The Age of De Fer: Maps, Knowledge, and the Western World View, 1680-1720

Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Philosophy (School of Arts and Sciences)

Schools and Centres

Arts & Sciences

First Supervisor

Dr Karen McCluskey

Second Supervisor

Professor Deborah Gare


This thesis determines the degree to which cartographic tools and maps such as Nicolas de Fer’s Carte de la Mer du Sud et de la Mer du Nord (Paris, 1713) might be considered ‘weapons’ of empire and examples of eighteenth-century ‘plundering’ of the Pacific. It analyses the connection between knowledge, power, empire and identity in the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’ by examining the map created by de Fer in the early years of the Scientific Revolution and the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. Carte de la Mer du Sud et de la Mer du Nord is an encyclopaedic, visual representation of western understandings of the world. The map and its accompanying pamphlet are evidence that scientific and cultural knowledge was exchanged widely across western Europe, despite the imperial competition for territory and trade between its nations. The cartographer, de Fer, was a renowned geographer and granted the title géographe du roi (geographer of the king) during Louis XIV’s reign. His magnificent baroque-style creation was likely designed as a prized wall map for the Sun King to display at Versailles during France’s glory days.

This research was possible thanks to privileged access to an original version of de Fer’s map held in the Kerry Stokes Collection in Perth, and a detailed analysis of a highresolution digital copy of the map and an accompanying pamphlet provided by Harvard University. The thesis tests whether de Fer’s map represents an early ‘codification’ of knowledge that facilitated European eighteenth-century imperialism of the Pacific region. I will argue that de Fer selectively used existing European scientific, geographic, and cultural knowledge and place names imposed on the South Pacific by explorers and imperial cartographers to suggest that the elusive Great South Land was unoccupied and available for plunder. Using critical visual methodology and post-structural concepts for analysing maps, this project reconsiders the context, meanings, and implications of de Fer’s Carte de la Mer du Sud et de la Mer du Nord to clarify its agency in inspiring or facilitating the plunder of the Pacific. Together with an examination of eighteenth and nineteenth-century French and British maps following the invasion of Australia, and visual images created by twenty-first century First Nations peoples to recontextualise the process of colonisation, the thesis demonstrates that early eighteenth-century maps functioned as scientific objects and symbols of power and were essential tools for empire-building.

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