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Pepys Island as a Pacific stepping stone: the struggle to capture islands on early modern maps


This paper will investigate how geographic features were recorded on maps in the eighteenth century in order to outline the construction of geographic knowledge by British mapmakers. Due to practical and economic factors, early modern cartography was a conservative practice based on source compilation and comparison. For the Pacific region especially, the paucity of first-hand observations and the conflicting nature of those observations rendered the world's largest ocean difficult to chart and prone to the retention of mythical continents, passages and islands. After a discussion of the practical and economic reasons why geographic features were difficult to revise on maps, the article focuses on a case study to show how geographic enigmas could be placed and persist. It will use Pepys Island to illustrate the ways in which a chimeric feature could become instilled in geographic parlance.

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I would like to thank the Hakluyt Society, who provided a fellowship that supported the initial research for this paper, as well as the organizers of the Science and Islands in the Indo-Pacific World conference held at Cambridge in September 2016. Their comments, and those of the anonymous reviewers, have helped to improve the article, making any remaining errors or assumptions entirely my own.

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1 As this paper focuses on the period spanning the 1707 Acts of Union, this paper will use ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ as general terms and will use ‘England’ and ‘English’ when specifically discussing events and people prior to 1707.

2 Whereas islands could prove chimeric, the major geographic mysteries of the Pacific were continental: the hypothesized Southern Continent (Terra Australis) and access to the continent of Asia (via a Northwest or Northeast Passage). The literature on the Southern Continent is vast. A recent overview is Stallard, Ava Judd, Antipodes: In Search of the Southern Continent, Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2016. See also Scott, Ann, Hiatt, Alfred, McIlroy, Claire and Wortham, Christopher (eds.), European Perceptions of Terra Australis, Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. For the Northwest Passage see Williams, Glyndwr, Voyages of Delusion: The Quest for the Northwest Passage, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

3 This argument is an extension of the calls by David Igler, Michelle Burnham and others to not view past Pacific worlds through modern categories. They refer to the category of the nation state, but ahistorical geographical concepts are also limiting. See Igler, David, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 8; Burnham, Michelle, ‘Trade, time and the calculus of risk in early Pacific travel writing’, Early American Literature (2011) 46(3), pp. 425447, 425.

4 For overviews of the British in the Pacific see Williams, Glyndwr, The Great South Sea: English Voyages and Encounters 1570–1750, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997; Frost, Alan, The Global Reach of Empire: Britain's Maritime Expansion in the Indian and Pacific Oceans 1764–1815, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003. While this article focuses on the British context, other empires also had Pacific imperial ambitions. For the Spanish perspective see Buschmann, Rainer, Iberian Visions of the Pacific Ocean, 1507–1899, Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014. For the French see Dunmore, John, Visions and Realities: France in the Pacific 1695–1995, Waikanae: Heritage Press Limited, 1997.

5 Some were continental footholds, such as Port St Julian in Patagonia. Other important island stopovers included Juan Fernandez Island, the Ladrones (Marianas), and, later in the eighteenth century, the Falkland Islands. Voyages approaching from the Indian Ocean, while less frequent, often stopped at Batavia (Jakarta, Java).

6 As will be discussed later in this article, geographical maps, marine charts and plans are different cartographic materials intended for distinct purposes. For ease and simplicity, I will use ‘map’ in a general sense for the body of cartographic materials made to depict Pacific space. When appropriate, I will use ‘chart’ or ‘plan’ with regard to specific items.

7 For a recent treatment of the search for longitude see Dunn, Richard and Higgitt, Rebekah, Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, London: Harper Design and National Maritime Museum, 2014. For a combined art-historical and history-of-science interpretation see Katy Barrett, ‘The wanton line: Hogarth and the public life of longitude’, PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2013.

8 This is not necessarily true for the related field of navigation, which, of course, uses charts. A recent overview is Denny, Mark, The Science of Navigation: From Dead Reckoning to GPS, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Similarly, exploration is largely accepted as part of the history of science, although the chronological focus on most studies is from the late eighteenth century onward. See Raj, Kapil, ‘18th-century Pacific voyages of discovery, “big science”, and the shaping of an European scientific and technological culture,’ History and Technology (2000) 17, pp. 7998. An exception is Douglas, Bronwen, Science, Voyages, and Encounters in Oceania, 1511–1850, Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.

9 Harley's, J.B. most famous articles are ‘Maps, knowledge, and power’, in Cosgrove, Denis and Daniels, S. (eds.), The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 277312; Deconstructing the map’, Cartographica (1989) 26(2), pp. 120; Silences and secrecy: the hidden agenda of cartography in early modern Europe’, Imago Mundi (1998) 40, pp. 5776. A sampling of Harley's articles and chapters are collected in Harley, J.B., The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography (ed. Laxton, Paul), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. For more on Harley's turn to map as textual criticism and discourse analysis see Edney, Matthew, ‘The origins and development of J.B. Harley's cartographic theories’, Cartographica (2005) 40(1–2), pp. 1143. For a non-anglophone view of Harley's theories see Ángel, Sebastián Díaz, ‘Aportes de Brian Harley a la nueva historia de la cartografía y escenario actual del campo en Colombia, América Latina y el mundo’, Historia Crítica (2009) 39, pp. 180200. For a recent analysis of Harley's continuing, yet cursory, influence see Edney, Matthew, ‘Cartography and its discontents’, Cartographica (2015) 50(1), pp. 913. Finally, it should be noted that Harley drew heavily on Foucault's ideas of power knowledge, an explanation of which is in Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge (ed. Gordon, Colin), New York: Random House, 1980.

10 There are, of course, exceptions. For example, see Mapp, Paul, The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713–1763, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011; Safier, Neil, Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008; Emiralioglu, Pinar, Geographical Knowledge and Imperial Culture in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire, Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

11 This chronological focus has contributed to the perception of cartography as a ‘singular, universal activity’, an ideal. Edney, Matthew, ‘Field/map: a historiographic review and reconsideration’, in Nielsen, Kristian H., Harbsmeier, Michael and Ries, Christopher J. (eds.), Scientists and Scholars in the Field: Studies in the History of Fieldwork and Expeditions, Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2012, pp. 431456, 431. In terms of Pacific exploration history, the emphasis on the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries has much to do with the significant focus on the voyages of Captain Cook and those of the officers he trained, like George Vancouver. For more on the chronological biases of Pacific exploration history see Samson, Jane, ‘Exploring the Pacific world’, in Kennedy, Dane (ed.), Reinterpreting Exploration: The West in the World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 154171. For a discussion of how the concepts of exploration and explorer were changing in the eighteenth century see Parker, Katherine, ‘The savant and the engineer: exploration personnel in the Narbrough and Anson voyage accounts’, Terrae Incognitae (2017) 49(1), pp. 620.

12 Edney describes this process as rejecting ‘Science-with-a-capital-s’ while reifying ‘Cartography-with-a-capital-c’ within ‘both map and science history’. Cartography remains a stubborn monolith in much scholarship, as opposed to a historicized social process. Edney, op. cit. (11), p. 432.

13 To focus on an eighteenth-century sampling, Withers, Charles W.J., Placing the Enlightenment: Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007; Withers, Charles W.J. and Mayhew, Robert J., ‘Geography: space, place and intellectual history in the eighteenth century’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies (2011) 34(4), pp. 445452; Livingstone, David N. and Withers, Charles W.J. (eds.), Geography and Enlightenment, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. For an overview of the burgeoning literature see Secord, James A., ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis (2004) 95, pp. 654672; the special issue on historical geographies of science, BJHS (2005) 38(1); Finnegan, Diarmid A., ‘The spatial turn: geographical approaches in the history of science’, Journal of the History of Biology (2008) 41, pp. 369388. Pacific places under consideration as sites of knowledge production include ships, beaches and islands, among others. For ships see Richard Sorrenson, ‘The ship as a scientific instrument in the eighteenth century’, in Tony Ballantyne (ed.), Science, Empire and the European Exploration of the Pacific, Farnham: Ashgate, 2004, pp. 123–138. For other sites of Pacific knowledge creation see Douglas, op. cit. (8) For a study of island-like places, mountaintops, see Cosgrove, Denis and Dora, Veronica Della (eds.), High Places: Cultural Geographies of Mountains, Ice and Science, London: Taurus, 2008.

14 For discussion of the material turn and knowledge production see Schillings, Pascal and van Wickeren, Alexander, ‘Towards a material and spatial history of knowledge production: an introduction’, Historical Social Research (2015) 40, pp. 203218, 206; Hilaire-Perez, Liliane, ‘Technology as a public culture in the eighteenth century: the artisan's legacy’, History of Science (2007) 45, pp. 135153; Greene, John Patrick, ‘French encounters with material culture of the South Pacific’, Eighteenth-Century Life (2002) 26(3), pp. 225245.

15 On separate turns, see Schillings and Van Wickeren, op. cit. (14), pp. 205–208. Examples of studies which combine the turns include Raj, Kapil, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; Finnegan, Diarmid A. and Wright, Jonathan Jeffrey (eds.), Spaces of Global Knowledge: Exhibition, Encounter and Exchange in an Age of Empire, Farnham: Ashgate, 2015.

16 The article is an attempt to address the ‘asymmetrical handling of rejected and accepted knowledge’ to better examine the social construction of knowledge. Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 11.

17 Fernández-Armesto, Felipe, Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. 292.

18 There are other types of map too, like property plans, which were understood to be at a much higher resolution of detail than geographical maps. For more on generic versus specific types of ‘map’ see Edney, op. cit. (11), pp. 432–433.

19 A good overview of the production and sale of marine charts can be found in Verner, Coolie, ‘John Seller and the chart trade in seventeenth-century England’, in Thrower, Norman J.W. (ed.), The Compleat Plattmaker: Essays on Chart, Map, and Globe Making in England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, pp. 127157; Robinson, A.H.W., Marine Cartography in Britain: A History of the Sea Chart to 1855, Oxford: Oxford University Press for Leicester University Press, 1962.

20 Edney, Matthew H., ‘Mathematical cosmography and the social ideology of British cartography, 1780–1820’, Imago Mundi (1994) 46, pp. 101116; Edney, ‘Reconsidering Enlightenment geography and map-making: reconnaissance, mapping, archive’, in Livingstone and Withers, op. cit. (13), pp. 165–198.

21 For an overview of these systems see, for Spain: Rodríguez, Antonio Acosta, Rodríguez, Adolfo González and Vilar, Enriqueta Vila (eds.), La Casa de la Contratación y la navegación entre España y las Indias, Seville: Universidad de Sevilla, 2003; for Portugal: de Mota, A. Teixeira, ‘Some notes of the organization of the hydrographical services in Portugal before the beginning of the nineteenth century’, Imago Mundi (1976) 28, pp. 5160; for the Dutch: Schilder, Günter, ‘From secret to common knowledge: the Dutch discoveries’, in Hardy, John and Frost, Alan (eds.), Studies from Terra Australis to Australia, Canberra: Highland Press, 1989, pp. 7184, 250–253.

22 Estimations of map pricing come from Pedley, Mary Sponberg, The Commerce of Cartography: Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-Century France and England, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 70.

23 David Woodward, ‘English cartography, 1650–1750, a summary,’ in Thrower, op. cit. (19), pp. 159–193, 166.

24 Pedley, op. cit. (22), pp. 13, 34.

25 As just two examples see ‘PROPOSALS For the last general Sale of Mr. OGILBY's Books, Maps, Roads, &c. intended to be opened on the 23th Day of March 1690/1 by Robert Morden …’, BL Harley MS 5946, f. 186. Moses Pitt used his access to the plates from a Dutch atlas by Jans Jansson as a way to gain authority. See ‘PROPOSALS FOR PRINTING A NEW ATLAS. MOSES PITT of London, Bookseller’, BL Harley MS 5946, f. 191.

26 BL MS LOAN 25/49C, ‘ABSTRACT of the Charter of the Governour and Company of Merchants of Great Britain, Trading to the South-Seas, and other Parts of America, and for Encouraging the Fishery’, London: John Barber, 1711, 4–5.

27 BL Add MS 25494, ff. 178, 187.

28 Reinhartz, Dennis, The Cartographer and the Literati: Herman Moll and His Intellectual Circle, Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1997; Hutchinson, Gillian, ‘Herman Moll's view of the South Sea Company’, Journal for Maritime Research (2011) 6, pp. 87112.

29 Moll, Herman, A View of the Coasts, Countries and Islands Within the Limits of the South-Sea Company, London: J. Morphew, 1711, preface.

30 Charles Price, SOUTH AMERICA Corrected from the Observations Communicated to the ROYAL SOCIETY'S of LONDON and PARIS, London: Sold by T. Brandeth & G. Wildey, c.1710.

31 Moll, Herman, A New & Exact Map of the Coast, Countries and Islands within ye Limits of ye South Sea Company, London: Herman Moll, 1711.

32 Moll, Herman, Map of South America, London: Herman Moll, c. 1712.

33 The latest treatment of the Hydrographic Office is from Megan Barford, ‘Naval hydrography, charismatic bureaucracy, and the British military state, 1825–1855’, PhD dissertation, Cambridge University, 2016.

34 Moscoso, Sabrina Guerra (ed.), Enigmas de las Américas: Geografía, Expediciones y Cartografía, Quito: Universidad San Francisco, 2013, esp. p. 7.

35 O.H.K. Spate, ‘“South Sea” to “Pacific Ocean”’, in Ballantyne, op. cit. (13), pp. 3–9.

36 Hasty, William, ‘Piracy and the production of knowledge in the travels of William Dampier, c.1679–1688’, Journal of Historical Geography (2011) 37, pp. 4054, 53. There were considerably more French ships in the South Seas in this period than English, but they did not publish as frequently. Williams argues that this could be due to the sensitive diplomatic situation or the ‘mundane nature of the trade’. Williams, op. cit. (4), pp. 135–136. For more on South Seas piracy see Gerhard, Peter, Pirates of the Pacific: 1575–1742, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

37 Dampier is the first naturalist chronicled in Glyndwr Williams's latest book, Naturalists at Sea: Scientific Travellers from Dampier to Darwin, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. See also Gill, Anton, The Devil's Mariner: William Dampier, Pirate and Explorer, London: Michael Joseph, 1997; Norris, Gerald (ed.), The Buccaneer Explorer: William Dampier's Voyages, London: The Boydell Press, 1994; Preston, Diana and Preston, Michael, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: The Life of William Dampier, Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer, London: Doubleday, 2004; Mitchell, Adrian, Dampier's Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier, Kent Town: Wakefield Press, 2010; George, Alex S., William Dampier in New Holland: Australia's First Natural Historian, Hawthorn: Bloomings Books, 1999; Sáerz-Arroyo, Andrea, Roberts, Callum M., Torre, Jorge, Cariño-Olvera, Micheline and Hawkins, Julie P., ‘The value of evidence about past abundance: marine fauna of the Gulf of California through the eyes of 16th to 19th century travellers’, Fish and Fisheries (2006) 7, pp. 128146.

38 BL Sloane MS 54, f. 5.

39 BL Sloane MS 54, f. 5.

40 Beattie, Tim, British Privateering Voyages of the Early Eighteenth Century, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015, p. 42.

41 Thomas R. Smith, ‘Manuscript and printed sea charts in seventeenth-century London: the case of the Thames school’, in Thrower, op. cit. (19), pp. 45–100.

42 BL Add MS 17940B.

43 Capt. Hacke, William (ed.), A Collection of Original Voyages, London: James Knapton, 1699.

44 Alexander Dalrymple published the journal of the first two voyages in Two Voyages made in 1698, 1699 and 1700 By Edmond Halley, London: printed by the author, 1773. They were also included in Alexander Dalrymple (ed.), A Collection of Voyages Chiefly in The Southern Atlantick Ocean, London: printed for the author and sold by J. Nourse, P. Elmsly, Brotherton and Sewell, Jefferys and Faden, A. Dury, 1775. The journal of Halley's third voyage was not published until Norman J.W. Thrower, The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley in the Paramore 1698–1701, London: The Hakluyt Society, 1981. The chart of the Western & Southern Oceans is reproduced in the Thrower volume.

45 Halley, Edmond, A New and Correct Sea Chart of the Whole World Shewing the Variations of the Compass as They Were Found in the Year M.D.CC, London: Mount and Page, 1702.

46 Thrower, op. cit. (44), p. 59.

47 Letter, Admiral Sir Charles Wager to Arthur Dobbs, 4 March 1737, included in Barr, William and Williams, Glyndwr (eds.), Voyages in Search of a Northwest Passage 1741–1747, vol. 1: The Voyage of Christopher Middleton 1741–1742, London: Hakluyt Society, 1994, Section I, Doc. 14, p. 50.

48 Williams, Glyndwr, ‘George Anson's Voyage Round the World: the making of a best-seller’, Princeton University Library Chronicle (2003) 64(2), pp. 288312; Domingo, Marta Torres Santo, ‘Un bestseller del siglo XVIII: el viaje de George Anson alrededor del mundo’, Biblio 3W, Revista Bibliográfica de Geografía y Ciencias Sociales (2004) 9(531), pp. 127.

49 Walter, Richard and Robins, Benjamin, with Williams, Glyndwr (eds.), A Voyage Round the World in the Years MDCCXL, I, II, III, IV by George Anson, London: Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 96. Anson directed the publication of the account, which was written by Richard Walter, the chaplain on Anson's command, and Benjamin Robins, a fellow of the Royal Society.

50 Walter and Robins, op. cit. (49), p. 97.

51 TNA ADM 3/60, 19 January 1749, as quoted in Williams, op. cit. (4), p. 258.

52 Bedford to Keene, 24 April 1749, BL Add MS 43423, f. 78. Another copy of the letter can be found at TNA SP 94/135, ff. 177–179.

53 Keene to Bedford, 21 May 1749, BL Add MS 43423, f. 86.

54 7 December 1764, NMM JOD/58, ff. 48–49.

55 10 December 1764, NMM JOD/58, f. 50.

56 Hawkesworth, John, An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of his Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, vol. 2, London: Cadell and Strahan, 1773, 44.

57 Hawkesworth, op. cit. (56). The island also continued to have some political valence. One of Argentina's first historians, Pedro de Ángelis, revived the topic of Pepys Island in the mid-nineteenth century. Pedro de Ángelis's ‘Apuntes históricos de la Isla Pepys’, originally written in 1839, is reproduced in Antonio de Viedma y Basilio Villarino, Diarios de navegación: expediciones por las costas y ríos patagónicos (1780–1783), Buenos Aires: Continente, 2006, pp. 33–36. At least one scholar in the twentieth century has also taken up the case. Chambers, C.B. BM, ‘Where was Pepys Island? A problem in historical geography’, Mariner's Mirror (1933) 19(4), pp. 446454.

58 Walter and Robins, op. cit. (49), p. 96.

59 Thomas, Nicholas, ‘The age of empire in the Pacific’, in Armitage, David and Bashford, Alison (eds.), Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, People, Houndmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014, pp. 7596. See also Frost, op. cit. (4).

60 Secord, op. cit. (13), p. 655.

61 Beaglehole, J.C., The Journals of Captain James Cook, vol. 1, Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1955, p. cclxxxii.

I would like to thank the Hakluyt Society, who provided a fellowship that supported the initial research for this paper, as well as the organizers of the Science and Islands in the Indo-Pacific World conference held at Cambridge in September 2016. Their comments, and those of the anonymous reviewers, have helped to improve the article, making any remaining errors or assumptions entirely my own.

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