Jan Huygens van Linschoten’s map of the Indian Ocean is one of the most celebrated and stunning charts of southern Asia in the late 16th century and is among the earliest detailed navigational charts of the region ever produced. Like the cartographer himself, the map is the product of an age dominated by massive advances in science and exploration. It is an opulent historical record that testifies to the dramatic intersectionality between art and geography in the late 16th century.
Printed in Amsterdam in 1596 as a large copperplate engraving and subsequently hand-colored, it takes the viewer from the Arabian Peninsula to the mouth of the Ganges, with all of the Indian subcontinent included. The map is endowed with a plethora of information regarding both land and sea, details that are both beautifying and functional at the same time. The impressive ornamentation includes a double strap-work cartouche, a sizeable central compass rose, several sailing vessels, and a bestiary of animals and sea monsters to excite even the most hardened adventurers.
For a late 16th-century product, this map is unequivocally impressive in its degree of detail. It is navigational, with extensive rose lines zigzagging the maritime spaces and anchored in a monumental compass rose at the center. Undoubtedly, this distinctly nautical feel is intentional and the result of van Linschoten’s many years aboard Dutch and Portuguese merchant ships. But it was also a commercial choice in that the functional aspect of a map such as this pertained to trade opportunities. Many maps from the Age of Exploration carry this hallmark; van Linschoten’s maps are special because his charts were informed by his experiences and profound first-hand knowledge of navigation and seamanship. Consequently, it is perhaps not surprising that van Linschoten went to great lengths to compile a chart that surpassed its competitors in terms of coastal geography.
There are many ways van Linschoten’s map of the Indian Ocean is superior to its contemporaries. First of all, the map provides a more accurate depiction of the Indian subcontinent than previous maps, such as Ortelius and Mercator. Given van Linschoten’s personal experience in sailing on India, this is perhaps understandable, but India is not the only region on the map depicted with such an extraordinary amount of detail. While most modern scholars agree on the exceptional quality of van Linschoten’s cartography, his sources are a much greater mystery — especially when it comes to areas he had not personally visited.
Much of the Arabian Peninsula’s coastline, for example, has been dramatically improved upon when compared to his immediate predecessors. A similar scenario is seen along the Barbary Coast and India, where mercantile ports dot the coastline like pearls on a string. On the fringes of the map, such as East Africa, Sumatra, and the Bay of Bengal, van Linschoten operates with an impressive degree of detail and includes information on crucial features such as inlets and natural harbors, or ports of call.
Given van Linschoten’s unique background, the quality of this chart is not surprising. Van Linschoten compiled most of his maps while in the service of the Portuguese King, and the Portuguese had dominated these waters since Vasco da Gama had broached the Cape in 1498, the first European to do so. Whatever were his sources, the result was outstanding and constituted a significant step in the process by which the closely guarded secrets of Portuguese cartographers would become known to the outside world.
Van Linschoten’s maps and rapports were instrumental in breaking Spanish/Portuguese dominance and ushering in an era of Dutch expansion and influence on the world stage. We are, in other words, treated to a beautiful and comprehensive vista of the Indian Ocean under heavy Portuguese influence; an influence that would wane over the coming century and gradually be replaced by an equally dominant Dutch grasp. In many ways, one might argue that van Linschoten straddles this divide perfectly — not just in terms of his origin and terms of employment, but because he braved the world at a crucial time and had both the intellect and education to capture this moment and facilitate the changes that followed.
It is not difficult to discern the distinctly nautical or maritime outlook present on this map. Yet, despite van Linschoten’s background and personal experience at sea — not to mention an overwhelming commercial interest in reliable nautical maps — significant care has also been lent to the depiction of inland regions. Like the coastal landscape, the interiors abound in both toponyms and topography. For example, in East Africa, numerous tributaries to the Nile are lined with named settlements, which were not common knowledge in the 16th century, and must have entailed the integration of local knowledge and tradition while compiling the map.
Within the Indian subcontinent itself, we likewise see a relatively sophisticated understanding of local geography. Van Linschoten includes numerous rivers and an odd central mountain range that presumably constitutes an amalgamation of the Eastern and Western Ghats. This oddity would suggest that despite living in the region for some time, van Linschoten did not fully understand the hinterland. Even so, he depicts many of the major cities and towns of the interior and tentatively subdivides and names the distinct provinces. That India remains shrouded in mystery and legend is underscored by the depiction of two grazing unicorns just south of Delhi (Delli). While on the subject of animals, one might also note the presence of an elephant, camel, and lion in the Arabian interior.
Moving on to the maritime sphere, there are a few elements worth noting here. We have already mentioned the presence of several sea monsters, a well-known feature of this era of cartography. The most prominent is found in the lower right corner of the map, aggressively breaching the surface for air and sporting an elongated mouth and a grimacing look. We are fortunate that this beast is relatively easy to identify, as it figures prominently in another iconic map from the late 16th century, namely Abraham Ortelius’ Islandia. From the associated text, we know that this is a Nahval or narwhale, which has a seven-cubit tooth sticking out of its forehead that mariners have tried to pass off as a unicorn’s horn. While the ‘tooth’ apparently had antidotal qualities, the flesh of this beast is toxic and will kill any person that consumes it.
In the lower-left of the map, a second monster is more challenging to identify but is presumably another type of large whale. More interesting about this image is that the whale is drawn in conjunction with a ship. This pairing may well refer to the attacks on vessels by whales that were hunted and caught in the most brutal manner at this stage in history. Such stories of gigantic attacking sea creatures would always be met with great interest and perhaps gullibility.
In the center of the Indian Ocean, we find one of the most visually impressive compass roses seen from this period, testifying once again to the importance of maritime navigation in the motivations behind this map. It provides no less than 32 compass or rose lines, which form a network of navigable sightlines across the Ocean. Since the Iron Age, local peoples had been crossing this expanse, drawing on the seasonal monsoon winds to cross swiftly and safely. In the initial years of the 16th century, the Portuguese were not as aware or adept at utilizing this natural force and would consequently tack along the coast, letting in whenever the ship needed to be re-stocked or trade opportunities presented themselves. By the time van Linschoten published his map, the Portuguese had also deciphered the monsoon routes and were fully able to cross the open body of water using sightlines such as the ones on this map.
A final note should be made about the three boxes of text in the upper right-hand corner of the map. The two upper ones are both title boxes presenting the map’s rather long (but visually humble) title. The inclusion of two boxes for this is due to the title figuring in two distinct languages — Latin and Dutch — that denote van Linschoten’s personal and professional affiliations, but which also encapsulate the challenge that a Dutch presence would soon prove to be to the global ambitions of the Spanish and Portuguese. Immediately below the title boxes, we find the scale bar, which also provides a scale for Iberian (Hispanicæ) and Northern European (Germanica) users, respectively. This presence of a double title cartouche and scale bar underscores the entrenched duality that permeates not this map and indeed the era in which it was created.
Context is everything
Jan Huygens van Linschoten was the son of an innkeeper who grew up hearing the stories of travelers and sailors. Being born to a well-off family permitted him an advanced education, and living in the Dutch port of Enkhuizen allowed him the opportunity to gain experience at sea. At a time when the Low Countries were struggling to gain their independence from Spanish dominion, van Linschoten traveled to Spain to work with his brother in Seville and eventually ended up in Lisbon. For a young man looking for adventure and opportunity, he could not have chosen a better place. And it is from this time forward, that he essentially begins to build his cartographic career.
The Portuguese had spent the 16th century constructing a dominant hold on the sea route around Africa to the east. This near-monopoly gave them an inside track on Indian Ocean trade, with Spain as their only serious rival. Throughout the Indian Ocean littoral, the Portuguese constructed and manned coastal forts in order to maintain this monopoly. In 1505, the Portuguese King cemented his ambitions in the region by establishing the Portuguese State of India (Estado da India Portuguesa). Initially, the capital was at Cochin (Kochi) in southwestern India, but it was soon moved further north to Velhas Conquistas in Goa, where a Portuguese government continued in some form until 1961.
Van Linschoten settled in the bustling and cosmopolitan Goa, the capital of Portugal’s eastern empire. During the journey and once he arrived in Goa, van Linschoten was meticulous in keeping extensive notes on the peoples, customs, and geography of the regions through which he traveled. He studied and copied portolans, sorted through reports, noted gossip and rumors, spoke to merchants and mariners, and, presumably, sketched maps of places he visited or heard about. Years later, these unique and personal data would help set his maps apart from his contemporaries and make his Itinerary one of the most important travel accounts from this era.
Van Linschoten left Goa and began the long journey back to Portugal in January 1589. En route, his ship was pursued by an English fleet and lost its cargo in a storm while anchored off the Azores. After the loss of the cargo, van Linschoten was persuaded to stay and help recover it, and so he spent two years on Tercera, working on and preparing his notes from Goa for publication. He eventually arrived in Lisbon early in 1592 and proceeded to sail home to the Netherlands shortly after that.
Like many cartographers of his day, van Linschoten entertained an ambition of publishing his studies and insights in an extensive volume. Once back in Europe, he set straight to the task, and in 1596 his magnum opus was published. Known as the Itinerario, this multivolume publication collated all of the Portuguese (and some Spanish) sources on sailing the Indian Ocean and presented them in a coherent and usable fashion.
At the time of its appearance at the end of the 16th century, the great Dutch publishing houses were masters at marketing, and Amsterdam-based printer Cornelis Claesz knew that the addition of maps would be great for sales. The creation of maps was a request that van Linschoten was all too happy to oblige, hiring the famous Langren Brothers to engrave the charts as he compiled them (Keuning 1956). The account of his experiences stands as one of the essential travel works of the period.