The Curious Cartographical Case Of The Island Of California

We’ve become firmly accustomed to the instant gratification of Internet Time, which can be roughly summarised as “I want it now, dammit“. Nowhere is this more evident than in maps. If something is wrong on a map, we expect it to be fixed. Now. Ten or so years ago, it would be common to wait somewhere between 12 and 18 months for a map’s updates to be collected, validated and published. These days, thanks to our modern digital maps, we get our updates in more or less Internet Time and that means fast. It hasn’t always been that way.

Although waiting over a year for a map update seems almost unthinkable now, consider for a moment having to wait almost half a century for a map to be updated. Yet this is what happened in the curious cartographical case of the Island of California.

I should state up front that I’ve been to California, quite a few times. The weather is fine (apart from San Francisco’s fog), it’s home to the technical hub of Silicon Valley and the local food and wine are rather good. It is most definitely not an island and what’s more, there’s a distinct lack of tribes of beautiful Amazonian warriors wielding gold tools and weaponry. Yet in 1510, Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo published a novel entitled Las Sergas de Esplandián, or The Adventures Of Esplandián, which mentions the Island of California, populated by the aforementioned female warriors. The name and concept of an island stuck and early Spanish explorers of what we now call Baja California were convinced the new territory they had found was part of the Island of California.

In retrospect, early maps of the New World actually got the geography of California right. Both Mercator, he of web map projection controversy, in 1538 and Ortelius, in 1570, made maps that correctly showed California as a peninsula.

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But that all changed in 1602.

A merchant, Sebastián Vizcaíno, was appointed by the Viceroy of New Spain to examine the coastal regions and make new maps. On board one of Vizcaíno’s expeditions was one Antonia de la Ascensión who wrote …

that the whole Kingdom of California discovered on this voyage, is the largest island known…and that it is separated from the provinces of New Mexico by the Mediterranean Sea of California.

This geographic blunder was further reinforced by Antonia Vázquez de Espinosa, who wrote in 1615 that …

California is an island, and not continental, as it is represented on the maps made by the cosmographers.

The notion of California as an island was thus firmly cemented in the minds of the day’s cartographers, featuring in the first general atlas of the world that was published in England between 1626 and 1627. Even European cartographers finally gave up in their portrayal of California as a peninsula and by 1650 all maps of note showed the Island.

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And so it remained until 1705 when a Jesuit missionary, Father Eusebio Kino, made a report of his journeys, with an accompanying map, that showed that California really was attached to the rest of the North American continent. Even then, it took until 1746 when another Jesuit, Fernando Consag, tried and failed to sail around the non-existant island, to put an end to the Island of California.

Despite this, it took a further 50 or so years before maps showed California as we now know it to be, part of North America and not, as de Montalvo wrote, being close to the Asian mainland and also “very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise“.

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Next time you get annoyed and frustrated by a modern map not being entirely up to date, you can rest assured that it’ll probably take a month or two at the most to be updated and not a half century. In the meantime, the Island of California remains an enduring oddity in the history books of exploration and cartography and one which is showcased on Stanford University’s web site as part of the Glen McLaughlin collection.

Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

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