Famous cartographic errors – mistakes on old antique maps and why they happened

Some of the most fascinating and sought after old maps are those which contain infamous cartographic errors. We highlight below twenty maps containing some of the best known mistakes. These include California shown as an island, the Mountains of Kong in West Africa, a vast inland sea in the American West, Terra Australis – a giant southern continent, the legendary city of El Dorado and mythical island of Atlantis, The Niger river flowing the wrong way, Indochina’s Lake Chiamay, the phantom islands of Lake Superior and in the South Atlantic, Lake Apalachy in the Carolinas, and the source of the Nile wrongly identified.

Many of these errors have fascinating stories behind them – for example the “discoveries” of the fictitious Admiral Fonte – invented by a London publisher – which found their way onto a number of important maps. In earlier centuries, mistakes arose from inaccurate surveying, speculative hypothesis, or misinterpretation of the accounts of explorers. Features were mislocated (and hence marked in more than one place) or exaggerated in size. Temporary features (such as clouds or floating pumice) were mistaken for more permanent landmass. Legends or invented features were believed and perpetuated as fact by the credulous.

Some errors are deliberate: In the age of discovery, explorers seeking funds for their next adventure had an incentive to “discover” islands which they could name in honour of their benefactors. More recently, modern London A-Z street guides supposedly include “trap streets” – non-existent features or slight misrepresentations designed to catch copyright violators. Map publishers have always sought to have the latest and most accurate maps available.; sometimes this resulted in jumping the gun by anticipating changes or developments which did not subsequently materialise.

Some long-established mapping errors persist today: Sandy Island, New Caledonia – which had been featured on maps for 100 years – was “undiscovered” by a survey ship in 2012.

Click the links above or below to see what we have in stock, and to view these maps. Some of them are scarce, and some may no longer be available for purchase; we have included them for their interest value. Enjoy!

WEST AFRICA with non-existent Mountains of Kong. TALLIS/RAPKIN 1851 map

Marked on the map are the Mountains of Kong, a non-existent range charted on many 19th century English maps of Africa. This error, which originated in a 1798 map by English cartographer James Rennell, persisted for 90 years. The mountains were thought to begin in Guinea, then continue east to the also fictitious Central African Mountains of the Moon. French explorer Louis Gustave Binger established that the mountains were fictitious in his 1887-1889 expedition to chart the Niger River.


Perhaps the most famous cartographic error in history, it was a long-held misconception that California was a large island separated from continental North America. First mentioned as an island in 1510, this was disproved by de Ulloa’s expedition in 1539 and many subsequent 16th century maps correctly showed Baja California as a peninsula. However, the depiction as an island was revived in the 17th century, possibly due to overinterpretation of the 1592 discovery of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Virginia Marylandia et Carolina’ showing non-existent Lake Apalachy. HOMANN, c1720 map

The map shows a large non-existent lake “Apalache Lacus” within the Carolinas. This error originated in 1606 when the Dutch cartographer Hondius mistakenly added it to his map of the America south east, an error copied by later cartographers. In 1669, the explorer John Lederer even claimed to have visited the lake, reporting the water to be “brackish”. He named it Lake Ushery, though it came to be known as Lake Apalachy. Lakes Moultrie & Marion, in a similar location, were created in the 1940’s.

INDOCHINA/BENGAL RIVERS showing the mythical Lake Chiamay. 1683 map

The map shows the mythical Lake Chiamay, once believed to be the source of the 5 great river systems of Southeast Asia (the Dharla, the Irrawaddy, the Mekong, the Chao Phraya & the Bramaputra).

NORTH PACIFIC with non-existent North American inland sea, northwest passage & Pacific landmass. DE LISLE 1750 map

This landmark map includes several famous cartographic errors. The inland “Sea or Bay of the West” occupies a vast part of the American west, opening into the Pacific – likely a gross misinterpretation of de Fuca’s report of the Strait of Georgia. The “discoveries” of the fictitious Admiral Fonte along the Pacific North West Coast are marked, as is the southern coastline of a supposed large landmass east of Kamchatka, discovered by Delisle & Chirikov in 1741, in fact the Aleutian islands.

ANTARCTIC. Terra Australis. Australia/New Holland incomplete. MALLET, 1683 map

Terra Australis – shown on this map with a northern coastline running most of the distance between Perth, Western Australia and Cape Horn – was a hypothetical continent first posited in Antiquity which appeared on maps from the 15th to the 18th centuries. It was not based on any actual surveying, but rather based on the hypothesis that continents in the Northern Hemisphere must be balanced by a similar area of land in the Southern Hemisphere.

SOUTH CENTRAL AFRICA. Shows Zambesi river as circular! WELLER, 1862 old map

The map shows early colonial Africa, at at time when western explorers and cartographers were still struggling to comprehend the network of African rivers. The Zambesi river has not been fully charted; some parts appear to have been assumed, being indicated by a dotted line, which suggest that the course of the river was circular! Most of the Congo river is uncharted.

Non-existent TERRE DE QUIR incorporating the Solomon Islands & New Zealand. MALLET, 1683 map

Many early cartographers of the southern hemisphere believed that there was a great southern continent “Terra Australis”, thought to extend significantly further north than the actual landmass of Antarctica. One proponent of this theory was Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quir. His claim to have discovered this southern continent was recognised on some maps as “Terre de Quir” or similar, a landmass which this map suggests incorporates both the Solomon Islands and New Zealand.

GREAT LAKES including phantom islands in Lake Superior. BELLIN. 1745 map

This map of the Great Lakes includes two phantom islands in Lake Superior: Isles Phelipeaux and Pontchartrain. This “error” is thought to have been intentional; the islands were named in honour of Louis Phélypeaux, Comte de Pontchartrain, possibly to curry his favour, as he was a government minister influential in allocating funds for voyages of exploration.

ABYSSINIA. Incorrectly claims Lake Tana to be the primary source of the Nile. MALLET, 1683 map

The map claims the source of the Nile as Lake Tana (named as “Bed Lac”), in what is now Ethiopia. This is in fact close to the source of the Blue Nile. At the time, the longer White Nile was little understood, and the true primary source of the Nile was not identified and finally confirmed as being close to Lake Victoria until 1858 by Stanley

Maps showing phantom (ie non-existent) islands, such as the Jardines, St Matthew's & Mayda islands

Numerous old maps include "phantom" islands - these are purported islands which were shown on maps for a period of time, but were later found not to exist. They usually originated from the reports of early sailors exploring new regions, and are commonly the result of navigational errors, mistaken observations, unverified misinformation, or deliberate fabrication - stemming perhaps from the desire of ship's captains to have their name - or perhaps that of the patron of their voyage - associated with a discovery. Some remained on maps for centuries before being "un-discovered". Even at the time of publication, cartographers sometimes indicated doubt as to their existence by referring to them as "supposed islands"

NORTH & WEST AFRICA. Niger river flowing west! ‘Zaara ou le Desert’. MALLET, 1683 map

Western explorers and cartographers struggled for centuries to understand Africa’s complicated river systems. The Niger river is shown (incorrectly) rising in Lake Chad and flowing west to the sea at Cape Verde. In fact it flows in the opposite direction: its source is in the Guinea Highlands in southeastern Guinea. It runs in a crescent through Mali, Niger, on the border with Benin and then through Nigeria, where it discharges into the Gulf of Guinea.

AMAZONIA.Showing “El Dorado?”, missions & tribes. Brazil Ecuador.SDUK, 1844 map

The legend of the mythical lost city of Eldorado, abudant with gold and sought since the advent of the Spanish Conquistadores, underwent several transformations through the centuries. Even as late as the mid-19th century, this map speculates on its whereabouts, indicating “a knot of low mountains here according to Humboldt, called Sierra Tunuhy supposed to abound in mineral riches, El Dorado?”. Humboldt had disproved its location next to the equally mythical Lake Parime in 1799-1803.

Ancient Mauritania & hypothesised location of Atlantis. Bourguignat.1885 old map

A later rendition of a map by Bourguinat, it intriguingly includes the hypothesised location of the legendary island of Atlantis, situated in the Atlantic Ocean. The fact that Atlantis was originally fictionalised by Plato as an island which had sunk beneath the sea 9,000 years earlier did not stop later writers believing it to be real, leading to numerous hypotheses as to its location.

CARPENTARIA/NEW GUINEA shown joined. No Torres Strait. Cape York. MALLET, 1683 map

Although this early map by Alain Mallet is somewhat ambiguous, it omits the Torres Strait and suggests that New Guinea is physically joined to Cape York, northern Queensland

‘Découvertes de l’Amiral de Fonte et autres..’ North Pacific. DE LISLE 1752 map

This map includes a number of famous cartographic errors, including the supposed “discoveries” in the North Pacific Ocean of the fictitious Admiral Fonte (whose expeditions, invented by a London-based publisher, were accepted as fact by a credulous audience wanting evidence of a north west passage). Also shown are a non-existent inland sea occupying a vast part of the American west, and a supposed landmass east of Kamchatka “discovered” by Delisle/Chirikov in 1741 – in fact the Aleutian islands

Krakatoa & neighbouring islets before the eruption. Indonesia, 1885 old map

Not strictly a cartographic error, but instead a map rendered wildly inaccurate by the force of nature, this map shows Krakatoa before its cataclysmic 1883 eruption.

OXHEY, LONDON street map prematurely showing planned developments that were never built, 1937 map

An occasional error on 20th century maps is for the cartographer to prematurely anticipate planned development. This map shows a planned suburban layout south of Watford, England in 1937, however much of this was never constructed, and the area subsequently built upon was developed with a different street layout from that shown.


Lake Tanganyika, according to Livingstone & others. Africa, 1885 antique map

Another example of the difficulty experienced by Europeans in mapping the waterways of Africa, this time even by the great explorer David Livingstone. The map overlays his surveying of Lake Tanganyika with that of later (more accurate) travellers. It was on the shore of the lake (although apparently some distance from where Livingstone thought he was located) in 1871 that Stanley famously greeted the explorer with the quotation. “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

AUSTRALIA. Shows Northern Territory as ‘Alexandra Land’, part of SA. 1876 old map

Perhaps more fairly described as a piece of premature naming rather than a cartographic error, the explorer John McDouall Stuart proposed the name “Alexandra Land” for the hitherto unexplored northern part of the Australian state of South Australia, however the name was never officially adopted. When it was separated from South Australia in 1911, it took the name “Northern Territory”. In 1912, alternatives were considered (including “Kingsland”, “Centralia” and “Territoria”) – but the name change never went ahead.