Planisferio o Carta General de la Tierra, Madrid 1800

clip_image002_0015W. Michael Mathes, Ediciones Jose Porrua Turanzas, Madrid, 2009, in Spanish.

Dr. W. Michael Mathes is a long-time CMS member, retired professor of history at  the University of San Francisco and a prominent authority in the early history of Baja California. This book presents the work of a lesser-known Spanish cartographer, Juan Antonio González Cañaveras, who lived in Spain during the second half of the XVIII century and beginning of the XIX-a period when Spain was embracing the new cultural wave of the Enlightenment at the same time as it was on the verge of losing all its remaining overseas territories. Tooley’s Dictionary of Mapmakers1 makes a brief entry on González Cañaveras (with his name slightly misspelled) and cites his Planisferio o Carta General de la Tierra, Madrid 1800, the subject of Mathes’ work. The entry for this mapmaker in the standard work on Spanish cartographers2 also focuses on his multi-volume work on geography whose second volume contains this wall map.

This 12-sheet wall map3, measuring a total of 152 cm by 143 cm (60 by 56 in.) was engraved by José Antonio Ximeno y Carrera and published by Vicente Garviso.  Interestingly, the previously-cited reference on Spanish cartographers also mentions that the map was drafted by González Cañaveras’ son Juan Francisco de Paula.  Two extant copies of the map are known, as well as three of the explanatory pamphlets-one of the three located in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, Spain.

The book continues with a biographical sketch of González Cañaveras focusing on his work. This work has a strong emphasis in the didactical aspects of geography as González Cañaveras was a professor of geography at the University of Cádiz. This didactical aspect is not missing in his 1800 world map where the mapmaker uses a type of cylindrical projection devised by him that allows a number of astronomical calculations, like the length of day on a given location on a given date.

The next section presents a reproduction of the map under the title of ‘facsimile’. Unfortunately the reproduction does not do full justice to what one can clearly imagine must be a gorgeous map of the highest engraving quality with some outline coloring. The book, printed in quarto size, reproduces the map across two pages thrice: One with the full map, one focusing on the upper three quarters of the map and one on the lower three quarters of the map. In these images one can appreciate the quality of the map and some general aspects of it: the map uses as its prime meridian the Canary Islands’ island of Hierro (Ferro) and it’s centered in the Pacific; it shows the peculiarity of the chosen projection with landmasses very elongated and poles distorted. Furthermore, as mentioned by the author in the introduction to his work, the map suffers from some misguided cartographical influences based on bogus claims of a reportedly found Northern passage between the North Pacific and the Atlantic. Spanish sea charts already published at the time contained much more accurate information of the Western North American coast based on the Bodega expedition almost ten years prior.

The fact that size and resolution prevent reading the toponyms and most legends on the map is mitigated in the next section of the book. In this section the author provides a thorough transcription of every recorded word on the map. A later section provides a relation of all the toponyms with the modern equivalent or the English translation.

The book also contains a most interesting section on historical references that appear in the map with a brief explanatory commentary by Mathes. For example the “Línea de Alejandro o de Demarcación” is explained to be the dividing longitude line 100 leagues west of the Azores that resulted from the mediation of pope Alexander VI.

The book concludes with a reproduction of all the pages of the explanatory pamphlet that would accompany the map that has a didactical aspect to it as it is essentially a primer of geography-I learned a few things reading it.

In summary, this book (250 copies published) is now probably the standard reference for this rare work of cartography. It also offers insights into the state of geographical knowledge and the concerns of the waning Spanish empire circa 1800.

1) Tooley’s dictionary of mapmakers / editor, Josephine French, 1991-2001
2) Cartógrafos españoles ,Martín López, José., Ministerio de Fomento, Centro Nacional de Información Geográfica, Madrid, Spain 2001.
3) The copy at the John Carter Brown Library can be viewed at:

Reviewed by Juan Ceva
From Society’s December 2009 Newsletter