Possession & Extrapolation: Herman Moll & Charles Wilkes

Herman Moll, Enlightenment Geographer

"Carolina" map from <a href = "http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&vid=bclib&onCampus=true&group=GUEST&loc=local,scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21328328270001021"><i>Modern History, or the Present State of All Nations</i></a>, by Thomas Salmon, G 114 .S17, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

“Carolina” map from Modern History, or the Present State of All Nations, by Thomas Salmon, G 114 .S17, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Working as a printer, engraver, and geographer in London, Herman Moll made the acquaintance of some of the leading thinkers of the English Enlightenment, including John Locke, Robert Hooke, and Jonathan Swift. The Dutchman’s contemporaries held his works in high esteem for both their accuracy and their aesthetic.  The Dutchman’s contemporaries held his works in high esteem for both their accuracy and their aesthetic. Moll must have admired their work as well, for he seems to have adopted an Enlightenment attitude towards the land he mapped that is particularly conspicuous in the extrapolated features of “Carolina.”  This particular map, pictured above, appears in the Burns Library book entitled Modern History, or, the Present State of All Nations.

The traditional historiography of the Enlightenment has stressed the intellectual optimism of the period. Two recurring traits in Moll’s body of work that also appear in “Carolina” suggest that he, like Locke, Hooke, and Swift subscribed to a progressive notion of human knowledge and power: an emphasis on the rightful British possession of the region depicted and an idealized, resource-oriented view of nature. But it is Moll’s willingness to extrapolate from imagination, amplified in those regions of the Carolinas whose topography Europeans were yet to chart in detail, that offers the clearest link between his work and the Enlightenment.

Although few Englishmen had ventured as far west as the Appalachian Mountains, Moll confidently arranges them in neat rows and columns so as to provide a natural basis for the division of British and “Charakey” settlements. The Carolinas’ rivers, according to Moll, make uniform bends as they carry the European explorer deeper into the continent; even their tributaries seem to be conveniently arranged to offer clean water and ease of transportation to every region on the map. This apparent cartographic optimism mirrors similar Enlightenment attitudes in politics, science, and literature.

Represented by their names and a single fort-shaped stamp, the English coastal settlements signify a form of extrapolation of their own kind: the overemphasis of urban density. Moll’s cartographic confidence seems to have been so strong as to have given him license to extrapolate in even those regions inhabited by the English. Again, the Enlightenment’s conceptual influence on Moll comes across in his extrapolation in “Carolina.”

  • Peter Haskin, BC Class of 2016 and Spring 2014 Making History Public Student

 The Wilkes Expedition

Map of Antarctica circa January 1840 from <a href = "http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&vid=bclib&onCampus=true&group=GUEST&loc=local,scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21360033880001021"><i>Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842</i></a> by Charles Wilkes, 1844, 11-000025848,  General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Map of Antarctica circa January 1840 from Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842 by Charles Wilkes, 1844, 11-000025848, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1844, Charles Wilkes published a volume of travel accounts titled Narrative of the United States Exploring Expeditions during the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842.  These travel accounts covered the entire United States Exploring Expedition between 1838 and 1842 which was led by the author of the travel accounts, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes.  As the Lewis and Clark Expedition between 1804 and 1806 was significant in mapping the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific North West, the U.S. Exploring Expedition (or “The Wilkes Expedition,” as it has been called) that occurred thirty-five years after Lewis and Clark was equally monumental as it was the first government-funded circumnavigation by the United States.  Wilkes was told by the government that he was to conduct an expedition “for the purpose of exploring and surveying the Southern Ocean as well to determine the existence of all doubtful islands and shoals, as to discover, and accurately fix, the position of those which [lay] in or near the track of our vessels in that quarter, and [might] have escaped the observation of scientific navigators.”

A map of the Fiji Islands circa May 1840 from <a href = "http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&vid=bclib&onCampus=true&group=GUEST&loc=local,scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21360033880001021"><i>Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842</i></a> by Charles Wilkes, 1844, 11-000025848 General, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

A map of the Fiji Islands circa May 1840 from Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842 by Charles Wilkes, 1844, 11-000025848 General, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Some forms of possession occurred before the mapping of possessed lands. Spaniards did not map Mexico until roughly one hundred years after the supposed military “conquest.” But the maps for the Wilkes Expedition reveal a different approach. In this case, a map publication itself made the claim of possession. Though the Wilkes expedition mapped the Islands of Fiji, the continent of Antarctica, and the Oregon Territory, only the last was a U. S. possession.  And yet the travel accounts and the mapping of Antarctica and Fiji claim otherwise. In the travel accounts, Wilkes mentions that his crew was easily able to overpower and overwhelm the indigenous people of Fiji when a battle ensued and only two crew members were lost while eighty Fijians were killed.

A map of the Oregon Territory circa April of 1841 from <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&vid=bclib&onCampus=true&group=GUEST&loc=local,scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21360033880001021"><i>Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842</i></a> by Charles Wilkes, 1844, 11-000025848, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

A map of the Oregon Territory circa April of 1841 from Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842 by Charles Wilkes, 1844, 11-000025848, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

And while no country owns Antarctica, some countries have made territorial claims recognized by other nations. Unfortunately the United States was not one of those countries originally when they landed in the same area of Antarctica that was previously explored by the British in connection with their then territory of Australia. Upon arrival in Antarctica, Wilkes claimed and renamed the British territorial claim “Wilkesland.” As the Wilkes Expedition reveals, possession can occur both before or after the actual mapping of an area. In some cases, possession is not an action but a claim made on paper.

  • Joe Bushee, BC Class of 2014 and Spring 2014 Making History Public Student

The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit Ordering the Unknown:  The European Mapping Tradition from 1600 to 1860, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.    This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Sylvia Sellers-Garcia’s Spring 2014 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.  

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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