Cartographic Solution of the Problem: Are America and Asia Joined? (THE FIRST PART OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY)

Alexey V. Postnikov

Moscow, Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of the History of Science and Technology named after S.I.Vavilov. E-mail:



Natives of Chukotka spoke of a “Mainland” lying across the ocean, and this provided an argument in favor of organizing a scientific expedition to find this land, which educated circles in Russia quite correctly assume to be America, an assumption proved to be correct in the period from 1725 to 1742, during the First (1728) and the Second (1741-42) Kamchatka expeditions led by Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov, and the voyages to the islands in the Bering Strait and to the shores of North Alaska by M.S. Gvozdev and I. Fyodorov (1732).

The initial cartographic interpretation of the Second Kamchatka Expedition results was performed by its main participants A.I. Chirikov and S. L. Waxell. In 1741 the expedition’s Navigator, I. F. Elagin, compiled, under Chirikov’s guidance a summary chart of the voyage, on which only those elements are shown which had been directly observed by expedition members. The Chirikov-Elagin chart shows four islands between America and Kamchatka. Essentially different interpretation of the land and seas between Kamchatka and America appears on the chart compiled from the journal of Lieutenant Waxell in 1744. All variants of Sven Waxell’s chart, in contrast to the Chirikov-Elagin one, show a section of the American coast stretching far to the west from Cape St. Elias to Kamchatka.

The results obtained by Russian explorers permitted the compilation of explored regions objective geographical map. Governmental effort to preserve the confidentiality of the Second Kamchatka expedition results lead to even the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences remaining in ignorance of them, at least as far as cartography is concerned. These governmental measures, effective inside the country, could not prevent leakage of information to Western Europe. Very distorted data on the results of the Second Kamchatka Expedition were brought to Europe by J.-N.Delisle, who returned from Russia to Paris in 1747. The French astronomer had exported from Russia a huge collection of manuscript maps and other materials, which are now kept in the National Library and Archives of France, the Archive of the Hydrographic Department. J.-N. Delisle and Filippe Buache de Neuville compiled and published in 1752 the “Carte Generale des decouvertes de l’Admiral de Fonte et autres Navigateurs Espagnols, Anglois et Russes pour la recherche du Passage a la Mer Sud. Par M. De l’isle sic de L’Academie Royale des Sciences & c. Publiece a Paris en September 1752.” This fantastical map aroused strong criticism by contemporaries. Russian Academician, G.F. Müller, himself a member of the Second Kamchatka Expedition, wrote a rebuttal of Delisle’s paper and map. The critique of Delisle’s concepts by Müller notwithstanding, the opinions of the French geographer did influence to a certain extent the first map of Russian explorations in the northern part of the Pacific, compiled by Müller himself in 1754-1758 and published by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1758. The most general result of the Second Kamchatka Expedition was the development of geographic knowledge and establishment of geographic science in Russia. In respect of the Pacific Ocean and northwestern coast of America, the Second Kamchatka Expedition brought about the meeting of the Old and the New Worlds out of Asia. The strategic consequences of Bering’s voyage, as justly noted by the Canadian scholar Glynn Barratt, are felt to this day:  “Whatever foreign vessels might arrive in them in later years, seas between Kamchatka and America were understood to be under Russian influence. So they are today.”