Mercator shaped the view on the world and the Arctic | Polarjournal
Mercators map based on his calculations and titled Nova and Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata, Mercator. His works still shape the view on the world today and is essential for navigation. Image: Wikimedia

Back in the 16th century, the maps of a famous cartographer were posthumously published. Among his huge work, there was a map that will give us an incredible insight of the knowledge of the Arctic polar world in the Middle Age.

We are in 1595. The family of Gerardus Mercator, who died the previous year, publishes part of the cartographer’s work. Among there is Nova and Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata, which can be translated as “A new and more complete representation of the terrestrial globe properly adapted for use in navigation.”

This map of the world, also known as the Mercator projection, is familiar to us because it corresponds to the most widely distributed world map. Although it has been the subject of frequent criticism for its inaccuracy in the proportion of certain regions – notably the disproportionate size of Greenland which could compete with the African continent proportions when in reality the island is 14 times smaller than the continent, – the Mercator projection has been widely used, especially in the marine world.

Left: The Mercator projection, probably the best-known representation of our planet. Right: Gerardus Mercator as painted by Frans Hogenberg in 1574. Images: Wikipedia.

Imagining the Arctic

Drawn solely on the basis of data and surveys established by explorers, the map is remarkably precise for the time. That’s probably why this depiction looks so familiar to us. At least as far as the areas bordering what we now know as the Arctic Ocean are concerned. For the rest, the central part, its representation is mainly based on theories that were considered scientific at the time, a mixture of hypotheses and imagination to describe this part of the world that remained unexplored until the 20th century. The North Pole, for instance, was only reached in 1909 by American explorer Robert E. Peary. And still, the exploit has often been questioned and is certainly more of a fraud than a reality.

The map that shaped the view on the Arctic for centuries: Mercator and Honidus’ map centering the Arctic based on the knowledge of that time. Image: Wikimedia

Still largely unexplored, Mercator used representations of the time to fill in the blanks on his map. However, when we look more closely, we realize to what extent the Arctic was imagined before being explored in this Septentrionalium Terrarum descriptio which constitutes the very first known map of the Arctic.

The whirlpool under the black mountain

In the center, Mercator represented four islands, separated by rivers located at the four cardinal corners. In the center, an enormous black mountain, the Rupes Nigra, or the black rock. A huge mountain of magnetite, its imposing presence at the North Pole was supposed to explain why compass needles pointed north. However, Mercator was midely convinced by this magnetic rock location. Therefore, he added another magnetic mountain after the Strait of Anian (north of the Bering Strait), supposed to be the true north.

The Rupes Nigra, a huge black and magnetic mountain supposed to attract compass needles to the north. Image: Wikimedia

On the map, the rivers that separate the islands make the waters of the oceans converge in the center, before disappearing in a large whirlpool that flows under the mountain and ending up being absorbed in the center of the Earth where they evaporate, thus avoiding the oceans to overflow.

This representation of things probably comes from the accounts of the few explorers who, like Martin Frobisher, had sailed in Arctic waters witnessing underwater currents so strong that no wind allowed sailing against the current.

At the four corners of the map, there are inserts where Mercator represents three islands, the Faroes, the Shetlands and Frisland, a purely imaginary island which appeared on several different maps as early as the 1560s. Probably named in reference to Iceland, it ended up disappearing after a hundred years when its non-existence was demonstrated by explorers.

Other interesting elements of this first map of the Arctic, a mention made about the peoples who would live in these regions. One of the islands in the center of the map, in the lower right part, does indeed contain a strange mention relating to Pygmies which could well find an explanation in the first observations of the Indigenous populations of Lapland.

“Pygmei hic habitant & ad summum pedes longi quem admodum illi quos in Gronlandia Screlingers vocant” which could be translated as: Pygmies live here and are at most a foot long, like those in Greenland called Screlingers.

It had been noticed that the women often remained alone for several days when the men went hunting. This simple observation, combined with a good dose of extrapolation and imagination, gave birth to a true legend.

The blank on the map

For people in those times, the Arctic was first of all a great unknown. No one has yet set foot in the North Pole and vast portions of the territory still remained largely unexplored. However, it was well known for a long time that there was something up there, beyond the ice. Something that attracts the needles of compasses and magnetizes the imagination of men.

Also, when it comes to the Arctic, the fact of taking pure scientific hypotheses as truths is not something new, the cartographic representation of the Arctic was not necessarily limited, over the following centuries, to a terra incognita marked on a blank space.

Other maps of this unknown region continued to be published using the same mixture of proven cartographic data and assumptions more or less based on scientific theories, theories themselves based on interpretations and projections that we could today qualify as fanciful. Sometimes with tragic endings, as that was the case for the Jeannette expedition.

The wrong map: The example of the Jeanette

This expedition, whose project was to reach the pole, was launched in 1879. Commanded by George Washington De Long, the expedition ended tragically, leaving only eight survivors out of a crew of 28 men. And this tragic end finds its genesis in the expedition’s very preparation, when De Long turned to an illustrious cartographer, August Petermann.

Left: The USS “Jeannette” Expedition, which sailed from San Francisco in 1879 with 28 men on board. The expedition will end tragically in 1881. The boat sank, crushed by the ice, forcing the men to cross the pack ice before landing in the Lena labyrinth. Eight men will survive the expedition. In the center: George Washington De Long (1844-1881), American officer who died during the expedition. Right: August Petermann (1822-1879), famous German cartographer. Images: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikipedia

Petermann is the founder of the Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, an illustrious cartography institute in Thuringia, Germany. Petermann’s maps were praised at the time for their veracity and were considered to be the most beautiful but also the most reliable maps around. The institute worked closely with explorers and navigators who reported their discoveries to the organization.

For De Long’s expedition, Petermann will rely on two theories that he considered to be largely justified, sending, in fact and without knowing it, De Long and his men to hell.

It was thought at the time that the Arctic was surrounded by a belt of ice and that if that barrier could be crossed, one would arrive in a temperate free of ice sea, or even a warm sea. The whole question then was to find a passage where the ice would be less thick.

Similarly, it was believed that there were two warm currents that passed through the Arctic, the Gulf Stream (whose existence and importance is proven) and the Kuroshio that went up the Pacific through the Bering Strait, located between the United States and Russia. However, if this current does exist, its power and its capacity, rather anecdotal, to melt the pack ice were overestimated.

Besides these two theories, Petermann believed that the Wrangel Island, located in the north of Siberia, was connected to Greenland, the two islands being one with the North Pole near this vast strip of land.

Petermanns map depicting the imaginary island that he always tried to find. Image: Wikimedia

Petermann was so convinced by this idea that he made an extremely detailed map of it. And this is perhaps where the problem lies: Petermann’s reputation, totally founded in many aspects, and the extraordinary precision of his maps gave a pledge of knowledge that in reality did not exist. On the field, De Long and his men quickly realized the inaccuracy of these theories. Too late for them, unfortunately.

With the Jeannette disaster and the more or less success for other expeditions, we began to understand that the North Pole would not be reached by sea, but by land, with sleds and dogs. We also began to guess that there was probably no temperate sea surrounding mysterious islands filled with treasures, but a vast surface of ice that crushes ships and makes them disappear, leaving men alone in a hostile and cold environment.

Scientific progress and the knowledge acquired from previous expeditions will offer new perspectives for the following explorers, making it possible to open new navigation routes, like the mythical North-East and North-West passages will be crossed for the for the first time in 1879 and 1906 respectively, thus completing our geographic knowledge of these places.

So, what remains of past maps, especially that of Mercator? Certainly, a fascinating representation of the Arctic, a true work of art that astonishes as much by its precision as by its imprecision. But above all a testimony to the past beliefs about a region which, could we deny it, still exerts such a magnetic attraction.

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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