Mar di Æthiopia Vulgo Oceanus Æthiopicus, Jansson, 1646

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An interesting feature of early charts of the South Atlantic Ocean is the indication of islands which have subsequently proven to be non-existent. There are a number of notable examples of such mythical islands, including Saxenburg, St. Matthew Island, and New St. Helena. The mislocation of islands was inevitable given the large navigational errors common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but once added to sea charts such islands proved extremely resilient, even in spite of a lack of any further evidence to support their existence.

St. Matthew Island enjoyed considerable longevity. Supposedly located to the northeast of Ascension at approximately 2°S 8°W, it was claimed to have been discovered by Garcia Jofre Loyosa on 20 October 1525 while on a voyage to the Moluccas. St. Matthew is marked on early Portuguese portolan charts and world maps, and appears on Ortelius' 1570 map of the African continent Africa Tabula Nova. It thereafter regularly featured on charts and maps through the 1820s (for example, Cary's 1828 map of Africa shows St. Matthew). After the early 1800s, St. Matthew slowly began to disappear from charts of the South Atlantic, but was not finally completely expunged until as late as the early part of the twentieth century. Captain Cook had been on the verge of searching for St. Matthew in 1775, and it was searched for without success by the Inconstant and the Julia in 1817, and again by the Cigogne in 1833. It is most likely that the original sighting by Loyosa was of one of the West African islands some 12° further to the east.

The origin of the myth of New St. Helena is unclear. Supposedly located east of St. Helena at approximately 16½°S 4°E, New St. Helena was coveted and sought for by the Dutch after they relinquished St. Helena for the Cape. New St. Helena is marked on the Universal Hydrographic Chart of Jean Guérard, 1634 and on Jansson's 1646 chart of the South Atlantic Mar di Æthiopia Vulgo Oceanus Æthiopicus (part of this chart is illustrated above) from Volume V of the Novus Atlas. Although New St. Helena continued to be marked on maps and charts to as late as 1803 (the map of Africa by Rochette), it appeared with decreasing frequency through the 1700s. The disappearance of New St. Helena could be very rapid; a 1713 map of Africa by Aa shows the island but it was removed from a subsequent map of Africa by Aa published just one year later.

British Library shelfmark: Maps C.6.b.1. [Novus Atlas 1647]
Library of Congress call number: G1015 .J35 1646 [Novus Atlas 1646]

Last updated: 19 December, 2011

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