Martin Waldseemuller’s secret knowledge

The Martin Waldseemuller map of 1507 (not actual size)
The Martin Waldseemuller map of 1507 (not actual size)

Today, what’s hot in cartography! We need to talk about cartography more often here on the A-blog. Let’s just admit it: Most of us could easily spend an entire evening studying maps. And I don’t mean Rand McNally road atlases, though those are great, too. I mean old maps, obscure maps, maps of the dark side of the moon, star charts, nautical charts, topographic maps, lidar maps, maps of Civil War battles, maps of subway systems and sewer lines, and maps of buried treasures that we’d go out and find if we weren’t so busy, you know, looking at maps.

Here’s my news item: Friday a bunch of historians with a cartographic interest will convene at the Library of Congress to discuss the famous maps of Martin Waldseemuller. Here’s the program.

You surely recognize the name of Martin Waldseemuller. He’s the German mapmaker whose 1507 map of the world was the first to use the name “America” for the New World (he placed it on South America; North America is an attenuated land mass labeled Terra Ultra Incognita). “America” is the feminized (per map protocol) version of Americus, the Latin for Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who had canvassed South America’s Atlantic coastline in several voyages circa 1500. Waldseemuller made 1,000 copies of the map, supposedly, but only one survived, and it was lost for 350 years until someone in 1901 found it in a castle in Europe. The Library of Congress bought this map — the “birth certificate” of America, some say — for $10 million about a decade ago, and you can see it in the protective dim light of a specially constructed display case in the Jefferson Building, alongside another Waldseemuller map from 1516, plus several other maps that are on exhibit through June 22.

The air inside these protective cases is filled with argon, which I assume cuts down on wear and tear and fire risk. These maps are very safe, which I appreciate, since I’m totally the type who would spill coffee on a prized map and then try to fix the problem by blotting with my shirtsleeve, and then there’s the tearing and ripping and MORE spilling of coffee, and finally the attempt to piece it back together and Cuba suddenly is west of California and historians are confused forever.

As my colleague David Brown noted in a 2008 article, the 1507 Waldseemuller map is rather mysterious, for he seems to know things that the textbooks would suggest he couldn’t have known.

For example, he shows South America as a continent, and depicts a Pacific Ocean, even though it’s hard to fathom how the existence of that ocean got to Waldseemuller in the European interior that early in the Age of Discovery. Not until 1513 did Balboa make what was officially the first European discovery of the Pacific, after he crossed the isthmus of Panama.

What I find striking is the little finger of land that probably corresponds to Florida. It was also 1513 that Ponce de Leon made his famous voyage that “discovered” Florida, but the 1507 map shows a series of bays on the western side of this finger of land that, to my Floridian eye, resemble the contours of Charlotte Harbor, Sarasota Bay and Tampa Bay, with the latter being particularly interesting. Let’s put it this way: I can almost see Ybor City on this 1507 map. I can almost see Bern’s Steak House!

The suggestion, then, is that there was data floating around and pieces of information that hadn’t yet cohered into “knowledge,” which is the basis of the textbook version of history. I think there were people scampering all over the place in those days, with lots of rumors, misinformation, lies, not to mention abundant information from indigenous peoples, and the result is that people knew stuff before they officially knew it. Including Columbus in 1492, but that’s another story.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | May 14, 2013