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Fine Map of Asia from Mercator’s Famous Atlas

Mercator's map of Asia showing the continent in detail and offering a fascinating cartographic snapshot of late-sixteenth century geographic thought.

The centrality of the continent is emphasized in the map’s composition; parts of Europe, Africa, North America, and Australia are all featured. There are also two islands near the North Pole, part of Mercator’s four-island Arctic theory.

Asia itself is thickly blanketed with towns and cities, rivers, mountains, and political entities. Perhaps one of the most interesting details is an absence; Korea is not included here, a reflection of how little was known of the region by Europeans.

Southeast Asia highlights the spice islands, especially the Moluccas, and the rich trade opportunities so valued by Europeans. Farther south, two peninsulas of Terrae Australis Pars loom near the frame of the map. New Guinea is depicted as a large island to the east, incomplete in its outline.

In America there are several place names. Anian is a transfer of a toponym first mentioned by Marco Polo; the nearby Strait of Anian was thought to separate Asia and America. Another place name, Quivira refers to the Seven Cities of Gold sought by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541. In 1539, Coronado wandered over what today is Arizona and New Mexico, eventually heading to what is now Kansas to find the supposedly rich city of Quivira. Although he never found the cities or the gold, the name stuck on maps of southwest North America, wandering from east to west.

The curved projection also features a handsome strapwork cartouche and a large sailing ship.

The map is based on Mercator's celebrated world map of 1569 and was included in his atlas, which debuted in 1595. The map was later updated when the plates were acquired by Jodocus Hondius in 1606. Most notably, he added Korea as an island.

Taprobana and Sumatra

Sumatra is also labeled as Taprobana. Taprobana was what the Greeks called Sri Lanka, but late-medieval and early modern geographers also applied the toponym to Sumatra and various phantom islands that wandered the Indian Ocean. Some of the confusion stemmed from the caginess of merchants with the location of many islands. Sri Lanka and Sumatra, for example, were both rich in resources, especially spices, and those who had access to these resources were loath to share the bounty.

There were also many rumors about the island in Europe. The author of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville said that Taprobana was part of the kingdom of Prester John, as well as that the island had mountains of gold guarded by man-eating ants. He went on to explain that the island was the home of the Sciapodes, or men with only one large foot, a detail he borrowed from Greek sources.

By the mid- and late-sixteenth century, however, when this map was published, Sumatra was in frequent contact with European traders. The Portuguese were the first to arrive, in 1512, followed by the Dutch and the English at the turn of the century. The Dutch managed to convince the English to give up their claims in treaties in 1824 and 1871. While resistance was a constant, especially in Aceh, the Dutch only left the island after WWII.

Strait of Anian

This strait, believed to separate northwestern America from northeastern Asia, was related to the centuries-long quest to find a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The rumor of this strait and a Northwest Passage in general inspired many voyages of discovery, including those of John Cabot, Sir Francis Drake, Gaspar Corte-Real, Jacques Cartier, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

The term Anian itself comes from Marco Polo’s thirteenth-century accounts of his travels. Polo used the term to refer to the Gulf of Tonkin, but cartographers thought it could refer to this supposed strait between Asia and North America. The Strait of Anian, so named, first appeared in a 1562 map by Giacomo Gastaldi, and was later adopted by Bolognini Zaltieri and Gerard Mercator.

The Mercator-Hondius Atlas

One of Hondius’ most successful commercial ventures was the reprinting of Mercator’s atlas. Gerard Mercator died in 1594 without having completed his most ambitious project, an atlas of the entire world. His son and grandsons completed the work and released its final volume in 1595.

The younger Mercators released another edition in 1602, but they then sold the plates to Jodocus Hondius the Elder in 1604. Hondius published his first edition in 1606; there were roughly fifty editions in various European languages in the seventeenth century.

Hondius died in 1612, at only 48 years of age, after which time his son of the same name and his other son, Henricus, took over the business, including the reissuing of the Mercator atlas. After 1633, Hondius the Elder’s son-in-law, Johannes Janssonius, was also listed as a co-publisher for the atlas.

Condition Description
Old Color. Minor toning and foxing, primarily in the blank margins.
Gerard Mercator Biography

Gerard Mercator is one of the most famous cartographers of all time. Mercator was born in Flanders and educated at the Catholic University in Leuven. After his graduation in 1532, Mercator worked with Gemma Frisius, a prominent mathematician, and Gaspar a Myrica, a goldsmith and engraver. Together, these men produced globes and scientific instruments, allowing Mercator to hone his skills.

With his wife, Barbara, Mercator had six children: Arnold, Emerentia, Dorothes, Bartholomeus, Rumold, and Catharina.  In 1552, Mercator moved to Duisburg from Leuven, where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1564, he was appointed the official cosmographer to the court of Duke Wilhelm of Cleve.

Mercator’s most important contribution was the creation and popularization of a projection which now bears his name. On Mercator projection maps, all parallels and meridians are drawn at right angles to each other, with the distance between the parallels extending towards the poles. This allowed for accurate latitude and longitude calculation and also allowed navigational routes to be drawn using straight lines, a huge advantage for sailors as this allowed them to plot courses without constant recourse to adjusting compass readings.

Mercator’s other enduring contribution to cartography is the term “atlas”, which was first used to describe his collection of maps gathered in one volume. The Mercator atlas was published in 1595, a year after Mercator’s death, thanks to the work of his sons, particularly Rumold, and his grandsons.