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Cartographic Craftsmanship, or the Social Life of Maps

When he left Lisbon in 1502, the secret agent Alberto Cantino found a way of smuggling an elegant planisphere when he left Portugal for Ferrara, probably rolled up in his suitcase, that evaded the censors of that day’s TSA. Perhaps he rolled it up his sleeve. For the planisphere–a representation of the entire surface of the world–contained relatively classified information about the discoveries in the New World of import to the Portuguese that Cantino seems to have gleaned from mapmakers in Lisbon while he was visiting, and is the first chart to show the coast of Brazil and islands known as Fortunate, and the clear path around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean:  he hoped that it was “in such high quality . . . and drawn in a manner that pleases your Excellency [è di tal sorte, e spero che tal manera piacerà a V. Exa],” suggesting the care with which the Este spy had procured the nautical chart.  I’ve discussed the aura of maps and charts in an earlier post; the delicate greens and red, and delineated shores, conjure the removed oceans with an aura of announcement, fitting new knowledge into a basic schema defined by lines of latitudes, not present in charts, as well as rhumb lines for nautical guidelines, whose points of reference were defined by a compass rose from which they radiated:

Cantino Map

The astounding accuracy of many of the coasts of this chart profited from a long tradition and protocol of nautical charting, with a peculiar manner of noting nautical expanse.  The chart reveals the discoveries of Pedro Álvares Cabral, a nautical explorer, who Cantino probably did not know.   Cabral had recently returned to Lisbon, and when Cantino arrived there, with the pretense of seeking to trade horses for the Este court, he must have sought him out on his secret mission to procure maps of the discoveries for the Este family.  The map might have copied the secret master-map the Portuguese maintained, or Padrão Real, of Portuguese discoveries; they were magnified unintentionally beautiful “Carta de navigar per le Isole novam trovate in le parte di India” which misidentified its subject, but provided the first geographic knowledge of Brazil.  But it clearly either superimposed or referenced the directional wind-roses of nautical charting, ostensibly for reading orientating directions at sea, although perhaps as befits a planisphere of the entire earth, is constructed about two “focal circles” of thirty-two points each:


The planisphere arrived in Italy as a sort of wonder of mapping multiple forms of knowledge, as well as a synthesis of expanse.  The recent 1494 Treaty noted as bisecting the Brazilian coast, had given part of the landmass known now as South America to the Portuguese monarchy which the map shows as the most exotic area it depicted–the map seems to trumpet the luxury of an area that the Portugese sovereign Jaoa II had concealed from Ferdinand I.

Isole Fortunate

How did it speak to its new audience?  The craftsmanship of an unknown Portuguese painter or cartographer may be surprising given the high stakes of its procurement from a government particularly secretive about recent discoveries in the New World.  The geographer and historian of maps George Kish described an early fifteenth-century contract for the depiction of a portolan chart, a genre of coastal mapping that developed in Europe in the early fourteenth century, that specified the involvement of both painters and mappers; the partnership seemed natural in so valuable a creation as a map or portolan chart: the hide on which it was drawn was itself grounds for the further investment in pigments and decorative motifs, as in the illustration of inhabitants of Sierra Leone.  Part of this was also because of the riches that these maps suggest in far-off lands, and part because the tradition of nautical charts was only to mention the names of ports that dot the regions’ shores, rather than their interiors–which remain blank:  other terrestrial place are limited to Jerusalem and the ports of departure and arrival, and space expanded over the seas rather than the terrestrial expanse they enclosed.



The protocols of charting are unclear, as is their orienting function.  The use of these protocols in drafting the Cantino chart may have shifted as charts gained a display value of their own and adressed audiences distinct from the commercial trading houses who earlier seem to have kept them.  Although  associated with nautical routes, charts gained a distinct display value as audiences sought to process discoveries for audiences less familiar with nautical travel, or with commercial exchanges over oceans.  In the sixteenth century, as Angelo Frabeto has shown, nautical charts gained a popularity and interest in Italian courts of central Italian courts in the mostly landlocked Romagna, near Ferrara.  The already fanciful components of nautical charting expanded in these charts, which were less dense and stark than predecessors, and suggest an early tradition of combining artifice and cartography that predate printed maps.  The map Cantino brought contained a specific treasure-chest of disjointed bits of information and lore, discontinuous but joined by being enclosed in the velvet case constituted by the map itself, from the mountains of northern Africa to the birds of Sierra Leone, and the image of the city of Jerusalem, all shown without particular care for scale.


Affrica and castles in Guinea

The genre suggests not a limited ability to consider other expanses, so much as a disinterest in picturing them.  The manuscript reproduction of these charts reflected an interest in the most recent ‘news,’ and the colored vellum  charted voyages that were not made, much as, ahistorically recalling the later uncanny adoption  the motif of the ‘wind-rose’ that defined orientations of travel or the winds, Joseph Cornell’s “Object (Roses des vents)” (1942-53); Cornell placed fragments of a map of the remote Great Australian Bight amidst shrunken coastlines that Cornell had never seen, planets that were as far away, and emblems of imaginary voyages, and the compasses that might take him there:

Rose des Vents


As Cornell’s box, the fragments of green shoreline in Brazil in Cantino’s map assemble the scattered expanse over which the Portuguese had travelled in a semblance of unity–the unity of an expanding expanse.  Whereas the fragility of all worldly phenomena–as of the crafted miniature of the universe’s expanse–a subject that was thematized in Cornell’s perverse if beautiful boxes, the fragmentary pieces of lunar or terrestrial maps serve as pivots of perspectives of viewers, as well as a nostalgia for the aspirations toward total visual knowledge that echo Cornell’s childhood and adult consumption of engravings in nineteenth century books of science.

The Cantino map expanded the protocols of nautical charting, which it combined with other forms of mapping to offer a range of curiosities couched in the surface of the map, together with convention from nautical charting of coloring the Red Sea red, or painting an exotic bestiary of parrots on Brazil’s verdant shore, and locating, crisply,  the islands’ shores themselves– although the eager cartographer magnified their own coastlines out of scale and proportions, despite his inclusion of a line of longitude and bar of scale.


Cantino selection

The expansion of a tradition of nautical charting to a hybrid form distinguishes the Cantino map, which faced a very different audience of readers once this ostensible copy of a secret map reached Italian shores.  The Este family  interest in this chart lay in how it revealed far-off lands that associated with ocean travel by the Portuguese, who had mapped islands in the Pacific beyond Cape Verde and the Azores in the early fifteenth century. When Cantino smuggled the chart to Ferrara in 1502, he saw it as completing the mission on which Ercole had sent him to procure secret information about “the new islands” discovered by the Portuguese, and the result of his discussions with several Portuguese explorers who had traveled to search for a Northwest Passage to Asia.  It was copied into new engraved maps of the Americas, and provided a protoype for the printed 1516 Carta Nautica.

The map centrally communicated, from the Portuguese perspective, the legitimacy of possessions in the New World, demaracted at the boundary line adjudicated and confirmed at Tordesillas, which leads one to imagine it derived from a seat of central authority.  Two disembodied bars of scale on the map’s surface suggest the measurement of terrestrial inter-relations, and its preparation for careful scrutiny of a studied eye.

Isole Fortunate

The Cantino map hence played with the protocols of charting.  Rather than insist on uniform coloration of the ocean, to prevent obscuring rhumb lines, but to maintain its elegance, as the cartographer colored certain regions a light green, by confining the blue paint to the Mediterranean, Baltic, and unbounded Caspian sea, the map combined a pictorial artifice with the practice of charting or representing oceanic space–the Mediterranean had its own portolan chart, and perhaps didn’t demand that its expanse be represented in a similar style.  The combination of artifice and nautical protocols exemplifies the huge expansion of the purview, as well as containing the first news of the Brazil in Italy, which was soon diffused in other charts and maps.

The Cantino chart might be measured against the sort of artifice in earlier fifteenth century charts, popular chartings of the Portuguese voyages to the African coast.  The chart that arrived in Ferrara from Seville dramatically expanded the purview,  toponomy, and perspective of nautical charts the Este  knew, to be sure, such as Grazioso Benincasa’s detailed 1494 mapping of the African shore:



Benincasa’s 1482 nautical chart densely collated costal ports but adopted the similar carefree style of decoration–probably the work of a painter–to the mythical monarchs that inhabit an imagined uncharted terrestrial expanse.  The image seems more fanciful, and designed with the desire to appeal to audiences by its  and was the culmination of a series of portolan charts and nautical atlases of the prolific Anconitan mapmaker, following his study of Mediterranean cities that from the 1460s to included western African ports, as well as mythical islands, and dense textual legends of geographic information.  Inland areas are blankly traversed by the same rhumb lines, which echo compass lines, and the truth-claims were much more limited, and land-masses probably entrusted to painters with limited first-hand knowledge of the region.  Benincasa’s chart colors the Red Sea red , too, following a tradition of charts, and Jerusalem and several biblical cities in iconic miniature.

The Cantino map offered a new way of reading the map–one which mimimized these curiosities.  For one, the thick and prominent line of longitude in the “Cantino” map has received significant attention, together with its depiction of the Fortunate Islands, Antilles, and Azores, for this defines and demarcated the new region of sovereign possession.


Line from Tordesillas and parrots



The changed social life of these maps suggests new uses of the map as a field for understanding space–perhaps less ready to note fanciful riverine paths and foreign sovereigns or kingdoms, and more to conform to criteria of inclusion.  If one considers the new circumstances of reading the portolan that arrived in Ferrara, and its use to imagine and consider space, we might offer a reading revealing more than the differences in place-names it includes, or the conventions of mapping.  Although the format of mapping seems the same, the “manner” and “quality” of the map addressed a different sort of audience, despite the common origins of its prototypes.

The aura of the map was not limited to its conventions.  The material objects of wonder from the New World that populated the Cantino map are most striking, however, in how they illustrate an early interest in items of exchange.  The unity of the portolan chart is very different, of course, because it includes the Fortunate Islands of the sovereign of Castille, as well as the Brazilian shore, and a chunk of its richly green interior, cut off from the unknown mainland and in Portuguese possession, as if to show off the charmed jewel of the new lands that the chart encompassed.  The chart’s inclusion of a disconnected shoreline of Brazil assembles a makeshift sense of unity by noting the broken fragment of the New World to the lower left, foregrounding it as both a sort of promises of new riches, and a means to stake possession of a territory by no means yet entirely concrete, the feathers of whose birds might be better known than any other aspect of the chart.

Parrots in Brazil

The chart was kept in the Este library in Modena, but stolen when anti-Austrian Modenese looted the palace in 1859.  The map remained temporarily lost, before being found later that year in curious circumstances of re-use as the folding screen or door in a sausage store or butcher shop.  (Some portolan charts became book-covers; others were cut into strips as bookmarks or otherwise recycled.)  The Cantino planisphere, reused as a screen, was temporarily stripped of its attraction as a promise of new possessions.

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Filed under cartographic accuracy, Joseph Cornell, Mapping the New World, Nautical Charts

Map-Inspired Madness: Reading Maps in the Solitude of Ahab’s Cabin

‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ wrote Herman Melville famously about the origins of the wild native Queequeg in Moby Dick.  The search for “true places”–the encounter with the whale or the site of whale spawning in the South Seas–is a theme in Melville’s novel about a ship at sea, and the trust that some of its characters place in maps and charts is predictably misleading.  Captain Ahab’s obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps feed his compulsion for tracking sperm whales in Moby Dick.  His famous obsession mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of “open data”, who ambitiously sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales in 1851 for the benefit of the whaling economy. 

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact, as readers know, never be on the map.  For unlike the observations Maury collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.


Whale Chart 1851Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

The compulsively obsessive Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.  The consultation of the map reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it is also an amazing fantasia of the reading of nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s from the compilation of nautical logs.

We have little sense of the amassing of data in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys, with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”

The map serves not as a nautical chart, to plan one’s voyage to a geographical destination or actual port, but rather puported  to locate the individual location of the whale on predict its migration.  In Moby Dick, the maps seem to chart the food supplies that Moby Dick will follow, holding value not deriving from its own cartographical accuracy or precision, but the functions of probability that will allow him to track the whale:  “So assured, indeed, is the fact concerning the periodic migration of sperm whales to specific mating grounds, that many hunters believe that, could he be closely observed and studied throughout the world; were the logs for one voyage of the entire whale fleet carefully collated, then the migrations of the sperm whale would be found to correspond in invariability to those of the herring-shoals or the flights of swallows.  On this hint, attempts have been made to construct elaborate migratory charts of the sperm whale.”  Such a scheme of mapping the paths of the leviathans fit with the larger plans of Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury, the Superintendent of the Naval Observatory and founder of modern oceanographical mapping both of famous wind and current charts in the 1840s and a comprehensive map of the ocean floor in 1855, who had sorted data from sailors’ “actual observations” into isothermal charts of ocean temperatures and currents, into a comprehensive map of its floor that tracked the physical geography of the sea “as the main spring of a watch; its waters, and its currents, and its salts, and its inhabitants, with their adaptations, as balance-wheels, and cogs, and pinions and tools” (Physical Geography of the Sea (1855), 54).  Maury’s bridging of natural history and physical geography in his pioneering treatise comes close to treating the ocean’s depths as its own living form–that would facilitate the very sort of human interactions with oceans to which Melville also returned.


MauryM.F. Maury, “Bathymetric Map of the Atlantic,” Physical Geography of the Ocean (1855)


As a sailor and writer, Melville must have reacted in part to the huge collation of shipping routes and the observations of whaling ships, one of the largest and most ambitious open data projects of the late nineteenth century.  When in April of 1851 Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-73) announced his fabrication of a chart designed for charting migrating whales he served as the Superintendent of the United States Navy’s Department of Charts and Instruments, and was one of the best-known oceanographers and cartographers in the nation. Maury issued the map when he worked at the Naval Observatory, and his cartographical productivity and activity has led him to be championed as hero of open data on the order of Charles Babbage.  Maury’s monumental charting of safe routes of navigation had focussed on winds and currents, allowing sailors to chart the most convenient shipping routes, in an attempt to lend a cartographical legibility to the seas in works such as his Wind and Current Charts, to make legible opportune paths of oceanic transit, as in this map of voyages to the coast of Africa from 1847.  Maury collated the available records stored in thousands of ships’ logs and charts to plot winds and currents issued form the US Hydrographic Office so as to determine the most advantageous routes of sea travel, and also to derive the general “laws” that he believed governed transit across oceans, by preparing a map whose surface would create “the field for observing the operations of the general laws which govern the movements of the great aerial ocean,” effectively embodying meteorological data from notations kept on trade-winds, pilot charts, and thermal charts in readily constable form for commercial use, to record of “a system of oceanic circulation” for pilots to consult.

Maury would subsequently come to construct the map of whale migration that Herman Melville attributed him from nautical logs, synoptic oceanographic data, and charts, collated by retired whaling captains.  He announced plans to publish a whaling just six months before the publication of Moby Dick, which appeared the following year, and Melville acknowledged its appearance in a relatively small “Author’s Note.”  But Maury’s earlier maps from the 1840s already stood as monuments of the description of oceanic travel and sea-going, mediating collective accounts of winds–if not sightings of whales–that served to condense data from nautical logs in ways that not only captured the tacit knowledge of seamen but synthesized their collective observations in thick descriptions of nautical experience in collections of “open data” that he took as a summation of the expansion of shipping routes.

Maury took advantage of the medium of color charts to trace a record of the observations of individual ships, by their respective ports of call.  His accumulation of a collective content stands at a considerable remove the experience of navigating the choppy seas, which he collated through the start of the Civil War, was animated by a deep desire to map what he believed was the “uniform character” of the surface of the Great Ocean, treating its natural observations as revealing a set of absolute rules of the circulation of the force of trade-winds and currents, seasonal variations, horse latitudes and equatorial calms, as if a coherent picture of their variations could appear from the synthesis of collective observations of almost mathematical harmony:


Maury maps trade windsMaury, “The Winds” (1858)


The mapping of “wind and current” charts were based on the mapping of collective observations along shipping routes, through the synthesis of data observed along shipping routes from 1785 to 1860, the courses of each of which he recorded in multicolored lines corresponding to their ports of leave, in ways that served to distill something like a residue of tacit knowledge in graphical form of collective itineraries:


US Hydrographic Office


The amassing of individual logs of specific ships was placed in clear evidence for consultation in color charts, which amassed individually dated voyages, color-coding each dated and identified voyage in correspondence with individual ships’ ports of call, in a manner he would continue to use to transpose individual findings of mariners to give his subsequent maps of whale-sightings a readable form:


dated voyages1847 map; courtesy Barry Lawrence Ruderman, Rare Maps


The project for mapping the seas was analogous to a monument of modern description design for principally economic ends.  Maury’s ambitious announcement, Favorite Haunts, included a preliminary chart that was later expanded to a Whale Chart of the World, provided an unprecedented mapping of the open seas.  The map was a sort of extension of his belief in the benefits of publishing open data in print.  Herman Melville praised how Maury’s map divided the world’s oceans by five degrees of latitude and five degrees of longitude, and charting the number of days that whales spend in each region in each of the twelve months, and to note the number of days that sperm or right whales seen in the course of the year.  (The incident occurred the same year Melville published Moby Dick).  But the motivation for charting the courses of ships and the paths of whales constituted two halves of a deep concern–or obsession–that motivated Maury’s work, provoked in part by the evocation in scriptures, in Psalm 8, of “the paths of the seas,” which inspired the deeply religious Maury’s hope to delineate currents, track winds, and indeed track ocean-living mammals in their paths across the ocean’s expanse to ken the pathways he attributed to divine design.  His hopes to transcribe such a record provoked the intensive tracking of ocean voyages in the South Seas, off Western Australia, by 1852, immediately before his 1857 monumental Physical Geography of the Seas (Washington), amassing individual measurements of American and non-American ships, an area of intense whale hunting and spice routes:


1852 Western AustraliaBarry Lawrence Ruderman, Rare Maps


The notion of being able to preserve a legible geography of oceanic pathways, currents, winds, and indeed tracks of whale-migration suggested a trust in statistics to provide an almost alchemical attribution of a “physical geography” to ocean waters, which he believed to be–as the currents–a creation of God rather than Nature, and for that very reason supremely legible.

The project of data collection was monumentally ambitious in its own right.  The striking enjambment of the Maury’s ambitious act of data-collation and the perverse reading that Ahab makes of it to trace not one breed of whale, but to find one specific whale in it, is a sort of mania of map-reading, rooted in a magnificent imaginative leap of the sort that maps provoke, in which one looks for a single voter in a data distribution, or find one’s building in a city view, as if searching for a needle in a haystack but compelled almost by the map’s comprehensive claims to continue in the belief that it can be found:  the White Whale has assumed so great centrality in Ahab’s imagination that he is convinced it will appear, and that he can find it, in Maury’s map, which positioned sightings for observers, designated below by icons of individual whales, on a rectilinear grid, to guide the whaling ships on the cusp of a significant depletion of whales from the ocean waters.




The map of whale sightings corresponded, no doubt to the huge expansion of whaling routes from the eastern seaboard (and from Nantucket) in the 1850s, which had allowed Maury to compile one of the first repositories of open data, drawing from the largest historical collections of shipping records ever assembled.

The tables were later digitized, apparently in Tianjin, China, between 1993 and 1996, in a set of digitized records Ben Schmidt mapped, preserving the coloration of routes that Maury used to distinguish different ships’  ports of call.  The visualizations captures and maps growing knowledge of the open seas, as both American shipping routes spread in the Atlantic and whaling and other routes in the previously unexplored Pacific and South Seas in ways that put places like Salem, New Bedford, and Nantucket on the global map.




Feb 1845


Dec 1845

May 1841

Feb 1843

March 1844


jan 1846

July 1852



Sept 1851


These visualizations created from Maury’s dataset tell a story of the expanse of American shipping–before they ceased about the time of the Civil War, in part because of his Confederate loyalty, and lack of access to the full dataset he had at his disposal previously, hiring not only old captains but old whaling masters to transpose and copy the results of old log books and observations, not only to map the seas but to determine the best paths for navigational routes and speeds, noting as they did, both current, wind, cloud cover, and directions in a single standardized format and made them readable in printed form as data in ways.  (Schmidt writes that the printed books were so persuasive to encourage European national shipping agencies in London to send log books to him to abstract records of their data by similar distinctions.)

The result is to create an abstracted but legible record of shipping patterns, if one that we are able to visualize digitally in ways that are more successful that Maury’s very useful maps of the directionality of ocean winds could prove to modern eyes, mapping ships by their ports of destination by different colors to display the shifting proportions of shipping boats that set sail from different Atlantic ports in the United States:


may 1852


March 1854

August 1852

Jul 1853

March 1854


Sept 1858

Oct 1861


The charts that Maury prepared of ocean charts were able to reduce times of ocean transit by up to several weeks, or so he boasted:  they provided keys to plan sea travel whose collation of data was intensely popular among trained readers for their ability to imagine advantageous meteorological conditions on the open seas–for which there existed no collections of data, and on which sailors had to rely on individual or collective experience to determine advantageous routes of travel, “reading” the winds from a fixed position, and lacking any communication of weather changes.




Perhaps pressed by commercial reasons, as much as his ambitions to provide a clearer map that would better facilitate sea-commerce, but perhaps captured by hopes for a new sort of nautical omniscience that he believed transposed the concepts of a benevolent Creator, Maury acted as the medium to translate sailor’s first-hand observations to legible form by amassing or “opening” data on whale sightings in the 1850s, in order to refine existing maps of ocean currents.  The preparation of legible records offered an unprecedented conversion of trade secrets to a repository of “open” data on the sightings of whales in the hopes of mapping commerce on seas–if not a dream of the transformation of individual logs to a comprehensive ocean chart.

The publication of Maury’s maps of whales spotted at sea did not in themselves in fact provoke the depletion of whales in the world’s oceans from the 1850s–nor could they have, as they responded to a problem that was already afflicting whalers, and was probably not caused only by over-fishing.  But, as Ben Schmidt noted, Maury’s logs revealed the extent to which whaling provided a seasonal driver that contrasted with fixed routes of commerce:  the distinct rhythm and narrative flow unlike that of shipping routes or the global commerce across the Atlantic.  Indeed, whaling tells a specific tempo of nautical travels Melville whose distinct rhythm Melville sought to narrativize across what he called the “watery prairies,” as if they were a modern extension of westward exploration, based not on fixed commercial routes of travel or trade, but the pursuit of moving targets on large ships destined for expeditions in search of whales–hunts such as those Melville experienced on the Acushnet and Essex, which was the model for the Pequot’s sinking in Moby Dick.  The networks of whaling and shipping can be surveyed at Schmidt’s visualization of US Shipping routes:

Schmidt plotted the courses of two ships on which Melville sailed based on Maury’s mountain of data:


Melville's Voyages on the Acushnet in context


But the charting of whales–and conditions of fine whaling–provided Maury with the far more elusive subject of mapping by transposing log books of Nantucket whalers into a form of open data that would enjoy considerable popularity.  Can one imagine Ahab’s consultation of maps in his cabin as a sort of initial, albeit manic and single-minded, individual confrontation with open data that he believes allows him access to the whale of which he is not able to let go?  Did the comprehensive ambition of mapping two halves of a story–that of whales’ migrations, and the travels of its sailors–open an effective absence of narration that Melville moved to fill, by telling a story not of the currents created by God, but of the ship commanded by human desires?  Is the reading of such currents, collated observations, and open data for Melville a form of something approaching the hubris of over-confidence?

Maury’s chart boasted the ability to collate from the courses of whaling routes the ability of tracking sites of whale populations for ready consultation as if it had acquired the status of fact.  The masterpiece of publishing open data cannot be blamed in itself for the fearful depletion of actual whales by the 1850s in ocean waters,–which led Melville himself to worry “if the Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase” after being pursued so systematically by whalers in the novel Moby Dick.  The map that Maury had crafted, if perhaps slightly more visually legible to modern eyes than his maps of winds at sea, as much as providing a basis for the oceans’  depletion of whales, may have well provided Melville with a model for that of Ahab’s obsessive use of maps to track the whale of which he was in such hot pursuit, and his consultation of maps to guide the Pequod so single-mindedly obsessed.  The map may have even provided a model for the intensity–and map-inspired madness–that drove Ahab’s manic search for Moby Dick, lending credence to Ahab’s perverse hope for tracking a whale across open seas.


hale chart, with quadrantsSmithsonian Institution


What sort of space of possible routes for whaling did the Maury map provide, if not for the near-obsessive observation of whales?  Did its totality evoke the dream not only of the ongoing search for whales in ocean waters, but the prospect of finding and mapping one particularly identifiable whale, based on a similar collation of previous reports of whaling masters, now undertaking by a somewhat crazed captain?

But the relation between the novel and the map, which might have provided Melville with a sort of guide or template to write his novel, have relations that are considerably more complex.  Maury’s subsequent map, of far greater scope, was intended to allow sailors to better locate whales with facility in the course of their migrations, to intersect with them in their own maritime pathways.  He situated the routes and itineraries of whale migration an even more refined grid, as well as color-coded approximate ranges of travel, as if the path of the whale were both predictable and well-known, in ways that would lend some credence to what would otherwise be the somewhat preposterous project of setting out to track one sperm whale across the sea:


Whale Chart 1851Leventhal Map Center in Boston Public Library    

Did the predictive element of Maury’s plans for maps seem a deranged hope for

Maury had hoped to increase the commerce of whaling by tracking the migration of whales across the seas for whalers.  By using extant logs to chart their population of the oceans, his was a rudimentary economic statistical chart of sorts, save that it did not chart commerce or products, save the routes of migration that Melville both mythologizes and ponders as natural mysteries.  Did the 1851 map also give some credence, in an odd way, to the obsession that Ahab is able to develop?  The paths, Melville was quick to point out, were indeed far more precise in their collation of routes, that wind-propelled ships which were brought to different places by oceanic currents, could hope to profit from, and represent the paths of marine mammals that human ships could never hope to replicate.

The paths or “ocean-lines along which whales travelled” were, Melville tells us in his text, of “such undeviating exactitude, that no ship ever sailed her course, by any chart, with one tithe of such marvellous precision,” but Ahab trusts, hubristically, in the charts he has gathered, even though “the direction taken by any one whale be straight as a surveyor’s parallel,” as a guide to “place and time himself on his way” that allowed him to hatch “his delirious but still methodical scheme.”  As the projection of the desire to track whales, this maps itself combines something similar to Ahab’s method and madness, by which “crossing the widest expanses of water between [separate feeding] grounds, could Ahab hope to encounter his prey.” The map becomes something of a topos for a contest between nature and culture, or the limits of human comprehension of the magnificence of the wild. On the map, Ahab had noted with his customary obsessive care all sightings of the whale, and, most meaningfully of all, perhaps, because in it lay the root of all his madness of mapping Moby Dick:   his own intersection with Moby Dick’s path at “that tragic spot where the monomaniac old man had found the awful motive to his vengeance,” and lost one of his legs to the cunning Leviathan and with is the place from which the narrative of Melville’s novel essentially takes its spin and motive energy, and which unlocks the secrets that Ishmael only comes to perceive.  (Grim Ahab was particularly effected after “he found himself hard by the very latitude and longitude where his tormenting wound had been inflicted” in Chapter CXXX.)  This absent center, which will be matched at the end of the book by the drowning of the ship Pequod, and of Ahab’s death, remains a mystery to us, but was the site of the creation of Ahab’s crazed drive, which the expansive narrative of the novel weaves itself around.

Such maps are the imaginary fields in which Ahab isolated himself and maddeningly withdrew from his crew.  They created the very space and field “with which Ahab threw his brooding soul into this unfaltering hunt” from which he would not permit himself to rest, giving a semblance of meaning to the pursuit of “the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale” in a crazed act of willfulness that perpetuates itself with unhinged obsessiveness.  Having charted the waters, he grew obsessed with his hope track the great whale in its course, as if the charts allowed him to materialize the elusive whale itself.  This cartographical fantasy of omniscient knowledge may lie at the root of Ahab’s madness, Melville suggests, if it is not analogous to it:  “God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”  Starbuck later finds Ahab, in his cabin, as the Pequod approached Japan, “with a general chart of the oriental archipelagoes spread before him; and another separate one representing the long eastern coasts of the Japanese islands–Niphon, Mastmai, and Sikoke,” studying them obsessively “with his snow-white new ivory leg braced against the screwed leg of his table, . . . wrinkling his brown, and tracing his old courses again” (Chapter CIX).  This is the very moment when he obsessively refuses to turn back from his chase of the whale, even on hearing dangerous indications of a leakage among the oil in the ship’s hold, and the first mate counsels returning to Nantucket–who is not say that he is not possessed of the fantasy of a map?

Maury Title Page Cartouche


That demonic searching of Moby Dick seems partly born of the map.  The polymath Maury, like Melville, was a southerner who had circumnavigated the globe, and in his work as an astronomer, educator, geologist, cartographer, author, and astronomer was in odd ways far more a public citizen than Melville in the mid-nineteenth century.  Maury’s career (and perhaps ambitions) came to an odd end as he joined the Confederacy to serve his native Virginia in the Civil War, as Chief of Sea Coast, River, and Harbor Defense–and ended up traveling Europe in search of naval materials for the Southern states, and hoping that European intervention could resolve the Civil War’s devastation. This odd projected voyage to secure international help for the Confederate fleet was in its own way Ahab-like in its obsession and pursuit:   Virginia benefitted little from secession, although his introduction of naval mines wrecked detestation for the Union and commercial shipping routes, and Maury, after waging unsuccessful campaigns in the newspapers and public speeches, retired after the war to Lexington, Virginia, a steadfast friend of Robert E Lee and professor at the Virginia Military Institute.  He served both as Lee’s pall-bearer and he set for himself a future burial plot in Lexington directly across from that of his former comrade in arms Stonewall Jackson.

The marine maps that offered such comprehensive coverage of oceanic expanse provided little road map to his own career, and he remained based in Lexington until his death, sort of–though Melville could not have predicted–Ahab consulting maps in his cabin in the Pequod.  Maury had dedicated himself to writing a monumental physical geography of his native Virginia in the hopes to revive a local economy war had so devastated by means of a map for regional geological prospecting.




Herman Melville had of course detailed with grimmer precision how Ahab descended into madness in the hopes of chasing and finding the white whale that he had long pursued.  In a particularly desperate moment, Ahab seems to throw a final gauntlet at  the very project of mapping the locations of whales that Maury had optimistically sketched in the proposal that Melville well knew:  just after Ahab “calculated at what latitude he might be at this precise instant,” he fell into a “reverie” he looked up to the sun and in what might be better described as a moment of rage was murmuring to himself, just before the chase for Moby Dick–addressing the sun in the sky as he held the quadrant in hand. “Thou tellest me truly where I am–but canst thou cast the least hint where I shall be?  Or canst thou tell me where some other thing besides me is this moment living?  Where is Moby Dick?  This instant thou must be eyeing him.”

It is not a coincidence that for his first mate Starbuck, Ahab’s madness is most revealed by his haughty dismissal of nautical instruments “in his fatal pride”:  “gazing at his quadrant,” Melville wrote, “and handling, one after the other, its numerous cabalistical contrivances, he pondered again, and muttered:  “Foolish toy!  babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of they cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee:  no! not one jot more!  Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with they impotence thou insultest the sun!  Science!  . . . Curse thee,thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heaven . . . .  Curse thee, thou quadrant!’ dashing it to the deck, “no longer will I guide my earthly ways by thee; the level ship’s compass, and the level dead-reckoning, by log and by line; these shall conduct me and show me my place on the sea.'”  Melville later described how “For a space the old man walked the deck in rolling reveries,” and when “he saw the crushed copper sight-tubes of the quadrant he had only the day before dashed to the deck” would crow that ‘Ahab is lord over the level loadstone yet.’ (CXVIII)     Starbuck worried:  “‘Has he not dashed his heavenly quadrant?  and in these same perilous seas, gropes he not, his way by mere dead reckoning of the error-abounding log?'” (CXXIII) Maury’s own chart mapped the courses of whales similarly derived from logs and sightings, and provided something of a model for Ahab’s own obsessions of predicting the White Whale’s course.  Maury’s own particular obsessiveness with charting the paths of whales was something of the mad genius of the south–from where Melville of course saw himself as hailing–and a model of militaristic advocacy of secession so unlike Melville’s own path.


Filed under Marine mapping, Moby Dick, nautical mapping, US Navy, whaling routes