Navigating the modern world has become a relatively foolproof proposition now that satellites triangulate our locations and, through the miracle of the Global Positioning System, instantaneously plot the geography that connects here to there, wherever here and there may be.

In the olden days, one relied on maps — really relied on them, because getting anywhere took a terrific amount of effort. If a map was not accurate, you might find yourself in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world with only misinformation to guide you. Maybe you could feel charitable if it were an honest mistake that landed you in dire straits — say if, in the 16th century, you hoped your map would lead you to Terra Australis, the huge continent nobody had seen but everybody knew existed because a) Aristotle said so, and b) something in the southern seas had to serve as a counterweight to the land masses of the northern continents.

Terra Australis (meaning “Southern Land”) is among the better known of the nonexistent sites investigated in Edward Brooke-Hitching’s addictive book The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps. This lavishly illustrated volume reproduces no fewer than five maps (or details thereof) printed from 1570 to 1744 that show how the place was shaped. Not until the early 19th century did geographers come to a consensus that Terra Australis did not exist. Rather than let a good name go to waste, they transferred it (in adapted form) to a large island that unequivocally did — New Holland, which at that point would be renamed Australia. “There is no probability,” wrote explorer Matthew Flinders in 1814, “that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southerly latitude; the name Terra Australis will, therefore, remain descriptive of the geographical importance of this country, and of its situation on the globe.” Brooke-Hitching summarizes: “And so Australia was given its name by the British and the mythical Terra Australis was brought to an end … or so it was assumed. Just when the idea was finally written off, in 1820, the frozen shores of Antarctica were first sighted beyond the floating southern ice fields, causing a red-faced reevaluation of the dismissed story, and introducing a new focus of obsessive exploration for the years to come.” 

So, if you had been sailing around the frigid waters of the southern seas in search of what your map showed as Terra Australis, at least it would have been because of thoughtful error. On the other hand, you might have found yourself trying to zero in on a similarly illusory destination that figured on your map for a less justifiable reason. Brooke-Hitching cites a solid example:

“In his Cosmography (1659), Peter Heylyn tells the story of Pedro Sarmiento’s capture by Sir Walter Raleigh, who subsequently interviewed the Spanish explorer about curious entries on his maps of the Strait of Magellan. Raleigh questioned his prisoner about one particular island, which seemed to offer potential tactical advantage. Sarmiento merrily replied:

that it was to be called the Painter’s Wife’s Island, saying that, whilst the Painter drew the Map, his Wife sitting by, desired him to put in one Countrey for her, that she in her imagination might have an island of her own. His meaning was, that there was no such Island as the Map pretended. And I fear the Painter’s Wife hath many Islands and some Countreys too upon the Continent in our common Maps, which are not really to be found on the strictest search.

What a clever idea it was to create an inviting, browsable encyclopedia of bogus places that appeared on ostensibly accurate maps. Brooke-Hitching, whose mind lies behind it, is described thus in his author’s blurb: “[He] is the author of Fox Tossing: And Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Passtimes, and Games and an incurable cartophile. The son of an antiquarian book dealer, he lives in a dusty heap of old maps and books in London.” He may make incurable cartophiles of us all.

His grasp of historic maps is impressive, and his ability to contextualize their errors is masterly. If you are interested in reading four pages about the concept of the Earth being flat, his chapter under the heading “Flat Earth” will serve you well, ushering you from the vague notions of Homer and Anaximander to the vague notions of Prof. Orlando Ferguson of Hot Springs, South Dakota, who in 1893 published his Map of the Square and Stationary Earth “to illustrate his firm belief that the Earth was not spherical, as those in the scientific community would have one believe, but flat and square.” We meet characters of astonishing chutzpah: George Psalmanazar, for example, who in the early 18th century concocted detailed descriptions of the island of Formosa, its capital city of Xternetsa, and its polygamous, cannibalistic citizens, who “went about their daily business in the nude, save for a gold or silver plate covering their genitals.” Needless to say, his map of the island was as much a fantasy as everything else he said about the land from which he claimed to originate but in which he had never set foot. “He eventually confessed all,” Brooke-Hitching reveals, “claiming to have been inspired by a religious experience that convinced him of the sinfulness of his deception. He turned his hand to painting ladies’ fans, before studying divinity and spending the rest of his days as an essayist and Grub Street hack, enjoying friendships with prominent English literary figures including Samuel Johnson.” 

Or how about William Leonard Hunt? A Victorian-era entertainment entrepreneur, he invented “a theatrical stage device for propelling a person into the air, which he adapted to create an early (if not the earliest) human cannonball show.” Such outstanding achievement would have sufficed for most mortals, but Hunt’s aspirations soared higher. “Upon hearing rumours about 180 carat diamonds littering the Kalahari desert, he decided to swap the sawdust for desert sand and turn his attention to adventuring, with his male companion Lulu.” On his return from Africa, he submitted to the Royal Geographic Society a Kalahari map that included an inscription indicating the ruins of a city he said he had discovered. In an ensuing book Hunt provided details about the site, including a chapter titled “The Bastards Won’t Dig” in which he described “how his bemused local guides refused to help uncover the stones, thinking it pointless.” He concludes his volume with a poem:

A half-buried ruin — a huge wreck of stones

On a lone and desolate spot;

A temple — or a tomb for human bones

Left by man to decay and rot.

The whole business was almost surely fraudulent. (A telling detail is that “of the many photographs taken by Lulu, none was of the ruins.”) Nonetheless, an article in 1967 revealed that at least 26 expeditions had been undertaken since the publication of the map in 1886, in the hope of finding the site. None succeeded. “Regardless,” Brooke-Hitching writes, “one can have little doubt that, somewhere, plans for another search for the Kalahari’s lost city are being drawn up at this very moment.” 

What is most astonishing, perhaps, is the number of these age-old inaccuracies that persisted through to modern times — for example, Sandy Island, in the Coral Sea of New Caledonia. “For more than one hundred years, it had been charted with specific coordinates,” Brooke-Hitching writes. Then, in 2012, a team of Australian marine scientists “decided to include it in their route, and when they reached the location, instead of the expected sliver of sand and palm tree, they were instead puzzled to find nothing at all, with the water depth measuring 4265 ft (1300 m). After further checking, they found that, although clearly shown on Google Maps, it did not appear on the navigational charts of the ship. The missing island was initially attributed to a technical error in the data sets, including that used by Google; however, the case of Sandy Island is representative of the problem that occasionally arises from the fact that modern digital maps are drawn from a combination of data from satellite imagery and some of the oldest maps of the British Admiralty.” Who knew? In 2012, the president of the Society of Cartographers observed: “It’s unlikely someone made this island up. It’s more likely that they found one and put it in the wrong location. I wouldn’t be surprised if the island does actually exist, somewhere nearby.” 

A similar problem haunts the island of Bermeja, which began appearing on maps of the Gulf of Mexico in 1539 and remains a matter of territorial contention between the United States and Mexico even though it appears never to have existed. Brooke-Hitching exercises his usual delicious sangfroid in analyzing the situation: 

“Various theories have been suggested as to Bermeja’s ‘disappearance’. Some blame climate change and rising sea levels, others an undersea earthquake, although, in 2010, a group of Mexican senators released a statement pointing out that such ‘a force of nature does not take place without anyone noticing, and much less so when it is sitting in an area with more than 22 billion barrels of oil reserves.’ ” 

I’ll admit that I was a little hurt to find no entries relating to the Seven Cities of Gold that kept the hopeful conquistadores traversing New Mexico and its suburbs back in the day. But Brooke-Hitching does not pretend to be exhaustive, and as it is he includes more than 50 spurious cartographical locales, from the Earthly Paradise (aka Garden of Eden) to the Mountains of Kong, the Sunken City of Vineta, and Hy Brasil — which, surprisingly, was nowhere near Brazil but rather occupied (or, more precisely, did not occupy) a much-discussed but totally imaginary spot in the North Atlantic as far north as Ireland or as far south as the Azores. Or Wak-Wak, where, according to the author Buzurg ibn Shahriyar (circa 1000), “there is found a species of large tree, the leaves of which are round but sometimes oblong, which bear a fruit similar to a gourd, but larger and having the appearance of a human figure.” (“When the wind shook it, there came from it a voice,” he added.)

The author also finds room to consider the wondrous beasts of land and sea that populate many of the maps he considers. It is hard to select a favorite among the dozens of creatures or animal-vegetable hybrids crowding the waters of Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina of 1539: perhaps the Rockas (“They protect the swimming man and save him from being devoured by sea monsters”) or the Duck Tree of the Orkney Isles, where a “Scotch Historian, who diligently sets down the secret of things, saith that … Ducks breed of a certain Fruit falling into the Sea; and these shortly after get wings, and fly to the tame or wild Ducks.” We meet humanoids, too. A chapter devoted to “Creatures of the Nuremberg Chronicle Map” reproduces colorful illustrations and descriptions of the folks a traveler could expect to meet in distant lands, such as the Nisyti (four-eyed Ethiopians), the Arimaspi (one-eyed Scythians who were constantly at war with Griffins), the Blemmyes (“In Lybia some are born headless and have mouth and eyes”), and the Panotti (“In Sicily lived people whose ears are so large that they cover their whole body. The ears reach to their feet and they used them as blankets to keep warm. Intensely shy, when they saw travelers they used their ears as wings with which to fly away.”).

The Phantom Atlas is charmingly written, stunningly illustrated, and elegantly presented (kudos to designer Keith Williams). Even if your passport is stamped to a fare-thee-well, this beguiling book will be an eye-opener — one eye for Arimaspi, four for Nisyti. It tempts travelers toward destinations they will never reach.

“The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps” by Edward Brooke-Hitching will be published by Chronicle Books in April.

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