Map of the North Atlantic Ocean, 1674


From the 1500s to the 1700s, explorers, geographers, and the royal government of France continued the search for a passage that would allow easy communication between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and better access to the treasures of the East Indies. Spurred by Indian reports, the idea of a special sea north of California emerged in the mid-17th century. Geographers quickly seized upon this hypothetical Western Sea and gave it a cartographic life. The de L’Isle family was at the heart of this geographic illusion. Denis de Rotis, a Basque pilot from Saint-Jean de Luz, was convinced of the existence of a Northwest Passage. On this 1674 portolan chart, he represented the passage as being north of, and parallel to, the Saint Lawrence River. Made for navigational purposes, the map uses the traditional network of rhumb lines corresponding to the 32 directions of the compass. It shows the Atlantic coast of the northeastern United States from Virginia to Spain, and the coast of Canada as far north as Labrador. The inscription on the lower left reads: Faict à Sainct Jean de Luz par Moy Denis de Rotis 1674 (Made at Saint-Jean de Luz by me, Denis de Rotis, 1674). Basque navigators were responsible for many early maps of the North Atlantic. Along with the Portuguese, the Basques were early arrivals to the fishing grounds off the coast of Newfoundland. They began whaling and fishing for cod in these waters around 1525. Their method was to sail to North America in the spring and to return to their homeports in the Bay of Biscay in December or January, when ice conditions in the North Atlantic worsened.

Last updated: August 19, 2015