The pre-GPS Caribbean: Mapping the Florida-Cuba connection at the Tampa Bay History Center

The new exhibit, part of what will be the largest cartographic center in the southeast, focuses on Florida and Cuba — and their intertwined pasts.

Gateways to the Caribbean: Mapping the Florida-Cuba Connection

Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Old Water St., Tampa.

Through Jan. 28.

$8.95-$12.95; members free.

813-228-0097. tampabayhistorycenter.org. Read more about the event on Local, our online events calendar.

click to enlarge SEVEN YEARS WOE: During the Seven Year War (aka the French-Indian War), the trading routes in the Caribbean were so valued the British attacked — and captured — Havana - Tampa Bay History Center
Tampa Bay History Center
SEVEN YEARS WOE: During the Seven Year War (aka the French-Indian War), the trading routes in the Caribbean were so valued the British attacked — and captured — Havana

Years ago, I did a research project about Clam Bayou, a tidal estuary between St. Pete and Gulfport. Down one of the many rabbit holes that project took me, I stumbled upon an 1879 nautical chart for Boca Ciega Bay. Earlier ones, I learned, remained in Cuba, because that's where the Spaniards stored their Florida stuff before they threw their hands up at General Andrew Jackson's shenanigans and abandoned the idea of a Spanish colony in mainland North America.

Ever since then, maps, nautical charts and navigation-related ephemera have charmed me, so when the Tampa Bay History Center announced its Gateways to the Caribbean: Mapping the Florida-Cuba Connection, I jumped at the chance to visit. While the rest of my coworkers concentrated on present-day Cuba for this week's issue, I found myself transported back in time, to a long-forgotten land.

The maps, charts and ephemera in this exhibit date back to 1513, starting with Tabula Terre Nova, created by Martin Waldseemüller which, according to TBHC's curator of history Rodney Kite-Powell, "may or may not show Florida." Upon closer inspection, you can see Cuba — then called Isabella — and a large land mass of "Terra Incognita" that's clearly South America. Africa's there, too — as are Spain and England.

As for Florida, it's probably there, but it doesn't really look like Florida. Why is that? Well, the map dates to 1513 — the same year Ponce de Leon began exploring Florida — but this map isn't from him; Martin Waldseemüller created it based on what Christopher Columbus told him. And Columbus? Not exactly an honest dude.

"Columbus made his men lie," says Kite-Powell. "They had to invent this land mass."

True story: Spain paid Columbus to find a shorter trade route to India, and Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean, not mainland North America. He made it to Cuba on a subsequent voyage, sailing around the island before returning home. And Columbus didn't want to hear "Dammit, Chris, you had one job!" from the Queen. Instead?

"He said, 'OK guys, when we get back, tell everybody we found a land mass," Kite-Powell says. Which is why our earliest maps of Florida look... well, a little like we thought the edge of Asia might.

click to enlarge Having trouble understanding this? That's because the important part was the water, not the land, so that's what was emphasized. - Martin Waldseemüller/Public domain
Martin Waldseemüller/Public domain
Having trouble understanding this? That's because the important part was the water, not the land, so that's what was emphasized.

While wandering amidst the maps and charts, two things become apparent: You rarely see maps of Cuba without Florida (and vice versa), and Florida and the Caribbean look different on almost every map. In some, like the Theodor de Bry version of the Jacques LeMoyne de Morgues, Florida has a blunt bottom.

Makes sense, because no one in their right mind would consider the Everglades land in the 16th century. The de Bry map, like the LeMoyne he based it on, does have some fanciful retelling, calling to mind the medieval map marking ""HC SVNT DRACONES" — literally, "here be dragons," a marking common in unexplored territories.

click to enlarge HERE BE DRAGONS: Setting the precedent for weird Florida as early as medieval times. - Theodor de Bry/Public domain
Theodor de Bry/Public domain
HERE BE DRAGONS: Setting the precedent for weird Florida as early as medieval times.

Of course, we know today no dragons exist in Florida — at least not the ilk suggested by maps and plates from medieval explorers (some of LeMoyne's other work, not on exhibit, includes an alligator as long as 10 men). But these early maps date to a time when people weren't popping over for a beach vacay, so the explorers who created these maps were prone to over-dramatize.

And the maps, too, are more accurate in the areas where the explorers spent more time. A 1768 map of East Florida dedicated to the First Earl of Hillsborough, Wills Hill (and the person for whom Hillsborough county was named), shows Tampa Bay decidedly south of, well, Tampa Bay. It also shows a spattering of mountains along the Lake Wales Ridge (think US 27).

"It's one of the last maps that shows this mountain range in Florida," Kite-Powell says. (The highest elevation along the ridge is 312 feet.)

More than these amusing errors, though, this exhibit — much of which is on loan from the Tom and Lee Touchton collection — shows one important thing: how Cuba and Florida are linked in their roles as the "gateway to mainland North America," as Kite-Powell calls it.

Many Americans think of North America as a product of the Jamestown colony, but, as the late historian Michael Gannon wrote, "By the time Jamestown was founded in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.”

These maps, more than any tome of history could ever do, illustrate the vital role Cuba and, later, Florida played in the founding of America.

Many of these maps will become part of the new Touchton Map Library/Florida Collection for Cartographic Education, which will be the only cartographic center in the southeast, opening by the end of 2017.

Cathy Salustri is the Arts & Entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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