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The False Sea Of Verazzano

False Sea of Verazzano

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The History

In 1523-4, Giovanni da Verazzano sailed along the eastern coast of North America, from Florida to Newfoundland, in the service of Francis I of France, thus becoming the first person to show definitely that the land discovered in the south by the Spanish was connected with the land discovered by the English in the north. Verrazano's voyage was undertaken in order to find a route west from Europe across the Atlantic to the riches of the Orient. In the sixteenth century, the American continent was seen as an impediment on the way to the Far East and much of the early exploration was done in an attempt to find the shortest route from Europe to China. After proving that there was no passage to the Pacific through the Gulf of Mexico, it was hoped that there might be a passage to the north of the Spanish discoveries in Florida. It was such a route to the Pacific that Verazzano was looking for.

Because of the limits of the sailing ships at the time, Verazzano could not simply sail along the coast as it ran to the north and northeast. Instead he had to sail northeast into the Atlantic and then sail back to the northwest (because of this Verazzano missed many features of the coast, such as the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay). Each time Verazzano tacked back, he must have hoped that he would soon find himself sailing in the Pacific Ocean, on his way to the Orient. With this hope firmly in his mind, when Verazzano saw a large body of water across a narrow bit of land on one of his approaches to the coast north of Florida, he jumped to the conclusion that this was the Pacific Ocean. What he in fact had seen was either Pamlico Sound across the Outer Banks of North Carolina or part of Chesapeake Bay. Despite finding more land as he went further north, Verazzano believed he had spotted the long hoped-for passage to China.

The following account appeared in the margin of a letter written Verazzano in 1524:

"We called it Annunciato from the day of arrival, where was found an isthmus a mile in width and about 200 long, in which from the ship, was seen the oriental sea between the west and north. Which is the one, without doubt, which goes about the extremity of India, China and Cathay. We navigated along the said isthmus with the continual hope of finding some strait or true promontory at which the land would end toward the north in order to be able to penetrate to those blessed shores of Cathay."

When Verazzano returned to Europe, this belief was shown in two manuscript maps based on Verazzano's expedition, and so it became widely accepted, for hadn't Verazzano actually been there and seen the Pacific!. This 'false sea of Verazzano' thus began to appear on printed maps of the New World. This belief had considerable impact on the history of exploration in North America, for subsequent expeditions went looking for a passage to the Pacific in the middle latitudes of the continent. One of the goals of Henry Hudson's explorations was to sail through such a passage to the Pacific, and when the original charter for Virginia was given, it included rights to "land throughout from sea to sea west and north-west," and the colonists were instructed to seek a river by which "you shall soonest find the other sea."

The first maps to show the false sea of Verazzano were manuscript maps by Vesconte de Maggiolo in 1527, showing a the sea labeled as "Mare Indicum," and by Verazzano's brother, Girolamo, made in 1529. This latter map clearly showed the sea and included the legend "from this eastern sea you may behold the western sea and there are six miles of land between them." This was followed by other maps, including Sebastian Munster's famous map of North & South American first issued in 1540. Munster's map, with its wide distribution in many editions, probably had more to do with the spread of this cartographic myth than any other map. As late as 1651, John Farrer's map of Virginia indicated that it was only a ten day march from the Atlantic to the Pacific in that region, and it also shows a very short land bridge to the Pacific at the head of the Hudson River. The failure of the English to find the Pacific Ocean anywhere near Virginia soon led to the demise of this cartographic myth.


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