North American Exploration - Vol. 1

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview

6 /
The Northwest Passage in Theory and Practice

DAVID BEERS QUINN

One of the obsessions of sixteenth-century geographers and cartographers, a debate that was carried over into later centuries, was whether or not there was a water channel between Europe and Asia in northern latitudes. After the discovery of the Americas, this question had practical implications for the English and, later, the Dutch and to some extent the Norwegians. A passage in high latitudes, but one not too firmly impeded by ice, opened the possibility of rapid and short access to Asia, which could undercut the long-route access established by the Portuguese round the Cape of Good Hope and by the Spanish through the Strait of Magellan (or more effectively through contacts between Mexico and the Far East). In the projects of the period through the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Northeast Passage was almost as frequently discussed and attempted as the Northwest Passage, and thinking and acting about both were intertwined, but it is the search for the Northwest Passage that primarily concerns the exploration of North America.

It is not possible here to separate theory, cartography, and exploration into sharply separate spheres. Each was involved with the other, but it was theory, and the maps emerging from it, that kept exploration going in its early stages especially, just as it was theory that revived the attempts at exploration in the later eighteenth century.1 For medieval cartographers, in both the pre-Ptolemaic and the pre-portolan maps, there was no problem. For Christians the unity of the earth's surface was assumed; its central point was Jerusalem, and the medieval world map was a demonstration not so much of cartography as of the sacred character of the earth's surface revealed by Scripture and predestined to be encompassed as a whole, in the near or distant future, by Christian Europe. The medieval maps might show a "world island" surrounded by water, but the character of the oceanic part was rarely a matter for discussion or of relevance to those who

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