New world explorers, beginning with Columbus, kept records of their voyages, even if it was only their daily logbook. Many of them wrote extensive narratives in addition to a logbook, and their narratives have become an important part of our knowledge of conditions on our continent early in the 16th century. As it happens, the narratives they wrote became as important as their maps.
Their navigations produced information resulting in maps, which was of great importance for showing the locations of their discoveries. Exploring mariners recorded their routes, making notes and sketches of what they saw, but often had little to say about the final map produced by a cartographer. The voyage of discovery was made under the sanction of the crown, and typically the notes and logs from the trip were turned over to a designated cartographer who used the information to create a map. The map then became property of the king who sanctioned the expedition. The major importance of maps and the illustrated narratives was that they gave credibility and reality to a government’s claim on the land. Through their documents, charts, and narratives, the land of the imagination was transformed into a reality over which they ruled. The documents provided proof that a representative of the government had been there and established the power of the nation in that area. If they failed to map, they failed to control. The Arctic areas of Canada, for example, became a widely known reality under British control by first being drawn on paper and described in detailed writings and illustrations.
The narrative written by explorers was as important as the chart itself. Without the narrative a voyage might soon be forgotten, and a map would be the only vestige of an expedition. The narrative established the new land as a real place, not an abstraction. It provided details of the flora, fauna, resource potential, and the human inhabitants, along with the trials and successes of the voyage. Maps, with their narratives, transformed a land from an unknown place into a known entity—a possession with a known owner—for the world to see.
By the 18th century many expedition narratives were beautifully written and illustrated. Narratives often were widely read among the contemporary public eager to hear about the strange new lands. Illustrations were an important addition to the narratives and were not merely for decoration, but were an authentication of the narrative as an eyewitness account. The illustrations attached a view of reality to the map. They complemented the purpose of the narrative by emphasizing that the map was not merely a field of coordinates, but that each coordinate stood for a place. The illustrations held such importance that a lack of artistic ability came to be considered a serious handicap for an explorer. Some member of an expedition had to be skilled with pencil and water colors. This was particularly true for the 19th century voyages of exploration by the British navy.
When explorers began to go to the far north, their maps and the narratives that accompanied them gave the public a view of the Arctic as a place of desolation with dangerous ice floes, fraught with occasional disasters. People were fascinated by the adventures of these courageous men even though the region had little potential for settlement or commerce. The lack of any apparent utility in the Arctic was offset during the 19th century by the public’s fascination with exploration itself, mixed with British pride of empire for an England that remained at the forefront of important events. It is not hard to understand the public view when we recall a similar fascination with landing men on the moon in the 20th century, and the resulting national pride felt by most Americans.
Some of the earliest exploration illustrations attributable to an eyewitness are those of John White, who is believed to have accompanied Martin Frobisher on his misadventures in 1575-76-77. By the 18th century illustration had become a standard part of explorer’s narratives, one example being the illustration of Fort Prince of Wales made during Samuel Hearne’s overland trek to the Arctic shore in 1770-72. Captain James Cook was probably the most thorough of any early seafarer at mapping and recording his voyages. His third voyage covered the northwest coast of North America in 1776-80, and was staffed by a professional artist named John Webber. Having a non-naval person aboard as artist was the exception. In the 19th century at least one officer of the crew was expected to become a skilled artist/illustrator.
As you can see in the slides below, the artists documented the landscape (or seascape), the native people, wild life, and activities of the crewmen. By placing the cursor on the photo, you can pause or advance as desired.