Carte Generale des Decouvertes De l'Amiral de Fonte Et Autres Navigateurs Espagnoles, Anglois et Russes, pour la recherche du Passage a la Mer du Sud . . . Septembre 1752.
JOSEPH-NICOLAS DE L'ISLE
Published 1752, Paris
An unrecorded state of Joseph-Nicolas de l’Isle’s landmark map of the Pacific North West and of the Northwest Passage. “It is of exceptional historical importance and rarity and was at the centre of one the most heated cartographic debates in history.” At the heart of this debate was the speculative depiction of the Arctic and Pacific coast with its mythical “Mer de l’Ouest”.
De l’Isle’s map was earmarked for publication in the pamphlet “Nouvelles cares des découvertes de l’Amiral de Fonte, et autres navigateurs espagnols, portugais, anglais, hollandais, françois et russes, dans les mers septentrionales” for Paris’ Académie Royale des Sciences in 1753. His family connection to the renown Guillaume de l’Isle, one of the most important and influential cartographers of the 18th Century, as well as his service in the Royal Academy in St-Petersburg with access to early records of Russian exploration of East Asia by the likes of Frondat, Tchirkow,and Berhing, provided him with an air of respectability and gave credence to his speculations however far fetched they might have been. It should be noted that his older brother, Guillaume, did produce a manuscript map in 1696 that toyed with the concept of an inland sea in the Pacific North West of America, but was never actually published. Furthermore, although Jean-Baptiste Nolin did publish a wall map using this spurious depiction in 1700, which was later copied by Pierre Mortier's Mappe Monde in 1705, the controversial depiction and the implications that it entailed remained somewhat dormant for the next 50 years.
However, this all changed when Joseph-Nicolas de l’Isle and his brother in law, Philippe Buache, produced a manuscript map to the Academy Royale in 1750 and was subsequently published with certain modifications by Buache in his landmark map Carte des Nouvelles Découvertes au Nord de la Mer du Sud in 1752. Although de l’Isle attempted to distance himself from Buache’s depiction, it proved insufficient in suppressing the debate that it unleashed both intellectually and in the search for the Northwest passage to Asia by different explorers intent on gaining fame and riches.
It should be noted that this particular copy of de l’Isle’s map, both in its rarity and value, are further enhanced by its current unrecorded state. Of the two known states with their respective paginations on the upper right or left hand corners, this copy has neither. It is most likely that the present copy was issued independently before it was published in the pamphlet. As such, it is interesting to observe distinctive rule marks suggesting a very early strike or possibly a proof state, thus explaining the heavy stock paper that was used and the lack of a centrefold.
This example is exceptional both for its historical significance to the cartography of the Pacific Northwest and for its unrecorded state. It is a rare find.
(Sources:Kershaw#1208-09, Wagner, Apocryphal Voyages…pp.29-38, Wagner, The Cartography of NW Coast #571, Tooley, Mapping of America, pp.35-6, Falk, Alaskan Maps, Geographicus)