Maps, maps, maps (pt. 2/2: Australia)

Guillaume Brouscon world map, 1543
Guillaume Brouscon world map, 1543

Yes, the answer to Tuesday’s final query is that the Dieppe maps, (including Guillaume Brouscon’s,) show a great big landmass almost exactly where Australia actually is, a good 50 or 60 years before the first documented European sighting. (By Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon, in 1606.)

800px-Australia_discoveries_by_Europeans_before_1813_enThere’s this funny gap in human knowledge of Australia. 50,000 years ago, humans equipped with little more than sharp rocks and pointy sticks managed to get to Australia and make themselves home. Then, for the next 49,500 or so years, everyone else forgot that it was there. (Aside from a few lost souls from India who washed up, IIRC, abut 10,000 years ago.) (It looks like the southern coast of Australia wasn’t even explored [by sea,] until 1801.)

Even China, an organized polity with excellent record-keeping, ship-making, and map-making skills going back centuries, does not show Australia on its maps (at least not on any map I’ve found,) until 1602.

1602 is still before 1606, but we will discuss these Chinese maps in a minute.

Portugal had a policy, in the 1500s, of treating its nautical maps as official state secrets. French spies, therefore, went and bribed Portuguese map-makers into sharing their secrets, the results of which are probably the Dieppe maps, due to their many Portuguese and French labels, indicating French cartographers working off Portuguese originals.

All of which raises the question of WHO was exploring Australia in the early 1500s. Was it the Portuguese? If so, they’ve done an excellent job (a few bribed cartographers aside,) in keeping it secret. Unlike the fabled Viking settlement in Vinland, we have yet to discover any hard evidence, such as Portuguese DNA or artifacts in Australia, that would confirm an early Portuguese presence.

The “Australia” landmass on the Dieppe maps is labeled “Jave la Grande.” Wikipedia claims that this name comes from Marco Polo:

“As explained by Sir Henry Yule, the editor of an English edition of Marco Polo’s travels: “Some geographers of the 16th century, following the old editions which carried the travellers south-east of Java to the land of Boeach (or Locac), introduced in their maps a continent in that situation”.[3]”

Behaim's Erdapfel globe, 1492
Behaim’s Erdapfel globe, 1492

The problem with this explanation is that in the two and a half centuries of map-making between the publication of Marco Polo’s adventures and the drawing of the Dieppe maps, no one stuck in a giant continental blob of land south of Indonesia, labeled “Jave la Grande” nor anything else. Jave la Grand does show up on some of these maps, but as a quite ordinary island about where you’d expect it. EG, the Erdapfel globe of 1492 (too early to include Columbus’s discoveries, which weren’t known until 1493, but definitely disproving the idea that people in Columbus’s day thought the world was flat.)

I find it highly unlikely that the Dieppe cartographers suddenly decided to turn “Jave la Grande” into a great big landmass in a spot where no prior European maps had ever shown land, and happened, totally by accident, to position it where there actually is a continent.

The Erdpafel's depiction of the Pacific, including Java Major
The Erdpafel’s depiction of the Pacific, including Java Major (aka Java la Grande)

It seems far more likely that they were working off charts that happened to show a large landmass in this spot, and needing a name for it, they chose the closest thing they could find in Marco Polo’s account. (I would not worry about the location being slightly off, due to these maps predating our ability to find longitude at sea by over a hundred years.)

That leaves the question of how Australia got on the charts. Just as the French got their information from the Portuguese, the Portuguese may have gotten their information, in turn, from someone else, like the Chinese, Indonesians, or Islamic mariners.

The Wikipedia page on Islamic geography is inadequate for me to draw any conclusions from it.

Japanese copy of Matteo Ricci's Kunyu Wanguo Quantu world map
Japanese copy of Matteo Ricci’s Kunyu Wanguo Quantu world map

As I mentioned earlier, the first Chinese maps (that I know of) to show Australia are from 1602, after the Dieppe maps. The Kunyu Wanguo Quantu were created by Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary. The Kunyu Wanguo Quantu combines, for the first time, the geographic knowledge of Europe and China.

Sancai Tuhui World Map
Sancai Tuhui World Map, the Shanhai Yudi Quantu, of 1609

Ricci got to China by hopping aboard a Portuguese vessel, which dropped him off at their colony in Goa. From there he traveled to Macau, and then to Beijing and the Forbidden City (though he never met the Emperor.) So I think it highly likely that Ricci had access to (or knowledge of) Portuguese maps/discoveries, or the Dieppe maps themselves. I suspect that Ricci’s knowledge of Australia did not come from Chinese sources, because the Chinese world map Shanhai Yudi Quantu, (1609,) though inspired by Ricci’s work, does not show Australia.

The Indonesians are another potential source. I don’t know anything about the history of Indonesian map-making, but the Wikipedia page on the prehistory of Australia intriguingly informs us:

…the people living along the northern coastline of Australia, in the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape York had encounters with various visitors for many thousands of years. People and traded goods moved freely between Australia and New Guinea up to and even after the eventual flooding of the land bridge by rising sea levels …

Indonesian “Bajau” fishermen from the Spice Islands (e.g. Banda) have fished off the coast of Australia for hundreds of years. Macassan traders from Sulawesi regularly visited the coast of northern Australia to fish for trepang, an edible sea cucumber to trade with the Chinese since at least the early 18th century. Tamil sea-farers also had knowledge of Australia and Polynesia before European contact.[37] …

The myths of the people of Arnhem Land have preserved accounts of the trepang-catching, rice-growing Baijini people, who, according to the myths, were in Australia in the earliest times, before the Macassans. …

In 1944, a small number of copper coins with Arabic inscriptions were discovered on a beach in Jensen Bay on Marchinbar Island, part of the Wessel Islands of the Northern Territory. These coins were later identified as from the Kilwa Sultanate of east Africa. Only one such coin had ever previously been found outside east Africa (unearthed during an excavation in Oman).

Ruysch Map
Ruysch Map

So it is possible that the accounts of any of these folks could have made it onto local maps, and made their way from there to the Portuguese and the Dieppe maps (though I will note that if the Macassans got there in the 18th century, that is after the Dieppe maps, but I don’t know how exact that date is.)

There is, however, a potentially more mundane explanation for this odd landmass: it could just be South America. To European mapmakers of the late 14 and early 1500s, it was not at all clear that Columbus had discovered the edge of a new continent, rather than some islands off the coast of Asia–hence Ruysch’s 1507 map that show Massachusetts merging into China.

Mercator map of 1595 showing Hy-Brasil and an extra Iceland
Mercator map of 1595 showing Hy-Brasil and an extra Iceland

In the days before mariners could easily check their longitude at sea, the location of various islands could only be estimated by calculating the direction and speed the ship that had reached them had been going, eg, “Three days’ sail to the West.” This meant that islands could appear in different spots on different maps, which sometimes resulted in islands getting duplicated in maps created by compiling several earlier charts. Iceland, for example, shows up twice on this map:

I think it possible, therefore, that the Dieppe map makers had before them one map which showed the coast of Brazil as an island near Indonesia, and a second map showed it as part of a continent in between Europe and Asia, and simply recorded both on their combined map. Personally, I think the shape of Jave la Grande looks more like South America than Australia, but perhaps if I could read thee maps or examine them in more detail, I would revise that assessment.

Beatus T-O style Map showing the antipodes, 1050
Beatus T-O style Map showing the antipodes on the far right, AD 1050

This would be a case of the Dieppe map makers getting lucky, not unheard of phenomenon. Medieval Europeans believed, for example, in a mythical “fourth continent” located on the other side of the world, called fanciful names like “the antipodes” (“the backwards feet,” a reference to the amusing idea that people on the other side of the world are standing upside down relative to oneself–again, proof that Europeans well before Columbus knew the Earth is round;) or less fancifully, “terra australis,” “southern land.” Since the Bible commands Christ’s disciples to spread his Gospel to “the four corners of the Earth,” Medieval mapmakers, faced with only 3 continents, figured there had to be a fourth. But since philosophical opinions conflicted regarding this fourth continent, it was not always included on maps.

The European age of exploration pushed the borders of this fourth continent increasingly southward, as the vast expanse of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans were found not to harbor it, until it was restricted to the area south of South America. But here folks got lucky, and spotted an actual continent right where their maps said there ought to be one. Likewise, when Australia first showed up on European maps, it was supposed to be a northern promontory of this most southerly land, and so depicted. Thus the name “Terra Australis” came to be inscribed on this territory.

So we are still left with a mystery: did someone actually map Australia before the Dutch, or did the Dieppe map makers just get lucky?


Maps Maps Maps: A short history (pt 1/2)

Mercator map of 1595 showing Hy-Brasil and an extra Iceland
Mercator map of 1595 showing Hy-Brasil and an extra Iceland

Old maps are full of curiosities, like completely mythical islands (eg, Hy-Brasil,) land masses radically out of place or duplicated, and massive changes in scale from one side to the other.

Historical map-makers had three main problems: 1. They couldn’t measure longitude, 2. Their maps were often based on compilations of lots of maps from many different sources, often resulting in confusion, and 3. Some groups were more wiling to share their maps than others. (For example, there are lots of questions about what exactly the Portuguese knew in the 14 and 1500s, like rumors that Portuguese fishermen were secretly hauling in cod off the coast of Massachusetts–more on the Portuguese later.)

c5933People generally made good maps of their local areas fairly early on–the Chinese have some excellent early early maps, for example. But beyond the immediate and local, maps quickly became less detailed and more stylized, as in this “T-O” style medieval map, which obviously is not even trying to be accurate, but to express a theologic point.

Since early sailors did not usually strike out over long stretches of open water, but headed to nearby ports or islands a few days’ sail away, I suspect that most early sea charts put a great deal of effort into describing the relevant rocky shoals to avoid and safe harbors to take advantage of, and not so much effort into describing the broad curve of continental coastlines.

While latitude can be fairly easily measured by simply measuring the height of the North Star in degrees (if you are at the equator, the North Star will lie on the horizon; if you are at 45 degrees north, the North Star will be 45 degrees high in the sky;  if you are at the North Pole, the North Star will be directly above you, or 90 degrees. If you can’t find the North Star, you’re south of the equator.) (Wyrd Smythe explains in more detail if you are confused.)

But there is no easy, low-tech way to determine longitude, your east-west position on the Earth’s surface. Longitude is not a huge deal when island-hopping short distances, but it becomes a huge deal once you’re undertaking multi-week trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific voyages, where a storm can suddenly blow you days off course and you end up crashing into rocks you didn’t know were there. For example, in 1707, four British Navy warships were pushed off course by storms off the coast of England and crashed into the Isles of Scilly. 1,550 sailors drowned, prompting the British government to offer a 20,000 pound prize for anyone who could figure out a way to accurately determine longitude at sea.

recreation of Ptolemy's world map
Recreation of Ptolemy’s world map

The lack of knowledge and inability to make good measurements rendered even the best early maps of the world objectively terrible.

Here we have a reconstruction of Ptolemey’s world map, based on the geographical knowledge of AD 150, and Al Idrisi’s map drawn for Roger II of Sicily in 1154. Idrisi did a good job depicting Sicily, but nearby Italy is a complete mess, and he duplicates Ptolemy’s mistake of essentially depicting India as a big island (actually, probably confusion between the size of India vs. the size of Sri Lanka,) and Ptolemy’s complete confusion about the angle of Africa’s east coast.

Tabula Rogeriana, created by Al-Idrisi
Tabula Rogeriana, created by Al-Idrisi

Al Idrisi did know about the Pacific ocean and the east Coast of China, which Ptolemy did not, but his geography of Denmark and Britain are worse than Ptolemy’s, despite having been based in Europe while working.The lack of advancement in geographic knowledge available in the Mediterranean over 1,000 years is striking (though I would not be surprised to find out that folks were working with much better maps of local currents and shoals in their areas than their ancestors had been using in Ptolemy’s time.)

Gangnido map
Gangnido map

On the other side of the world, Chinese and Korean maps show a similar pattern. The Gangnido (aka Kangnido,) map of 1402, created in Korea, shows Korea, China, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa. I think India is very slightly projecting from the lower-left side of the China blob, with Sri Lanka a bit more properly sized than on Ptolemy’s map.

The Gangnido map is based on an earlier Chinese map, the Da Ming Hun Yi Tu of 1398, which is very similar, but might have the Malay Peninsula.

Now, you might be thinking, as I did, that “Africa” and “Arabia” look a lot like India on this map. Wikipedia assures us that they aren’t and offers this explanation, especially since it is difficult for us non-Koreans to read the map: 300px-KangnidoPoliticalDetails

But the total lack of a Malay peninsula is really confusing, as I assume anyone traveling from China to India would be quite are of this enormous detour in their way. It’s like drawing a map of Europe and leaving off Spain.

These maps show the difficulties of trying to compile one map out of many, as your maps may use vastly different scales. The Gangnido and Da Ming Hun Yi Tu maps combine information compiled from Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mongolian (the Mongol empire collected maps from all of its conquered nations,) and Islamic sources, eg, the voyages of Ibn Battuta.

I have noticed that no matter which explorer of south Asia we are talking about, whether Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Zheng He, or the Polynesians, none of them seem to have made it to Australia.

Neither do any of these early (1400s or before) maps seem to show Australia–in other words, the Chinese (and Koreans) were drawing recognizable maps of Africa and Europe before Australia.

Guillaume Brouscon world map, 1543
Guillaume Brouscon world map, 1543

European portolan charts appeared, seemingly ex nihilo, in the 13th century. The portolans used compass directions plus sailing directions to estimate distances between map points, thus producing a revolution in map accuracy. The compass roses are drawn directly onto the map for navigational convenience, as on this “Dieppe map” by Guillaume Brouscon, 1543.

It is getting late, so I am going to have to continue this on Thursday, when we will discuss the Dieppe maps in some depth. But let me know if you catch the most curious thing about them. ;)