Fine Map of the Guinea Coast
Detailed map of Guinea, showing the length of a coast important to African-European trade, including the slave trade.
The map shows the African coast from Sierra Leone in West Africa to Biafara. As with all European maps of Africa of the mid-seventeenth century, the coastline is much more detailed than the interior, reflecting the state of geographic knowledge about the continent.
Many mountain chains run through the center of the various kingdoms, while settlements are marked with small building symbols that increase in size according to the city’s population or fame. The main geographic feature is the large river running parallel to the top border, the Niger. An inscription near the river explains its dark color and lifegiving qualities in a dry region, like the Nile farther east.
As on Blaeu’s map of the entire continent, seen here, animals roam freely over the interior. Two crocodiles prowl near the Niger, while lions range farther south. Small herds of elephants are in the southwest and southeast, while monkeys explore Guinea. At sea, two compass roses radiate rhumb lines and five ships sail the waters. In the bottom right, two young cherubs carry an elephant tusk aloft.
The apes of Dr Tulp
The more distinctive decorative elements of the map also carry the most interesting story. A coat of arms and a dedicatory cartouche in the lower left explain that the map is dedicated to Dr. Nicholas Tulp (1593-1674), a member of the Amsterdam government and a celebrated anatomist. The dedication is not meant as a hollow compliment, but as an ode to one of the most famous doctors of the seventeenth century. Tulp is the same doctor seen in Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson (1632). In the painting, Tulp is surrounded by his colleagues who are eagerly watching as Tulp demonstrates the inner workings of a man’s forearm.
Rembrandt’s choice of an arm for the dissection is apt, as Tulp was particularly famous for his work on the anatomy of the arm. Specifically, Tulp had previously dissected the arm of an ape and found that its anatomy was almost the same as a human arm. The specimen was originally from Angola, just to the south of the area shown on this map. Tulp’s notes of the dissection are the earliest accurate description of an ape by a European, although specialists now believe he dissected a bonobo, not a chimpanzee as originally thought.
As a further reference to Dr. Tulp, detailed illustrations of three apes sit atop and on the sides of the title cartouche. The central ape is flanked by two African figures, a man holding beads and a spear, and a woman with beads and a parrot. These items and, sadly, the humans, represent the wealth available in the region depicted and also reflect the prevalence of the appalling slave trade then still in existence.
The maps were included in Blaeu atlases from 1635. Later, they became an important part of the famous Atlas Maior, the most beautiful atlas ever made and then the most expensive books ever produced. The maps of Africa made up roughly one half of volume 9 of the Atlas, sharing space with Spain and Portugal.
This is an exquisitely detailed map that tells an important chapter of the history of African-European exchange. As Blaeu’s maps were the most influential of the seventeenth century, it would have been an important map in its time and still is today.
Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571-1638) was a prominent Dutch geographer and publisher. Born the son of a herring merchant, Blaeu chose not fish but mathematics and astronomy for his focus. He studied with the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, with whom he honed his instrument and globe making skills. Blaeu set up shop in Amsterdam, where he sold instruments and globes, published maps, and edited the works of intellectuals like Descartes and Hugo Grotius. In 1635, he released his atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, sive, Atlas novus.
Willem died in 1638. He had two sons, Cornelis (1610-1648) and Joan (1596-1673). Joan trained as a lawyer, but joined his father’s business rather than practice. After his father’s death, the brothers took over their father’s shop and Joan took on his work as hydrographer to the Dutch East India Company. Later in life, Joan would modify and greatly expand his father’s Atlas novus, eventually releasing his masterpiece, the Atlas maior, between 1662 and 1672.