below the tip of South America on the left of the image).

Map of the southern polar region published in 1844 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

Circumjacent the South Pole, 1844. BL Maps 38.e.8.

In 1843 another officer of the British Royal Navy, James Clark Ross, completed his own voyage of scientific exploration to the Southern Ocean. Science undertaken by the expedition included the first magnetic survey of the Antarctic, and succeeded in inferring the location of the magnetic south pole. The results were published by the Royal Society in 1869. With its wandering lines of magnetic declination, this sheet constitutes one of the earliest examples of thematic mapping of the Antarctic.

Map showing the Antarctic Magnetic Survey published in 1869 by the Royal Society

Antarctic Magnetic Survey, Epoch 1840-1845, Declination, in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1869, vol 158 part 2. BL L.R.292.

Global shipping routes traversed the Southern Ocean in the middle of the nineteenth century, giving rise to a market for navigational aids. This commercial chart, published by J.D. Potter in 1858, was designed ‘to facilitate the practice of Great Circle Sailing’ around the southern latitudes, and allowed merchant navigators to plot the shortest routes through the Southern Ocean without encountering sea ice.

Chart of the southern hemisphere published in 1858 showing great circle sailing routes

A Chart of South Latitudes beyond 20 Degrees, to facilitate the practice of Great Circle Sailing, with ... Diagram for the determination of the Courses and Distances, 1858. BL Maps 88710.(6.)

By 1886 the shape of the continent as we now know it had started to emerge. This chart was published in The Scottish Geographical Magazine and shows a ‘Supposed outline of [the] Antarctic Continent’ - a reminder perhaps of the, ‘Terra Incognita’, of old. But the extent of what is now known is indicated in the coastal detail, complete with heights of land and depths of sea, given here in shades of orange and blue.

Chart of the south polar region published in 1886 in The Scottish Geographical Magazine

South Polar Chart, in The Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol 2 p 576, 1886. BL Ac.6182.

The next article will continue the tour, from the ‘Heroic Era’ of Antarctic exploration up to the present day...

Nick Dykes