In our guest post this month, Edward Brooke-Hitching spills the beans on extraordinary cartographic myths, mistakes and misbeliefs through history.
It was a specific form of nothing that piqued my interest in cartographic misbeliefs. ‘Donut holes’ are a curious phenomenon in maritime law, created by the passing of a 1982 UN resolution to establish the nautical sovereignty of nations, declaring the area of water 200 miles from the coast of a country to be the Exclusive Economic Zone of that state. Sometimes, though, the EEZs of neighbouring countries overlap, and pockets of international water are created – these are known as donut holes. Seemingly trivial, their existence can sometimes be particularly significant. In the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico, the resolution created a pair of ‘hoyas de donas’ that became a point of contention between the US and Mexico. The latter noted that since the sixteenth century, a tiny island named ‘Bermeja’ had been charted smack in the middle of the region. If they could confirm its existence, Mexico could rightfully claim the drilling rights.
And so, in June 2009, the research vessel Justo Sierra set off to scour the Gulf of Mexico for the elusive 31-sq. mile (80-sq. km) island, following the guidance of, among others, the cartographer Alonso de Santa Cruz, who marked the island in his 1539 map El Yucatán e Islas Adyacentes; and the more precise positioning provided by Alonso de Chaves in 1540, in which the writer described the land mass as ‘blondish or reddish’. Finally, they reached the given coordinates – and there they found nothing. Only open, unbroken water, as far as the eye could see. There was no trace of an island certified on countless navigational charts. The mariners were thorough and swept the area, taking extensive measurements and soundings, but to no avail. Bermeja, it turned out, was a phantom. Just like that, an established fact became fiction. Nearly two decades of drama and excitement had been caused by two kinds of nothing: a donut hole, and a non-existent island.
Historically, cartographic misconceptions have commonly been disregarded. Perhaps this is because, viewed as mere errors, there is a tendency to dismiss them as insubstantial. But one need only glance at, say, the charts confidently proclaiming California to be an island; the mysterious, black magnetic mountain of Rupes Nigra at the North Pole or the depictions of Patagonia as a region of 9ft (2.7m) giants, to realise that these invented lands are crying out for exploration. How did these ideas come about? Why were they believed so widely? And how many other equally strange examples are there to find? I wanted to create an alternative atlas of the world – not as it ever existed, but as it was thought to be. The countries, islands, cities, mountains, rivers, continents and races collected in The Phantom Atlas are all entirely fictitious; and yet each was for a time – sometimes for centuries – real. How? Because they existed on maps.
One might assume that these ghosts have little bearing today, but, as the story of Bermeja demonstrates, a fascinating characteristic of many of these misbeliefs is their remarkable durability. Indeed, there are those that have survived even later: Sandy Island, for example, of New Caledonia in the eastern Coral Sea, was first recorded by a whaling ship in 1876 and thenceforth marked on official charts for more than a century. It finally had its nonexistence established in November 2012 – 136 years after it was first ‘sighted’ (and a whole seven years after Google Maps was launched). These phantoms were considered a plague on navigational charts, frequently leading ships astray on fruitless confirmation missions. It was only as the ocean highways grew busier, and global positioning more accurate, that the methodical purging of these anomalies increased in efficiency. In 1875, for example, no fewer than 123 nonexistent islands (marked E.D., or ‘Existence Doubtful’) were cleared from the British Royal Navy’s chart of the North Pacific.
But what caused the recording of these nonexistents in the first place? Of course the further back we go the more superstitions, classical mythology and careful adherence to religious dogma have a role to play. The mappae mundi of Medieval Europe, for example, serve as giant curiosity cabinets of history and popular belief. These immense, intricately detailed collages benefitted those visiting pilgrims unable to read. Usually Jerusalem-centric, the geography was more to illustrate the scale of God’s works, with transcription errors abounding, as well as depicting the more outrageous phenomena reported by Pliny, such as the Sciapodes – a species of man said to exist in the land of Taprobana, who used their one giant foot to shade themselves from the midday sun.
Mirages and other visual phenomena have also proven instrumental in manifesting the immaterial on maps. At sea, formations of low clouds were mistaken for land so often that sailors took to referring to them as ‘Dutch Capes’. The Fata Morgana in particular is a complex form of superior mirage that, from the bow of a ship, appears as a band of territory on the horizon. The name gives some indication of how contemptuously, and fearfully, it was held by mariners: the term comes from the Italian for Morgan le Fay, the Arthurian trickster enchantress. Most often seen in polar regions, the optical illusion is a prolific culprit in the perpetration of false land sightings – it is accused, for example, of being the implement of disaster in Baron von Toll’s 1902 expedition to find Sannikov Land in the Arctic Ocean.
And then, of course, there is the honest error, which is usually rooted in educated guesses of ‘wishful mapping’ or the limited ability of contemporary measurement systems. Coordinates were rough and imprecise in the time before measuring longitude was discovered; it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that John Harrison’s invention of an accurate marine chronometer provided a long-sought solution to the problem and revolutionised navigation. Errors were copied, and discoveries even frequently ‘remade’. Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, for example, during an 1838 survey of the Tuamotos, discovered an island at 15°44’S, 144°36’W. He named it King Island, in honour of the lookout who had spotted it. It wasn’t until later that it was learnt the island had, in fact, already been sighted several years earlier in 1835 by Captain Robert Fitzroy of the Beagle, and named Tairaro.
Sometimes, phantoms even appear out of sheer whimsy. In his Cosmography (1659), Peter Heylyn tells the story of Pedro Sarmiento’s capture by Sir Walter Raleigh, who subsequently interviewed the Spanish explorer about curious entries on his maps of the Strait of Magellan. Raleigh questioned his prisoner about one particular island, which seemed to offer potential tactical advantage. Sarmiento merrily replied:
that it was to be called the Painter’s Wife’s Island, saying that, whilst the Painter drew that Map, his Wife sitting by, desired him to put in one Countrey for her, that she in her imagination might have an island of her own. His meaning was, that there was no such Island as the Map pretended. And I fear the Painter’s Wife hath many Islands and some Countreys too upon the Continent in our common Maps, which are not really to be found on the strictest search.
Also to blame are the low-down, dirty liars, those who make the calculated and committed decision to invent an entire island or country for dishonourable and self-serving purposes. The impostor George Psalmanazar, for example, was a Frenchman on a mission to hoodwink the eighteenth century. He pretended to be a resident of Formosa (Taiwan) in a deception of depth and detail that fooled many. His book, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, was filled almost entirely with fantastic details pulled straight from his fertile imagination.
Wild tales of course sold books and earned popularity. Adventurers cast themselves in heroic light, seducing funds from backers for future expeditions. Benjamin Morrell, known commonly as ‘the biggest liar in the Pacific’, returned from voyages breathless with tales of newly discovered lands (emblazoned with his name wherever possible) that no one else could find, with travel accounts that are clearly and liberally plagiarised. But lord of liars has to be the Scotsman Gregor MacGregor, an exaggerator and fantasist of breathtaking audacity. The corvine-eyed con-artist strode into London presenting himself as the ‘Cazique of the Territory of Poyais’, and proceeded to commit the greatest fraud of the nineteenth century, if not of all time.
Cartographers themselves have even indulged in minor deceptions for protection, devising their own fictitious geographies to use as copyright ‘traps’, in the same way lexicographers have included fictitious entries to prove rivals have stolen their material. This isn’t a solely antiquated practice, either. In 2005, a representative of the Geographers’ A–Z Street Atlas revealed to the BBC that the London edition of their map book at that time contained more than 100 fabricated streets.
However certain we are of the world around us, it seems there will always be more to the story. How many other phantoms, I wonder, are hiding in plain sight, printed so assuredly on wall maps around the world? What island, what mountain, what work of imagined nation is masquerading as fact, enjoying its quiet nonexistence, just waiting to be undiscovered?
Edward Brooke-Hitching is the author of Fox Tossing, Octopus Wrestling and Other Forgotten Sports (2015). The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps is published by Simon & Schuster on 3 November.
- Nuremberg Chronicle Map © Altea Gallery
- Bertius Fretum, showing Patagonian Giants © Ruderman
- John Cary 1805 A New Map of Africa, shows the Mountains of Kong