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1640 circa Willem Janszoon Blaeu

Blaeu’s Iconic Map of the Continent of Asia with Decorative Vignettes

Fine example of Blaeu's highly-stylized map of the continent of Asia, one of the most recognizable representations of the continent from the seventeenth century. The map is framed by ten pairs of people meant to personify Asian cultures. At top, nine Asian cities show the rich trading opportunity that Asia represented for Europeans. 

Blaeu’s geography was most up to date for its time, thanks in large part to his access to Dutch East India Company (VOC) charts, but a few features are still notable for their surprising appearances to the modern eye. Korea is shown as an island just barely unconnected to the Asian mainland, while Japan is oddly projected in a horizontal style that was typical to this period. The coast north of Korea is only roughly drawn, as it had not been surveyed in detail. To the south, large portions of the Borneo coastline and other parts of the islands in Southeast Asia are incomplete or highly inaccurate. 

Separating North America (“America Pars”) and Asia is the “Fretium Anian”, or the Strait of Anian. This was a representation of the much-hoped-for Northwest Passage, a still-undiscovered navigable water passage from Europe north to the Pacific. Anian derives from Ania, a Chinese province on a large gulf mentioned in Marco Polo’s travels (ch. 5, book 3). The gulf Polo described was actually the Gulf of Tonkin, but the province’s description was transposed from Vietnam to the northwest coast of North America. The first map to do so was Giacomo Gastaldi’s world map of 1562, followed by Zaltieri and Mercator in 1567. It appeared on maps until the mid-eighteenth century.

As if to underline the fanciful nature of unknown borders and wandering islands, the map includes many embellishments. Several ships patrol the waters, with two large ships locked in battle to the east of the Philippines. Another fires a broadside at a whale in the northeast of the map. West of Sumatra, a merman blows on a conch shell.

On land, a lion watches over the entire scene from the interior of eastern Africa. The Great Wall of China is drawn in detail, with a camel nearby. An elephant marches purposefully near the Chismay Lake, said to be the source of the Ganges. The title cartouche is placed within Europe; two archers hold up the cartouche’s frame, which proclaims that this is a newly delineated version of Asia.

The decorations within the map are amplified by the decorations bordering the map. The pairs of figures, which are meant to exemplify the dress and customs of an Asian culture, are representative of the highly decorative style of seventeenth century maps. The cultures shown here—Syrians, Arabs, Armenians, Persians, people from Balaghat (Deccan), Sumatrans, Javans, Moluccas and Banda islanders, Chinese, Mosovians, and Tartars—are a mixture of descriptions from voyage accounts and travelers’ tales, mixed with imaginative creativity.

The cities—Kandy, Calcutta, Goa, Damascus, Jerusalem, Hormuz, Bantam, Aden, and Macao—shown in ovals along the top of the map show major trade centers. Some, like Jerusalem, Damascus, and Aden, were in the Middle East. Others, like Macao and Goa, were at the center of the trade routes of China and India, where Europeans had been flocking for over a century to gain access to spices, porcelain, silks, and other luxury goods.

The Dutch in the East Indies

Although the map shows all of Asia, of especial importance are the islands of Southeast Asia: Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Celebes, the Moluccas, and others. The Moluccas were the vaunted Spice Islands, originally the only source in the world for nutmeg, mace, and cloves. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to gain power in the region, trading for spices in the Moluccas and controlling the spice market in Europe.

The Dutch wanted in on the lucrative trade, but they also had to contend with the Portuguese. The first Dutch expedition, led by Cornelis de Houtman in 1595, avoided India, the Strait of Malacca, and the Moluccas—Portuguese strongholds—in favor of the Sunda Strait. The Dutch set up their trade centers on the island of Java, at Bantam and, later, Batavia. After Houtman, the second Dutch expedition (1598-1600) quickly set sail for the East Indies. It was followed by five others; the Dutch merchants were eager to exploit the opportunity. In 1602, the most powerful of these merchants and the Dutch government, the States General, created the Dutch East India Company (VOC), a monopoly to control the East Indies trade.

The VOC employed an official hydrographer who provided their ships with charts. The VOC’s archive was a closely guarded secret, yet the official hydrographers were also private businessmen, which means that many details about Asia’s cartography slipped into more general use via the maps they sold. The first VOC hydrographer was Hessel Gerritsz. When he died, the title transferred to Willem Janszoon Blaeu, who made this map.

Blaeu first published this map, a reduced version of his great wall map of Asia (1608), in 1617. It was used from 1630 onward in Blaeu’s atlases and those of his son, Joan. It is a beautiful and highly sought-after map and would be an influential part of any collection of Asian cartography.

Korea as an island

The sequence of events and maps that led California to be portrayed as an island are much clearer than another famous peninsula-turned-island, Korea. Korea is briefly mentioned in the thirteenth century by Marco Polo as Cauli (Kauli), but otherwise Korea was not described again for European audiences until the late-sixteenth century.

As with Japan and China, most of the earliest bits of information about Korea came from the Jesuits sending letters sent back from East Asia. However, the Jesuits were not actually stationed in Korea; they could only glean impressions from Chinese and Japanese sources. For example, Father Luis Frois wrote of Korea in the context of a war with Japan in 1578. Frois explained that Korea was separated from Japan by a sliver of sea. It had previously been understood to be an island, he explained, but was now known to be a peninsula. However, why Korea was thought to be an island, by who, and how it was found to be a peninsula was not shared with Frois’ curious readers back in Europe.

The first known European to visit Korea was also a Jesuit, Father Gregorio des Cespedes. He accompanied Japanese troops during another war with Korea in 1592. The territory did not agree with Cespedes, who found it bitingly cold. He did not mention anything about the Korean peoples or their geography.

Travel writers, those who actually traveled and those who were more drawn to the armchair voyage, also wrote about Korea. Jan Huygen van Linschoten spent several years in Goa, India, where he had access to Spanish and Portuguese sources. In his Itinerario, first published in German and English in 1598, he suggests Korea is a large island called Core. Richard Hakluyt read the Jesuit letters, which were republished in sets of annual letters. In the second edition of his Principal Navigations (1599), Hakluyt included the information from Frois and Cespedes, scant as it was.

Given the relative dearth of source material, it is not surprising that early maps by Münster, Mercator and Ortelius omitted Korea entirely. The first map to show Korea was Orbis Terrarum Typus de Integro Multis in Locis Emendatus by Petrus Plancius (1594). It included “Corea” as a long, skinny peninsula barely attached to the northeast corner of China. Edward Wright, in the map accompanying Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, adopted a similar depiction of Korea, as did other mapmakers from the 1590s onward.

Interestingly, the map that accompanied Linschoten’s Itinerario, by Arnold Floris van Langren, shows Korea as a large, round island. However, no other mapmaker is known to have followed this example. Another early island depiction that was widely adopted was that of Luis Teixeira in the 1595 edition of Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. The long, thin island was used by several cartographers, including Jodocus Hondius, in the seventeenth century. Blaeu also used the Teixeira model before creating a new Korea in later maps that looked like a bat hanging from China, separated from the mainland by the thinnest of waterways.

Confusion over island vs. peninsula continued across seventeenth-century maps. For example, John Speed includes three separate versions of Korea across four maps in his A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World (1626). It is shown on the Teixeira island model, as a thin peninsula, and as a blunt island. These various hypotheses as to the shape of Korea continued to coexist for decades.

Finally, in the 1650s, Father Martino Martini gathered more information and created a new map of Korea. In China from 1642 to 1651, Martini spent a good deal of time with Chinese maps and their makers. Thus, he created new maps showing Korea as a thicker, nearly rectangular peninsula in Bellum Tartaricum (1654) and the Atlas Sinensis (1655).

Also in the 1650s, a Dutch sailor named Hendrick Hamel was shipwrecked on Jeju, an island near southern Korea. Hamel and his fellow survivors would spend thirteen years in Korea, escaping to Nagasaki in 1666. He wrote about the ordeal in a journal that was published in 1668. Although it lacked maps, the ample descriptions confirmed that Korea gave a detailed, first-hand view of Korean geography and culture.

Nevertheless, several maps were published in the early eighteenth-century showing Korea as an island. The island myth, which most likely stemmed from a misreading of Japanese and Chinese maps by early Jesuits, proved to be quite entrenched. Only in 1735 did Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville produce a map with a roughly accurate outline of the peninsula and a relatively detailed interior.

Van der Krogt and de Groot, The Atlas Blaeu-van der Hem of the Austrian National Library, vol. V (2005), 440.
Willem Janszoon Blaeu Biography

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.