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Distant peaks

A map of the Pacific rewards close contemplation.

 

Of the thousands of maps in the State Library’s collection, Aaron Arrowsmith’s Chart of the Pacific Ocean is one of the most fascinating. Made up of nine sheets and measuring more than two metres long, it’s as spectacular to look at today as it would have been when it was created in 1798. Even among the few surviving copies of the first edition, this print is particularly beautiful, with the coastlines delicately hand-coloured in shades of blue and green.

The Arrowsmith family firm was one of London’s pre-eminent publishers of maps in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Aaron, the firm’s founder, established the company’s reputation by producing large-scale, detailed charts that were frequently updated with the most current and credible information. Matthew Flinders was among the navigators who used them.

Alice Tonkinson examines the Arrowsmith map of the Pacific from 1798, photo by Joy Lai

Alice Tonkinson examines the Arrowsmith map of the Pacific from 1798, photo by Joy Lai

When it was published, this chart was the highest quality map of the Pacific available. Its scale allowed space to track more than 20 expeditions and voyages, which appear like threads stitched across the paper. It also includes jottings gathered from European explorations over the preceding 200 years. Along the track of Cook’s first voyage, for example, an annotation reads, ‘Saw a Seal asleep upon the water and several bunches of Seaweed.’

One of the most arresting features of the map is its decorative ‘cartouche’. This illustrated frame around the title depicts an imaginary Pacific island as a romantic idyll. Nestled among the vegetation are a kangaroo, llamas, beavers and what appear to be eastern quolls. These drawings present the Pacific as a rich field for the study of natural history.

Aside from visual wonders, a whaling scene points to resources for commercial exploitation. Flags have been hoisted on distant peaks, a reminder of the colonial aspirations underpinning European voyages. Although a Tahitian sailing canoe can be seen near the shore, there is no evidence of indigenous peoples on the island. The images in the cartouche demonstrate the role of maps in imposing a European vision and agenda on the lands and seas they depict.

Its considerable size has meant that Arrowsmith’s chart is not often exhibited, making the forthcoming exhibition Maps of the Pacific a rare chance to see this complex historical artefact up close.


Alice Tonkinson is assistant curator of Maps of the Pacific, a free exhibition at the Library opening 13 November 2021.

This story appears in Openbook winter 2021.