The World Described by Herman Moll, 1708‒20


This set of maps entitled The World Described was the most important folio atlas of its day. It was produced by the German-born Herman Moll (1654?–1732), who became the most famous cartographer in early 18th-century Britain. The maps were printed separately between 1708 and 1720, and then collected in different editions from 1715 to 1754. Customers paid an extra shilling for a hand-coloured copy, like this one from 1730.

The world atlas represents Britain as a strong colonial power with wide-reaching commercial interests. The intricate illustrations and unusual personal notes showcase Moll’s skill as an engraver. But they also reveal his racial prejudices and show Britain’s central role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Maps of Africa and America

The map of Africa shows the western coastal region – here archaically termed ‘Negroland’ and ‘Guinea’. The coastline has been divided into zones labelled ‘Grain’, ‘Ivory’, ‘Gold’ and ‘Slave Coast’, illustrating how Europeans exploited these regions for trade and classified enslaved Africans as commodities. In 1730, the year this copy of the map was produced, it is estimated that Britain enslaved and transported over 31,000 Africans[1] to the Americas where the majority were forced to work on plantations, to meet European demand for crops such as sugar.

Moll’s famous map of British territory in North America is known as the ‘Beaver Map’ because of its illustration of industrious dam-building beavers.

On his map of South America, Moll marks the ‘Island of Juan Fernándo’ (also known as Más a Tierra, and now called Robinson Crusoe Island), the place where Alexander Selkirk lived alone for four years. Selkirk’s experience is thought to have inspired Robinson Crusoe.

The map depicting the ‘Limits of the South Sea Company’ promotes the venture that was set up in 1711, with the aim of securing Britain a monopoly on trade with South America, including exclusive rights to the trade in enslaved Africans. The Company was supported by Daniel Defoe’s patron Robert Harley, but it ultimately led to the South Sea Bubble scandal of 1720, when a trading frenzy and fall in share prices caused the worst economic crisis of the 18th century.

Herman Moll, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift

Moll was part of an elite circle including the writer Daniel Defoe and buccaneers William Dampier and Woodes Rogers. Together, their publications helped shape the enticing image of the treasure-filled South Seas.

Moll used the buccaneers’ sea knowledge to update his maps and pocket globes, while the sailors commissioned Moll to illustrate their narratives. Moll also designed the map depicting Robinson Crusoe’s voyage (fourth edition, 1719).

Ironically, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) includes pirated maps from Moll’s The World Described with the added locations of the fantastical lands described by Gulliver.

[1] ‘Estimates’, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database <> [accessed June 2018].

Full title:
The World describ'd; or, a new and correct set of maps, by H. Moll
1708-1720 (1730), London
Herman Moll (cartographer)
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Maps C.46.f.12.

Full catalogue details

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