The Library has recently acquired a highly detailed world map, published in London in 1798.
‘A New Map of the World, with all the New Discoveries by Capt. Cook and other navigators’ is a two-sheet double hemisphere map, produced by the engraver, printer and publisher George Thompson. As well as recording the geography of the world as it was understood in late eighteenth century England, it includes numerous explorer tracks, the route of the First Fleet (with an illustration of a ship), trade winds and many other fascinating details. For example, in the south Atlantic Ocean, at what are now known as the South Sandwich Islands, an intriguing piece of text reads, ‘in these seas are many Animals partly resembling a Fish, partly a Fowl, with a neck like a swan, which they often thrust above water’.
Part of what makes this map so striking are the 23 inset maps and diagrams which border the central hemispheres. These include the constellations of the northern and southern celestial hemispheres and illustrations of the sun, moon and planets. In effect, everything that was known of the universe at the time is presented on just two sheets of paper.
Though rich in detail, this map cannot be credited for its originality. Indeed, its title, ‘A New Map of the World,’ is deceptive. Thompson derived the design and content from earlier maps, adding his own title in a new decorative cartouche featuring allegorical figures representing Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. For example, while the geography of Thompson’s map is more advanced, it shares many details and diagrams with another by Henry Overton, issued more than 80 years prior (shown below).
London — centre of an empire, trading and financial hub — was home to an increasingly literate and wealthy population in the 1700s. In this context the popularity of broadside double hemisphere maps such as these flourished, and dozens of variations were issued. The copper plates used to print a map were often sold on to other publishers, however plagiarism was pervasive as well. Maps already printed could be traced onto new plates which were then engraved.
With limited surviving business records from publishers in this period, it is often the extant maps that help us to build a picture of what the map trade was like. ‘A New Map of the World’ evidences how geographic information was readily recycled and marketed to the public. The map’s title which promises ‘New Discoveries by Capt. Cook and other navigators’ is also indicative of the immense public curiosity about the Pacific Ocean.
An obituary reported that when Thompson died in 1826 at the age of 69, while walking in his Islington garden, he left an estate said to be worth £70,000 — an impressive amount, suggestive of a very profitable business.
Armitage, G & Baynton-Williams, A, The World at their Fingertips: Eighteenth-Century British Two-Sheet Double Hemisphere World Maps, London, British Library, 2012.
Edney, M & Sponberg Pedley, M (eds), The History of Cartography, Volume 4, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2019.
‘Obituaries,’ The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1826.