This is the first edition of Philip Johan von Strahlenberg’s 1730 map of Russia and Siberia, a groundbreaking document of the Russian Empire at the end of the reign of Peter the Great. It is of particular importance in three key arenas:
- The mapping of Siberia and the Russian Arctic.
- Establishing expectations for the viability of a Northeast Passage.
- The pre-Bering mapping of the Bering Strait.
The map covers an area from 50° and 185° east longitude to 32° and 75° north latitude. It records Russian territories from Moscow to Japan and Kamchatka, including parts or all of adjacent northern China, Mongolia, Persia, India, Tibet, Japan, Korea, and Turkestan.
This example, the first edition on heavy thick paper, was a separate issue, as opposed to lesser examples that were folded into Strahlenberg’s book, Das Nord- und Ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia.
Although it was not particularly noted or influential in its time, its quality has long been acknowledged by cartographers and cartographic historians: in 1793, British cartographer James Rennell argued that Strahlenberg’s “ideas were too much slighted by some geographers who came after him.” Modern historians have similarly argued that the map’s value as a historical geography exceeds its recognition and influence. Bagrow (Imago Mundi) writes: “It is to be regretted that Strahlenberg’s map has so far not been studied to any large extent. After Remezov, it is the second most important source of historical geographical information about Siberia. Yet it did not have a great influence on maps of the following period and, in a way, stands apart.”
Philip Johan von Strahlenberg and the creation of a cartographic masterpiece
Philip Johan von Strahlenberg (1677 – 1747), an officer and noble in the Swedish army, was captured by the victorious Russians at the Battle of Poltava (in present-day Ukraine) in the year 1709, during the Great Northern War, in which, ultimately, Peter the Great’s Russia displaced Sweden as the leading power in northeastern Europe.
As a noble prisoner of war, he was sent Tobolsk in Siberia, where he took up the study of anthropology, languages, and customs that ultimately led to his 1730 book, Das Nord- und Ostliche Theil von Europa und Asia. It is speculated that this map had its inception as an aid to that anthropological and linguistic work, but whatever inspired it, the map has become recognized as a masterpiece.
For over a decade, from 1711 until 1722, after the end of the Great Northern War, Strahlenberg remained a Russian prisoner of war. He would ask military officers and travelers passing through Toblosk for information about lands they had passed through, as well as asking fellow prisoners for reports on the lands through which they traveled while on work details for the Russians. Strahlenberg himself was able to travel widely in the region.
Lacking training as a cartographic draftsman, Strahlenberg turned to fellow Swedish prisoner of war, Johan Anton Matérn, who assisted Strahlenberg in taking astronomical readings as they traveled together around Siberia.
In 1719, Peter the Great employed the German naturalist Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt to complete an exploratory trip throughout Siberia, and Strahlenberg was assigned to accompany him. The pair traveled extensively, taking coordinates, notes, and collecting data from Russian engineers and geographers sent out by the Russian cartographer Ivan Kirilov (1689 – 1737), who had been commissioned by the Tsar to compile a large survey of Russia and who published his own map of Russia in 1727. In addition, during his time in Toblosk, Strahlenberg became familiar with Semyon Ulyanovich Remezov (1642 – 1720) who worked as a tax collector, Imperial official, historian, and mapmaker in Siberia. These data, too, were incorporated into Strahlenberg’s seminal work.
In general, his Russian captors were supportive of Strahlenberg’s cartographic work, supplying him in 1715 with a copy of Nicolaas Witsen’s 1687 map. An exception was when, in 1717, the Russian Prince Matvey Petrovich Gagarin seized Strahlenberg’s cartographic materials. Nonetheless, Strahlenberg had a spare copy of his notes and was able to recreate the map. As for Gargarin, in 1721 he was hanged ‘for the abuse of authority and obstinate concealment of accomplice.’
On his return to Sweden in 1723, Strahlenberg continued work on his book and, with Matérn, on his map while seeking publication. The Swedish economy, however, had been ravaged by the long war and defeat. Eventually Strahlenberg came into contact with Philipp Jacob Frisch, a German lawyer, painter, and a map engraver. The relationship between Strahlenberg and Frisch is unclear: Frisch may have done the engraving for a fee or taken partial ownership of the work. Frisch completed the engraving on copper for publication in 1730.
Today, Strahlenberg’s influence is still felt in the common acceptance of the Ural mountains as the dividing line between Europe and Asia; it was Strahlenberg who proposed the idea, which Peter the Great approved before his death in 1725.
Lands real and fantastic: A very early map of Alaska?
In Strahlenberg’s time, European knowledge of northeast Asia and northwest America was still rather fragmentary. During Strahlenberg’s captivity, Vitus Bering’s journey to the straits that bear his name was yet to come. Yet Strahlenberg’s map represents the most up-to-date geographic knowledge of the region.
One feature of Strahlenberg’s map worthy of note for its place in cartographic history: Puchochotski Island, located on the upper right (northeast) corner of the map. There are few other maps that depict this island, all of them based on Russian sources that Strahlenberg may have received from Russian officials supportive of his work. One published map that shows this island—Johann Baptiste Hohmann’s 1725 map of Kamchatka—is thought to be based on an early Strahlenberg manuscript that he sent to the Moscow-based Swedish diplomat Josias Cederhielm (1673 – 1729) in 1719.
Strahlenberg may have known of the discoveries of Petr Popov, who was sent from Anadyrsk to the Chukchi Peninsula in 1711 to reconnoiter and negotiate with the Chukchi Tribes. Popov returned with indigenous reports of a large island one day’s voyage east of the Peninsula— indicating Chukchi knowledge of the Bering Strait and Alaska. If so, then this could be considered one of the earliest published maps to illustrate Alaska.