Mapping the Pacific Ocean

Map of the Pacific, 1589

Abraham Ortelius, Map of the Pacific Ocean, 1589, Hand-coloured engraving, Cartographic Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: MapColl 910a/1589/Acc.35004

Mapping the Pacific Ocean

In 2001 the Alexander Turnbull Library acquired this map of the Pacific Ocean by Abraham Ortelius, dated 1589, from an auction in the United States, with a staff member bidding by telephone from his bed at 4am New Zealand time.

Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) was a Dutch-born cartographer, cosmographer and publisher, appointed Royal Geographer to King Philip II of Spain in 1575. He is best known for producing the first complete and standardised modern atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, in 1570.

This map by Ortelius, dated 1589, was the first printed map specifically devoted to showing the Pacific Ocean. Approximately 3550 copies of the map were printed from engraved copperplates, and published in the 1590 edition of the atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. It is not unusual to find early maps that have been removed from books and treated as individual objects.

When devising the map, Ortelius incorporated a good deal of information from Mercator’s world map, published in 1569. Ortelius added more data, derived from two Spanish exploratory endeavours: the search for a viable route eastward across the Pacific back to the Americas, and the search for a southern continent with gold resources.

When depicting Terra Australis (the great mythical southern continent at the bottom of the map), Ortelius kept the hypothetical sloping northern border from Mercator’s map. Above Terra Australis is an image of Magellan’s ship Victoria, in which he undertook the initial circumnavigation of the globe in 1519-22.

This hypothetical sloping border persisted for nearly 100 years. Although the Dutch made a number of discoveries along the Australian coastline between 1606 and 1642, this information was not included in contemporary maps, due at least in part to the Dutch East India Company’s desire to protect trade. The myth of the great southern continent was finally dispelled by the discoveries of Captain James Cook in 1769.

More about maps at the National Library

More about the Cartographic Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

Permission of the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa must be obtained before any reuse of this image

Find Out More

Find out more
Collection Cartographic Collection