Cartography of the seventeenth century was both science and art. However, despite increased exploration, mapmakers and their printers often shared similar geographical misconceptions. One of the most famous inaccuracies of the time is the depiction of California as an island.
There are two books printed in 1671 and held in St George’s Chapter Library that feature California as an island: a first edition of John Ogilby’s compilation work, America: being the latest, and most accurate description of the New World [SGC RBK O.8] and a second edition of Sir Lewes Roberts’s The Merchants Map of Commerce [SGC RBK R.127]. The latter is our featured image of the month.
The depiction of California as an island is a long-held Spanish misconception thought to originate from a romance by Garci Rodrigues de Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandian, published in 1510. Though navigators accurately described a peninsula not an island, and a definitive map was produced in the early eighteenth century, the ‘island of California’ endured in popular print until at least the 1750s.
This specific map of North America was not originally included in Roberts’s first print of The Merchants Map of Commerce. He had chosen copies of engraved maps by Cornelius van Dalen, a Dutchman living and working in England. However when R. Horn published the book again in 1671, he wished to revise, correct and enlarge the work. He therefore included maps by John Overton, a printseller (publisher) in London who specialised in decorative prints and had an interest in maps, commissioning a number of them from famed cartographer Philip Lea (1665-1700). These included four folding maps of America, Africa, Asia and Europe. Editions with these maps were subsequently published again in 1677 and 1700.
The first edition of The Merchants Map of Commerce was published in London, 1638. It was an immediate success with the mercantile community of seventeenth-century England and provides modern scholars with one of the most accurate representations of a seventeenth-century Englishman’s economic views of the world. It includes typical topographical information, as well as details of commerce and trade such as currency, local commodities and rates of exchange.
Its author, Sir Lewes Roberts, was an affluent merchant, writer and director of both the East India Company and the Levant Company in Constantinople. Roberts was born in 1596 to a family of mercers in London. He decided upon a career in commerce instead of attending university and began an apprenticeship in 1612 with a London overseas merchant. The materials and information he collected throughout his travels became part of his celebrated publications.
Kristen Mercier, Assistant Archivist
 To learn more about depictions of California as an island during this period see the Stanford University’s project: https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island