5 Historical Maps That Got It Wrong

Throughout history, maps and atlases have been sprinkled with fascinating Human errors, some honest, others based on dreams or even deceit. some phantom islands are still are still being presented as 'real' in the 21st century. Read on for our 5 favourite 'maps that got it wrong'.


The Island of California

In 1510, a Spanish book 'Las Sergas de Esplandian' wrote of a land of no men, but hundreds of beautiful women. This nature-defying Island was called 'California' and positioned just off the west coast of America. It also benefited from a mythical sea passage known as the Strait of Anian which gave sailors hope of a quick passage to the East. The fabulous myth encouraged a wealthy Spaniard to embark upon a voyage to find the island.

This voyage then solidified the myth that California was an earthly island paradise, entirely separate from the North American mainland. Despite contradictory reports from explorers of the region, California continued to be depicted as an island on maps until 1747, when King Ferdinand VI of Spain was forced to issue a decree that ‘California is not an island’



Rupes Nigra

The idea that compasses point towards a magnetic mountain at the north pole dates to the Romans. This mountainous range was known as the Rupes Nigra (black rock), and was believed to be positioned on an island at the magnetic north pole.

This map by Gerardus Mercator (the cartographer who created the Mercator projection), published in 1595, shows a mountainous island of magnetic black rock, 33 miles wide, at the centre of the North Pole, encircled by sea pouring into the Earth.

The details about the Rupes Nigra came from a summary of a missing book, Inventio Fortunata, an Oxford friar’s account of a journey undertaken in 1360 around the north Atlantic.



The Secret Inland Seas of Australia

In the 19th Century, the unmapped land of Australia was a great mystery and a source of hope and intrigue. As rivers generally led to the discovery of fertile land, explorers hoped they would find a large inland sea in the centre of Australia.

A rich, fertile land in the heart of the country would provide a new colony with sustenance and attract settlers. This map by Englishman Thomas Maslen records this colonial fantasy with a great lake the size of a small sea placed in the centre of what is actually now known to be the Simpson Desert.

Explorers were dispatched in the futile search for the non-existent utopia.




‘The great Mexican mystery’ of the island of Bermeja started in 1539, when it first appeared on Spanish maps.

It appears on this map, published by HS Tanner in 1846, just above the ‘x’ in the label Gulf of Mexico and continued to be charted until several British maps recorded this land as having mysteriously sunk from sight, with its last appearance found on the 1921 Geographic Atlas of the Mexican Republic. Nobody paid the ‘blondish or reddish’ island much attention from that point until the 1980s, when the Mexican government hoped it might establish their claim to rights for oil. They kept searching for it until 2009, when a final expedition reluctantly concluded that the island was a phantom

However, the mystery is still not solved as some still believe the island existed but disappeared due to rising seas, an underwater earthquake or other forces of nature.



Terra Australis

Terra Australis, or the Great South Land, was believed to be a vast continent or southern hemisphere. It was first mentioned by Aristotle in his book Meteorology in the fourth century BC. Rather than linked to an actual sighting, it was based on the idea that there must be a large Southern land mass to balance the (real) Antarctica.

In 1520, pioneering Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan recorded sighting land across from the southern tip of South America, and believed it was a glimpse of the huge southern continent. Fifty years later, in 1576, Brasilian Juan Fernandez, went even further and claimed to have discovered the continent.

Throughout the 15th - 17th century, Terra Australis featured on globes and maps, generally as a far larger landmass than Antarctica. In 1770, it was recorded in the 'Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean', that the number of inhabitants is probably more than 50 million, considering it's recorded size.

However, by the late 18th Century, James Cook failed to discover any sign of it on his travels around New Zealand, showing that a continent of that size couldn't exist. Belief in its existence began to lose decline from that point onwards.