Imagining the Boundaries of Asia
Fine example of De Wit’s map of Asia.
When this map was published, the Dutch and English East India Companies had been trading in southern Asia for eighty years, while the Portuguese and European missionaries had been establishing entrepots in the area for a century. Their interactions built on centuries more of interaction across the Silk Road, adding to Europe’s interest in and knowledge of the world’s largest continent.
The map covers a vast landmass, from Bulgaria and the Black Sea to Japan, and sweeping south to the Maldives and Maritime Southeast Asia.
Much of the continent is familiarly shaped, but certain corners are intriguing. Northeast Russia is rounded, suggesting a Northeast Passage through Arctic waters. The vague outline of a large island, Yedso, is traced north of Japan. This island, a mis-portrayal of Hokkaido, was part of a series of fanciful lands that stretched across the North Pacific on early modern European maps (see below).
In the southeast, a large strait seems to separate New Holland (Australia) from Java, Timor, and Papua New Guinea. This would a bold cartographic statement, as many contemporary mapmakers opted instead to suggest that Carpentaria, part of New Holland, and the islands of Southeast Asia were connected or separated by only the narrowest of passages. The Spanish knew there to be a strait between the lands, as Torres, a Spanish captain, had sailed through it in the early seventeenth century. However, the Spanish suppressed this information; it was only uncovered by Alexander Dalrymple following the British seizure of Spanish Manila in 1762.
An examination of De Wit’s world maps, made around the same time as this map, reveals this supposed strait to be something of an illusion. The eastern neat line cuts off Carpentaria, which elsewhere De Wit has nearly touch Papua New Guinea. All that is seen here of Australia is Arnhems land. This refers to the Arnhem, a Dutch East India ship, which sighted the area in 1623.
There is much detail inland, including towns and natural features. Some of these are quite distinct, including the Great Wall of China with a forbidding desert nearby. In what is today Bangladesh and northeastern India, there is a large lake called Chiamay, which, like Yedso, has mythical connotations (see below). Finally, there are also important political entities included here, such as the Mughal Empire (see below).
The seas have several ships in them, including Chinese junks and European sailing vessels. These decorative elements are accompanied by a large, ornate title cartouche in the lower left corner. At the center of the vignette is a turbaned man in rich clothes. Before him is a man offering him strings of pearls; around them are others unloading bales of trade goods while a camel, monkey, and parakeets look on. The cartouche shows some of the common associations that European made with Asia: trade, luxury, and exotic animals.
The etymology of the idiom Yesso (Eso, Yeco, Jesso, Yedso) is most likely the Japanese Ezo-chi; a term used for the lands north of the island of Honshu. During the Edō period (1600-1886), it came to represent the ‘foreigners’ on the Kuril and Sakhalin islands. As European traders came into contact with the Japanese in the seventeenth century, the term was transferred onto European maps, where it was often associated with the island of Hokkaido. It varies on maps from a small island to a near-continent sized mass that stretches from Asia to Alaska.
The toponym held interest for Europeans because the island was supposedly tied to mythic riches. Father Francis Xavier (1506-1552), an early Jesuit missionary to Japan and China, related stories that immense silver mines were to be found on a secluded Japanese island; these stories were echoed in Spanish reports. The rumors became so tenacious and tantalizing that Abraham Ortelius included an island of silver north of Japan on his 1589 map of the Pacific.
Yesso is often tied to two other mythical North Pacific lands, Gamaland and Compagnies Land. Juan de Gama, the grandson of Vasco de Gama, was a Portuguese navigator who was accused of illegal trading with the Spanish in the East Indies. Gama fled and sailed from Macau to Japan in the later sixteenth century. He then struck out east, across the Pacific, and supposedly saw lands in the North Pacific. These lands were initially shown as small islands on Portuguese charts, but ballooned into a continent-sized landmass in later representations.
Several voyagers sought out these chimerical islands, including the Dutchmen Matthijs Hendrickszoon Quast in 1639 and Maarten Gerritszoon Vries in 1643. Compagnies Land, often shown along with Staten Land, were islands sighted by Vries on his 1643 voyage. He named the islands for the Dutch States General (Staten Land) and for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) (Compagnies, or Company’s Land). In reality, he had re-discovered two of the Kuril Islands. However, other mapmakers latched onto Compagnies Land in particular, enlarging and merging it with Yesso and/or Gamaland.
In the mid-eighteenth century, Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer in Russian employ, and later James Cook would both check the area and find nothing. La Perouse also sought the huge islands, but found only the Kurils, putting to rest the myth of the continent-sized dream lands.
Lake Chiamay first appeared on a map in 1554 when it was included on the terza tavola in the second edition of volume one of Ramusio’s Delle navigationi et viaggi. Drawn by Giacomo Gastaldi, this map of South and Southeast Asia shows a massive lake from which four rivers flow; these are commonly interpreted as the Chao Phraya, Salween, Irrawaddy, and a branch of the Brahmaputra, but also sometimes include other rivers.
Reports of the lake came from two Portuguese sources: a geographer, João de Barros, and an explorer, Fernão Mendes Pinto. Pinto wrote letters describing a great lake. Barros likely saw these letters. He, in turn, compiled a history of Asia, Décadas da Ásia, that mentioned the lake; Ramusio included Barros’ work in his own compilation of travel and exploration.
Barros describes a lake that begat six rivers, but the map in Ramusio’s work shows only four. However, Gastaldi’s 1561 map, Tertia Pars Asiae, shows six rivers leaving and two entering the lake. After appearing in such an authoritative work, the lake was taken up by other mapmakers. Many used the Ramusio/Gastaldi model. Others innovated on the theme of this geographic chimera, as no such lake exists in the area.
Luis Jorge de Barbuda’s 1584 map shows the lake farther to the north and with a different river pattern. His model was taken up by Hondius in India Orientales (1606) and thereafter by many others. The Jesuit Martino Martini gathered information from his travels in eastern and northern China to compile Imperii Sinarum Nova Descriptio (1655). Martini included the lake, but added the Red River and had the Chao Phraya originate from a different lake. Around 1570, other maps appeared that gave Lake Chiamay only two outlets.
As more Jesuit knowledge of Southeast Asia filtered back to Europe, mapmakers such as Guillaume Delisle began to question the veracity of the lake. It last was added to a map by Vaugondy in 1751; it was reprinted in map reissues, however, until at least 1783. By the early-nineteenth century, the feature was understood to be nothing more than a cartographic myth. By the early-twentieth century, expeditions had definitively proven that no such lake existed.
The Mughal Empire began when Babur (r. 1526-1530), originally from Central Asia, established himself in Kabul, Afghanistan and marched south into India via the Khyber Pass. His descendants consolidated power and fought off rivals. Particularly under the rule of Akbar (r. 1556-1605), the Mughal Empire developed an imperial structure characterized by tolerance of religious differences and a competent administrative elite.
Later in the seventeenth century, the Mughal Empire developed not only as a center of arts and culture—the Taj Mahal was built during this time—but as a political and economic power house. By 1707, under the controversial ruler Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), the Mughal Empire reached its largest extent, encompassing much of the Indian subcontinent. A decade later, however, the empire entered into decline. Many of the areas that had been added by Aurangzeb were in open revolt and the dynastic line was in chaos. In 1719, four separate emperors ruled. The Mughal Empire began to lose land and influence, particularly in the face of Maratha opposition and the arrival of the British East India Company.
De Wit (1629 ca.-1706) was a mapmaker and mapseller who was born in Gouda but who worked and died in Amsterdam. He moved to the city in 1648, where he opened a printing operation under the name of The Three Crabs; later, he changed the name of his shop to The White Chart. From the 1660s onward, he published atlases with a variety of maps; he is best known for these atlases and his Dutch town maps. After Frederik’s death in 1706, his wife Maria ran the shop for four years before selling it. Their son, Franciscus, was a stockfish merchant and had no interest in the map shop. At the auction to liquidate the de Wit stock, most of the plates went to Pieter Mortier, whose firm eventually became Covens & Mortier, one of the biggest cartography houses of the eighteenth century.