Africae nova descriptio.


Excellent old color example of Willem Blaeu’s seminal map of Africa, the most influential depiction of the continent produced in the 17th century, and a cornerstone of any collection focussing on the cartography of Africa.

Cartographer(s): Willem Blaeu
Date: ca. 1630
Place: Amsterdam
Dimensions: 59 x 55.5 cm (23.2 x 22.8 in)
Condition Rating: VG

In stock


Listen to Kristoffer discuss this map:

This beautiful example of the second state of Willem Janzoon Blaeu’s map of Africa constitutes an important milestone in the mapping of the continent. It is among the most iconic maps of Africa produced in the seventeenth century and a testimony to the cartographic brilliance of Willem Blaeu. The map depicts the entire continent, including Madagascar and a plethora of smaller islands off the African coast, as well as the northern coastline of the Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula. The map tells us a story about how the European understanding of the world changed over time. By the second half of the 17th century, other pioneering Dutch cartographers such as Frederick De Wit and Nicholas Visscher, were publishing new and in some ways superior maps of the African continent. While these charts would help set the standard for Dutch mapmakers well into the 18th century, their source of inspiration came from this beautiful and innovative chart of Willem Blaeu.

The map is striking, with dramatic coloring and a wonderful amount of detail and activity represented on it. The entire littoral is dominated by the toponyms of the coastline. The majority of these place names pertain to topographical features in the landscape – especially the kind that can be identified from a ship tacking along the shore. Identifying coves, estuaries, and capes not only assisted with navigation, but were also crucial in relation to where best to set in for fresh water and other supplies. The interior is nevertheless also densely labeled, identifying cities, peoples, regions, tribal affiliations, mountain ranges, rivers, and lakes. The sheer amount of information is almost overwhelming, especially when considering that this map probably was compiled during the 1620s.

The toponymic labels are shown in different sizes and fonts, allowing them to define or stress different categories of information. Natural features in the landscape, such as mountain ranges or lakes, have been meticulously depicted. But the most charming pictorial element is the abundance of Africa fauna: we find caravan drivers with their camels in Numidia; lions, ibex and wild goats in Senegal; large crocodiles, lizards and frogs along the Niger River; elephants and ostriches in Central Africa; and even a Nubian monkey. The bestiary becomes even wilder once we hit the seas, but to this we shall return shortly.


Rivers, Lakes, and the Mountains of the Moon

By the first half of the 17th century, the Portuguese and Dutch were sailing regularly on the Indian Ocean. This massive body of water, surrounded by a vast array of rich cultures, was accessed by circumnavigating the Cape of Good Hope and then tacking north. Having rounded the cape, it was common to sail on Madagascar for fresh water supplies. The European expedition to pioneer this circumnavigation was of course that of Vasco da Gama in 1498. Having reached India by this route, Da Gama opened up the region to European trade and dominance. Even though the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) had divvied up the world between Spain and Portugal, during the 16th century, the Dutch demonstrated very clearly that they certainly did not acknowledge the legitimacy of this division. Breaking on to the early colonial scene in both east and west, the Dutch were really the only international contenders to the Portuguese claim on the Indian Ocean in the 17th century. It had become a race. This history is the real undercurrent of this map, and is among other things seen in the meticulous plotting of the many islands east of Africa. The accuracy with which the mostly small and commercially insignificant islands have been charted reflects just how intensive the exploration of this region was in the century following Da Gama.

For all these reasons, and many others, the African coastline would thus have been reasonably well mapped by this stage. What is surprising, however, is the degree to which Blaeu has accumulated information on the African interior as well. While not as densely labeled as the coast, and with many places filled in by imagination rather than information, it is remarkable to note just how much knowledge has been embedded in the design of this map. Among the areas covered are the interior waterways. Lakes, streams, and coastal inlets are depicted in great detail throughout, and great African rivers like the Nile, Congo, and Niger, run through the continent like a skeletal structure.

It is clear that Blaeu appreciated the importance of these rivers, even though his geographic rendition of them in some cases built more on myth than observation. The Nile, for example, extends from its delta in Egypt across most of the continent  — correctly splitting into two main branches — until reaching what at the time was presumed to be the river’s source. Two enormous lakes, here labeled Zaire Lacus/Zeinbre Lacus and Zaflan Lacus, were fed from the Mountains of the Moon (Lunæ Montes) just to the south. The concept was not based on any reliable observation and was obviously far removed from geographic reality. It was nevertheless recorded in the 2nd century treatise of Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemy, which had served as the primary basis for geography and mapmaking well into the 16th century. As a basis for his model, Ptolemy cites Diogenes, who in 110 CE supposedly travelled far enough south in Africa to bear witness himself (although many consider the Diogenes story to be a 4th century addition to Ptolemy’s work).

Another smaller lake in southern Africa is even more interesting. Just southwest of the Lunæ Montes we find Sachaf Lacus. This reference is important because Blaeu essentially depicts it as the source for both the Zambezi (Zambere on map) and Limpopo (Spirito Santo on map) Rivers. The geography is obviously wrong; in fact in Blaeu’s version, the Zambezi actually becomes the Limpopo before draining into the Indian Ocean. It is nevertheless important for two reasons. First of all, it shows that Blaeu had at least some awareness of just how crucial riverine systems were in Africa. Second, it offers further clues about what sources an esteemed Amsterdam mapmaker like Willem Blaeu would have had available to him.

We have already noted how some elements of this map draw build on ancient Ptolemaic traditions, which over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries had been revitalized in a flurry of Renaissance cartography. Lake Sachaf, which Blaeu presents as the source of both the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers, is seemingly not derived from Ptolemy, but was rather adapted from Martin Waldseemüller’s famous world map of 1507, which is also the first map in history to name America. Waldseemüller based much of his cartography on Ptolemaic traditions as well; nevertheless, bearing witness to some of the most decisive geographic discoveries in history, he also realized the need for formulating new cartographic paradigms for the future. Nowhere did this radical idea manifest more clearly than in his 1507 world map, and Blaeu’s inclusion of an obscure element from this map reveals just how influential Waldseemüller’s work still was more than century after his death.


Fabulous cartes-à-figures and city views bring the map to life

Flanking the map on both sides, we find a series of ten ethnographic vignettes depicting some of the African peoples that Europeans might have heard about. This was a way of bringing the map to life. It stimulated the imagination and embedded the map with an almost esoteric knowledge that was now being shared with the viewer. Starting in the upper left frame, the ethnic groups include: Moroccans, Senegalese,  Guinean merchants, an unidentified group, Congolese, Egyptians, Abyssinians, Cafrians in Mozambique (most likely referring to the people of Reunion who were of Singalese or Tamil origin), the King of Madagascar, and the people inhabiting the Cape of Good Hope. The vignettes are adaptations of similar images that adorned later states of Blaeu’s 1608 wall map of Africa.

Another pictorial bar runs along the top of the map, but this shows small urban vistas of what the Europeans deemed to be Africa’s most important cities at the time. Their selection is a marvelous example of just how skewed European perceptions were in the 17th century. From left to right the views depict Tangiers, Ceuta, Algiers, Tunis, Alexandria, Cairo, the Island of Mozambique, the Portuguese fort of St. George of the Mine (Elmina, Ghana), and Canaria, on the islands bearing the same name. In unison, all of these pictorial frames lend the map an encyclopedic element, making it a form of visual juxtaposition to the Latin pilot-books of Antiquity.


What Madagascar and Arabia tell us about Blaeu’s influences

There are many interesting geographical features typical in early 17th century maps that we find slowly being rectified or erased in the cartographic traditions of the later 17th and 18th centuries. Madagascar, for example, which was an important island for captains and navigators, as it had safe natural harbors and internationally oriented ports with abundant goods and plenty of fresh water. Madagascar was consequently much better known to most European seamen than the continent itself (although this too would soon change with the creation of colonial settlements by the Dutch in South Africa).

Despite the Dutch familiarity with the island’s geography, the northern part of Madagascar veers strangely to the right. This is a feature which is copied again and again in Dutch maps well into the 18th century. The reason for this should be found in another pioneering Dutch cartographer, Jan Huygens van Linschoten, who in his 1596 map of the southwest Indian Ocean depicts Madagascar in exactly the same shape. Linschoten’s map would have been another obvious source for Blaeu to consult while compiling his own map. For unlike Blaeu and most other cartographers of this age, Linschoten actually sailed the Indian Ocean, seeing for himself many of the places depicted on his maps. For years he served the Portuguese Viceroy of Goa in India. On returning to his native Holland, Linschoten shared all of Portugal’s cartographic secrets with his countrymen, jolting the maritime capacity of the Dutch nation forward in one great leap. His maps were, in other words, more than seminal: they helped lift the Low Countries out of poverty and became a key resource for Dutch mapmakers in the 17th century.

In general, Blaeu adopted and included many place names from the records of Portuguese voyages of discovery to this region. These were supplemented by the growing number of attributions made by the Dutch as they gradually took over the East Indies trade from the Portuguese. As hydrographer to the Dutch East India Company, Blaeu enjoyed both status and almost unlimited access to the Company’s archives. Thus, we know that Blaeu’s detailed rendition of the South African coastline came from the reports of Cornelis de Houtman – the first Dutch merchant to enter the Indian Ocean and the father of the Dutch spice trade. But Blaeu did not just use Dutch sources, many Portuguese navigation documents and manuscript maps also ended up in Dutch hands. An example of this is found in this map’s rendition of the Gold Coast, which drew directly on a manuscript map drawn by the Portuguese cartographer and navigator Luis Teixeira. This important chart had been smuggled home to Amsterdam via another important Dutch mapmaker, Cornelis Claesz, and was now informing Blaeu in his work.

With his prominent position in Dutch cartographic circles, and the sheer amount of information that the Dutch were accumulating, it might be easy to rationalize just how loaded with cutting edge information this map really is. So to get a sense of how early this chart is in the repertoire of European mapmaking, let us take a quick look at the Arabian Peninsula. Here we find more sporadic toponymy along the coasts, but the interior is wholly void of any feature or label (and has consequently been used for the small and unobtrusive cartouche in the upper right corner). One might argue that Arabia is not the focus here, and hence it is natural that is not extensively labeled. However, if we look at De Wit, another important Dutch map of Africa that directly inspired by Blaeu’s chart, we find that the interior not only had abundant labeling, but also the depiction of cities and mountain ranges running through the Peninsula. We can thus identify significant progress in the cartographic understanding of this region during the first half of the 17th century (cf. the cartography of Arabia).

A final note should be made on the oceanic space in this map, which like many Dutch maps of the time is riddled with imagery and myth, but also with markers of an improving geographic practice. We have already noted the meticulousness behind the plotting of islands in the Indian Ocean, and something similar might be said about the Atlantic sphere. Starting with Madeira in the north, we see many classic island stops on southerly maritime routes. The Canaries and Cape Verde Islands are of course a must, but smaller, more isolated islands such as St. Helena, Ascension, and even the remote South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha are also more or less correctly plotted. Their positioning on the map is dictated by the labelled meridians and a beautiful 32-point compass rose set on the equator.

The political dimension is also present in the form of ships. The majority of these are naturally Dutch; one ship even sporting both the Dutch flag and the banner of the city of Amsterdam. In another scene, just left of Saint Helena, we find what appears to be an engagement between a Dutch vessel and a Spanish caravel. No great map from the early 17th century is complete without a range of scary monsters roaming the high seas, and Blaeu’s map of Africa is no exception. Horrific looking whales, sharks and other gigantic fish, even a sea horse, which is half regular horse and half sea creature.

In sum, Willem Janzoon Blaeu’s map of Africa is one the great Dutch charts from the early 1600s. It is marvelous testimony to the great age of exploration, and a manifestation of Dutch tenacity, courage and enlightenment.


Context is everything

Once the early printed editions of Ptolemy started being published with maps (from 1477) they would progressively include new tables (tabulae novae). These were initially meant to visualize Ptolemy’s ideas and correlate them with more modern observations. The first of these modern maps to depict the entire African continent was in Sebastian Munster’s edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia (1540). This nevertheless remained rather schematic in its appearance. Over the course of the next century, however, countless voyages of exploration dramatically improved the European understanding of facts on the ground, leading to a gradual change in how Africa was depicted. The first map of Africa to truly break with the Ptolemaic tradition was done by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius in 1570. Within a few years of its publication, this was the most widely-distributed map of Africa in the world and it continued to be a dominant source for the rest of the century. The next map to significantly impact European perceptions of African geography was the Blaeu map offered here. Ortelius may have been instrumental in shaping how African geography was understood in the 16th century, but in the 17th century, it was Blaeu setting the paradigm.


Census and publication

Neatline’s copy of this incredible chart is the second state of Blaeu’s map. The first state, published in 1617, included the author’s name as Guil. Janssonio, whereas on the second state it was changed to Guiljelmo Blaeuw. The second state was first published in 1621 and was originally issued as a separate sheet. In 1630, Blaeu included it in his first world atlas, the Atlantis Appendix. Years later, his son Joan Blaeu reprinted it in his famous Atlas Maior. A third state produced in 1647 saw significant alterations in the engraved elaborations, most notably in some of the sea monsters. The Blaeu dynasty’s Amsterdam workshop burnt to the ground in 1672 and it is presumed that the plate was destroyed in the fire, preventing further states from being produced.

While the second state is considerably rarer than the third state, it was still produced in sufficient copies and editions to figure in many institutional collections.


Willem Blaeu

Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571-1638) was a one of the most important Dutch geographers and mapmakers of the 17th century. He was born the son of a herring merchant, but traded fish-mongering for studies in mathematics and astronomy. Blaeu’s first important breakthrough was winning apprenticeship with the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Working at Brahe’s Uranienborg observatory on the island of Hven, Blaeu learned a wide range of disciplines and technical skills. These included mathematics and astronomy, but also instrument-making and more esoteric disciplines such as alchemy. Returning to his native Holland, Blaeu set up a publishing business in Amsterdam from which he sold instruments and globes, printed maps, and his own editions of some of the great philosophical works of contemporary intellectuals like Descartes and Hugo Grotius. Achieving notoriety as a cartographic pioneer, Blaeu was appointed Chief Hydrographer to the powerful Dutch East India Company; a position he held until his death in 1638.

When Willem died, his two sons Cornelis (1610-1648) and Joan (1596-1673) took over the business. Joan had originally trained as a lawyer, but never took up practice, preferring to work on maps with his father. After Willem’s death, Joan continued to publish both his father’s and his own maps. He also assumed his father’s position as hydrographer for the Dutch East India Company. Towards the end of his life, Joan would dramatically expand his father’s Atlas Novus (1635), turning it into his own masterpiece, the Atlas Maior (1662-72).

Condition Description

Original color. some discoloration, minor wear along fold line ; edges darker


Rumsey 12202.000. OCLC 556199253 (Dutch 1650). Betz The Mapping of Africa, 57.3. Van der Krogt, P. C. J., Koeman Atlantes Neerlandici, (3 Vols), 8600:2. Norwich, O., Maps of Africa: An illustrated and Annotated Carto-bibliography, #32.