Society for the History of Discoveries


Hayes, Derek. Historical Atlas of the Arctic.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2003.  208 p.  ISBN 0295983582.  $60.00.

     Whatever else may be said, this book will become a standard reference work for both amateur and professional students of the North.  And much else can be said, for Historical Atlas of the Arctic is more than a collection of maps and charts; it is, to the extent that it can be covered in two hundred pages, an illustrated history of Arctic discoveries and explorations, told through a spirited text and more than three hundred illustrations. If the illustrations reproduce unevenly in legibility, an ample citation for each leads the viewer to the location of the original.  That, in itself, makes Derek Hayes’s atlas an extraordinarily useful contribution to history and geography.

     From thousand-year-old myths about the North to modern controversies among those who sought to unlock its secrets, the atlas patiently knits into one fabric the unfolding story in the shaping of Arctic lands and seas.  A reader interested in a particular geographical feature can trace its evolution from imagination to modern geographical configuration.  Take, for example, Baffin Island, the locale of Martin Frobisher’s three expeditions in the 1570’s.  Frobisher did not know where he had been – only that it was west – so on a 1576 manuscript base map (Map 18) he simply dropped into the open sea west of Greenland a fairly realistic sketch of the shores that he had visited.  In the next three centuries the location was correctly placed above Hudson Strait, where a land mass emerged on successive maps.  The mass gradually was given the shape of an island with names like James, Cumberland, Good Fortune, Cockburn, and finally Baffin; and it appeared in a staggering number of shapes in more than sixty-five maps reproduced in this atlas.  In 1715, Frederick de Wit’s “Poli Arctici”(Map 4) represented Baffin in the shape of a pair of short-pants with an inlet forming its crotch, and not until 1861 did Charles Francis Hall prove that Frobisher “Strait” was in fact a bay.  Omitted from the illustrations is a manuscript map drawn in 1840 by Eenoolooapik, an Inuk who led Scot whalers to rediscover Cumberland “Strait” two and a half centuries after John Davis first sailed into it.  Poetic justice is served, however, by John Arrowsmith’s map of 1847 (Map 139), which shows a contortion of Eenoolooapik’s “Tenudiakbeek,” the native name for present-day Cumberland Sound.

     As a reference work, the book’s educational value lies in the evolution of geographical knowledge, but the text also provides genuine pleasure.  The reader is led to understand, for example, how easily the fictitious island of “Friesland” fooled leading European scholars, how the nonexistent “Croker Mountains” were thought to block Lancaster Sound, and how Frobisher’s “Strait” shifted from one mapmaker’s Baffin Island to another’s Greenland.

     In Historical Atlas of the Arctic, Derek Hayes has brought together an enormous amount of information, textual and visual.  Readers may prefer their personal copy, but for libraries, the cloth-covered book is sturdily bound for the heavy use that it is likely to get.

H. G. Jones
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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