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The search for a navigable route through northern latitudes occupied Europe's imagination for more than three centuries. Beginning with the voyages of Martin Frobisher in 1576, and John Davis in 1585, British expeditions systematically probed and plotted their way through the icy Arctic in search of a passage to the riches of Cathay (now China). It was widely believed that a Northwest Passage to Asia would circumvent the much longer route around South America -- a route controlled by Spain and Portugal -- and would bring instant fame and fortune to those who discovered it.
As recorded in these three maps, the pursuit of a passage across the top of the world slowly uncovered many of the Arctic's hidden secrets. Beautiful and detailed, the maps are a vivid record of accomplishment by countless individuals.
The quest for the fabled Northwest Passage left an incredible assortment of documentary heritage that Library and Archives Canada has been actively collecting for more than 130 years. The legacy includes thousands of books, periodicals, newspapers, microfilms and government publications; works of art; photography; maps, architectural drawings and engineering plans; an outstanding collection of film, video, and sound recordings; as well as music, stamps, editorial cartoons, posters and pamphlets. This national treasure is the world's single largest description of our Arctic Archipelago.
Many of these items -- those in the public domain -- have been digitized for online consultation and more will follow in the future. Library and Archives Canada also offers specialized guides to published primary sources on the search for the Northwest Passage in the 19th century and on the search for Sir John Franklin after his expedition disappeared in the late 1840s.
This map by Flemish cartographer Mercator was among the first to indicate an all-water route across the top of North America. The North Pole is shown as a massive magnetic rock surrounded by four islands. The waters between the islands were thought to flow northward and into the centre of the Earth.
Dutch map-maker Frederick de Wit incorporated knowledge from the explorations of the time and removed Mercator's speculative North Pole. Large areas remain blank, but the Arctic shorelines have taken on a more familiar look, especially around Greenland and Hudson Bay. Scenes from the whaling industry surround the map.
By this time, most of the Arctic coastline was well defined and areas of known sea ice were depicted (light blue), but the "Unexplored Polar Region" remained blank (white). Recognizing the impossibility of using the Northwest Passage as a shipping route, the British government transferred sovereignty over the Arctic islands to Canada on July 31, 1880.