Meta Incognita: A Discourse of Discovery

Paper Abstracts


The Cartographic Lure of the Northwest Passage:
Its Real and Imaginary Geography

By Richard Ruggles

This study presents maps and charts of significance previous to, during, resulting from, and affected by the Frobisher expeditions of 1576-78. The proponents of this contentious maritime enterprise were aided by maps and charts in their formulation of a belief in the existence of a northwest passage. Frobisher had not made a study of geography and had no impulse to collect charts, maps, atlases, globes or travel literature - although he relied on others more seasoned in those endeavours (Dee, Lok, Borough and Gilbert). He had, however, decided upon the course to be tried in 1576 by his ships across the Atlantic toward Labrador and the sub-polar lands. This meant that he and his senior colleagues had fashioned a composite map image in their minds by the time of departure. Maps and charts were taken aboard ships of the expeditions, were draughted during the voyages and also as a direct result of them. Only a few are known with certainty, since the queen, her officials, and merchant investors created a secretive milieu around the voyages, to withhold exploratory and trade information from international rivals. Furthermore, there was no cadre of commercial cartographers in London, eagerly awaiting ships' logs and charts. Up to this date no map or chart had been printed, nor globe constructed, in England. Many map authors thus did not learn of, or ignored, the new intelligence brought back by the Frobisher expeditions. The major geographical features of Frobisher's discoveries appeared, in relatively correct locations, on a few charts or maps with very limited circulation (which helps explain why Davis' voyages later failed to find Frobisher's Strait). In 1592 the first English globe entirely mislocated Meta Incognita and Frobisher's Strait - a cartographical error which persisted for over two more centuries. Despite this deflection of accurate information about the sites reached by Frobisher, his discoveries must be given recognition in the annals of exploration and mapping history.


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