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A Most Curious Map
The author was a professional engineer for forty years and like most engineers he has always been fascinated by maps. His antique dealer wife Jane bought him his first antiquarian map, Doncker's 1659 "Pascaert vertoonende de Zeecusten van Chili...en California" depicting California as an island and Bill was hooked. A talk he gave to the California Map Society prompted Al Newman (the President) to mention an interesting Buache map (the subject of the article). Bill acquired the map and began to research its roots culminating in this piece. The author is now retired and spends more time on research and freelance writing.
Geographers have made maps for many purposes. Some shed new light on specific areas or subjects. Others were designed to clarify distance or relationships. On March 15, 1775 Jean Nicolas Buache de la Neuville (1741-1825) presented a Mémoire to the Royal Academy of Sciences of France. Included was a curious map.(See illustration) It portrays a strangely contorted view of northeast Asia and northwest America. Multiple Kamchatka peninsulas and American coastlines add to the confusion. A colourist more interested in tonal balance than clarity has not helped to enhance our understanding of the cartographer's intent. As we shall see, that intent may have been less motivated by a search for the truth than by the desire to discredit the work of a rival mapmaker.
In her splendid work Bel et Utile Mary Sponberg Pedley explained the adversarial relationship which developed between the subjects of her book, Gilles Robert (1696-1766), his son Didier Robert de Vaugondy (1723-1786), and the Delisle/Buache family. This feud probably began over the disputed rights to publish certain maps. It escalated with a heated exchange on the discoveries of the apocryphal Admiral Bartholomew de Fonte (or de Fuente as favoured by Robert de Vaugondy). De Fonte was described as a Spanish admiral who explored the western coast of America in 1640 for the Viceroy of Peru. No record of the Admiral or his voyage exists in Spanish archives. The legend apparently first appeared in print in a 1708 London publication, The Monthly Miscellany or Memoirs for the Curious. Exploring the coast north of California, De Fonte was purported to have sailed up a river flowing into the Pacific Ocean. Following a series of lakes and rivers leading eastward, he met a ship from Boston sailing westwards. After only a brief discussion with these seamen de Fonte sailed back to Peru and into the mists of time - until "rediscovered" by the London press.
De Fonte's discoveries suggesting the existence of a Northwest Passage were promoted by Joseph Nicolas Delisle (1688-1768) and his nephew-in-law Philippe Buache (1700-1773) in several publications and maps made between 1750 and 1752. Géographe ordinaire Didier Robert de Vaugondy infuriated the then Premier géographe du roi Philippe Buache by sharply criticising Buache's theories in a presentation to the Royal Academy. Buache in turn accused the younger de Vaugondy of plagiarism, disrespect, and of being in league with map-publishing bookdealers who stripped profits from other geographers. After Philippe Buache's death both Didier Robert de Vaugondy and J. N. Buache (Philippe Buache's nephew) were among those considered for the position of adjoint géographe in the Academy of Sciences. Neither was chosen, instead d'Anville was selected. During 1772-73 Didier Robert de Vaugondy produced a series of maps for a supplement to Diderot's Encyclopédie. These maps showed various real and imagined views of the North Pacific area. In 1775 Didier Robert published a Mémoire meant to clarify some of these concepts. The Memoir included a map titled "Nouveau Système Géographique". "With this map I introduce a system which seems to me to reconcile all of these discoveries", stated Robert de Vaugondy.
The Mémoire began, "It may seem astonishing that after the publication of the works of MM. Delisle and Buache on the relative positions of Asia and America, someone could find something more to say on the subject. My aim is merely to reconcile the works of these two authors with some prior information and perhaps to introduce some possibilities and probabilities in so doing. Thus will we have the means of arriving at the truth, which should be the object of all research".
De Vaugondy greatly admired the work of another geographer, Samuel Engel, of Berne, Switzerland. Engel's 1765 publicationcontained two maps, one of Asia, the other of the west coast of North America. In Engel's opinion, G.F. Müllet's influential map extended the Asian continent too far to the east. Engel felt Müllet had deliberately exaggerated the extent of the Asian continent to satisfy his Russian employers. Engel somewhat arbitrarily moved the easternmost coast of Asia some 29 degrees of longitude west of its placement on Müller's map. The Kamchatka peninsula was similarly displaced 10 degrees westward. Engel's map of the northwest coast of America followed the pattern of much earlier geographers in showing the land trending considerably to the west of its true position. Robert de Vaugondy hoped to be able to blend some of Engel's ideas with those of other contemporary mapmakers.
De Vaugondy noted that modern Russian maps located the Kamchatka peninsula at 176 degrees of longitude east of Ferro (156 degrees east of Paris) based on earlier calculations made by J. N. Delisle. De Vaugondy questioned these calculations since he felt they were based on observations made by Bering and by M. de la Croyère. De Vaugondy thought Bering's reports vague and de la Croyère's observations reportedly were made with damaged instruments.
Many Siberian locations on Russian maps had been established by overland measurements from known settlements. The Russians used a "verst" as a unit for measuring land distance. De Vaugondy concluded Russian measurements based on 87 versts per degree of longitude should more accurately have been 104½ versts to the degree. This then allowed him to reduce distances on their maps by one sixth. De Vaugondy held the theory that geographers had always tended to err on the high side in defining longitudinal distances. Coupled with his distrust of the Delisle calculations, this allowed him to feel comfortable in moving the Kamchatka peninsula some five degrees to the west of its location on the Russian maps. De Vaugondy's Kamchatka then rested halfway between the locations assigned by Engel and that of "modern maps."
The "curious" map by J.N. Buache (By courtesy of the author)
Engel praised maps of America attributed to Acosta as important source material. De Vaugondy concurred. "Acosta's maps are the only ones we need to follow. They have served as the basis of all subsequent maps", he wrote.
The distance between Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja California and Cape Mendocino was crucial to de Vaugondy's system. The latitudes of these two points had long been established. De Vaugondy's system called for several large river basins which demanded a wide North American continent. He reasoned the greater the distance between Cabo San Lucas and Cape Mendocino, the further apart they must be in longitude, hence bending the northbound coastline further to the west. In trying to prove that point, Robert de Vaugondy curiously invoked length of voyages. Vizcaino's eight-month voyage in 1602 was used to estimate the distance at about 800 leagues. "This eight month period of exploration is equivalent to the six months which Captain Cook recently spent in exploring the coast of New Zealand, which is now estimated to be some 600 leagues in length". That over 150 years separated these voyages did not seem significant to de Vaugondy. His 800-league distance neatly split the difference between the 1100 leagues of Engel's map and 500 leagues of modern maps.
While he could not support the de Fonte legend, de Vaugondy was convinced a Strait of Anian (the western terminus of an interior Northwest Passage) existed to the north of California, "at the place where the coast breaks to the west". Lack of support did not preclude his including numerous lakes and rivers derived directly from the de Fonte report on his new map.
De Vaugondy also incorporated le Page du Pratz's fanciful report of the travels of the Indian Moncacht-Ape along the westward-flowing Belle Riviére. Further he included the fanciful geography of Baron de Lahontan, a great saline lake and westward-flowing Grande Riviére. De Vaugondy was careful to point out that these reports refuted the existence of Guillaume Delisle's infamous "Sea of the West."
Reports of observations made to the west of Hudson's Bay convinced de Vaugondy that some sort of route through the interior must exist. He cited a letter from de la Lande regarding a Danish ship which purportedly made a passage from Hudson's Bay through Repulse Bay in 1769. A current swept them west and into a series of lakes which they followed in a three-month journey to the Pacific Ocean. They were reported to have returned to Europe in 1773 by sailing round Tierra del Fuego.
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