Deep dark secrets of Holland’s map makers

Once upon a time, long before GSM location finders, Google street views and synthesised Sat Nav voices, we used strange folding paper things called maps. They were really helpful, especially 400 years ago. To read story by Andy click on images above or continue below.  Maps were a secret source of power then. If you had one, you understood where you were in the world and you realised where you were going. Not everyone knew that. But the Dutch did. They knew where America, Africa and the Far East were. In the 17th century mapmakers in Holland ruled the world. Literally.

“It’s a century described as the Golden Age of mapmaking,” says Diederick Wildeman, curator of navigation and library collections at Netherlands Maritime Museum. “Throughout the 17th century the Dutch had the best engravers and printing presses. They had the world’s most efficient trade network and were incredibly good at sharing information.”

Compare this to the Spanish. “The last thing they wanted to do was spread information about their colonial possessions,” says expert Philip Curtis of London’s Map House. “The great maps of their colonies were manuscripts that the king kept under lock and key. Smuggling maps out of Spain became punishable by death.”

It’s easy to see why. Spain was shipping unimaginable amounts of gold and silver out of the Americas. In 1628 when the Dutch hijacked a Spanish galleon loaded with Peruvian silver, Spain was almost bankrupt for a year.

In the 17th century Holland was a naval super power with trade – and the occasional hijack – transforming Amsterdam into one of the wealthiest cities in the world. There was plenty of money to pay for the expensive engraving, sourcing and printing processes required to make Amsterdam the world capital of mapmaking. Buying an atlas at this time would in equivalent terms cost the price of a second home today.

But the appeal of discovery was priceless. “In previous centuries the blank spaces on maps held a hope of trade, conquest, gold and silver,” says Wildeman. “The fact that the Dutch were the foremost mapmakers of the 17th century created these blank spaces – lands waiting to be conquered – and this inspired overseas exploration.”

There were hundreds of Dutch mapmakers at the time, but the most successful were Willem Janszoon Blaeu and his sons Joan and Cornelis. In simple terms they shaped the world. Jonathan Potter author of Collecting Antique Maps writes that Willem’s world map issued from 1605 – 20 sheets across a total of eight feet – was the best of the period and remained the prototype until it was superseded by his son’s in 1648. “Blaeu became the most important mapmaker of his time,” says Wildeman. “People from all over Europe came to him with their material simply to try to get their work published by the best in the business.”

The Blaeus’ skills were also employed by naval super power the Dutch East India Company (VOC). “Through VOC they were also instrumental in ordering surveys,” says Hans Kok, a former KLM captain and chairman of the International Map Collectors’ Society. “As a result they had access to the latest discoveries and that gave them a great advantage. They work was rarely surpassed if ever. The family were hugely influential for three generations due to their shrewd distribution network and sharp business minds. They effectively controlled a complete vertical chain – amassing data, processing it and distributing it worldwide.”

With prestige came riches. Joan soon became an influential member of Amsterdam’s council and the family printing press one of the biggest in the world until 1672 when warehouse fire demolished most of their priceless plates and stock.

“All imperial powers need maps to understand what they control (and vice-versa) and how to keep lines of communication open in an expanding imperial universe and the Dutch were no exception,” says London Christie’s manuscript specialist Julian Wilson. The VOC demanded accurate maps for trade and when routes were under threat, maps for military use.

“Trade also demands exploration,” he says. “New sources ripe for economic exploitation are its lifeblood.” In 1606 explorer Willem Janszoon of the VOC discovered and landed in Australia and the first map to display place names from his discoveries – Indiae Orientalis Nova Descripto of 1633 – was produced by a rival of the Blaeus Joannes Janssonius. “Later after more sightings of the northern and western seaboards of Australia, Abel Tasman’s discovery of Van Dieman’s Land – Tasmania – was first published in Joan Blaeu’s revised world map of 1646.”

Tasman was the first European to sight New Zealand and the first depiction of part of the coastline appeared in another map by Janssonius in 1657, says Wilson. “So in effect the Dutch discovered a new continent and were the first to map part of a new country, New Zealand.”

Such high cartographic standards were built on a long tradition of mapmaking in the Low Countries. “The Dutch had good form in cartographic matters,” says Wilson. “The exceptional 16th century talent that was Gerardus Mercator (1512-94) provided the science and the mathematics as a solid foundation with his famous projection being adopted as the best method for revealing a sphere on two-dimensional paper.”

In 1570, Antwerp’s Abraham Ortelius built on this success creating the first modern atlas known as The Theatre of the World. “To buy a good copy today would cost you anything between US$200,000 and US$500,000,” says Curtis. “Ortelius’ importance was due to his constant revisions. Later editions have twice the maps of the first edition including the first maps of China, Japan and the Pacific and are very sought after by collectors.”

Speaking eight languages and using an unsurpassed network of scholars, travellers and explorers, Ortelius’ maps were derived from more sources than had been ever assembled before, says Ortelius expert Dr Marcel van den Broeke of map dealers Catographica Neerlandica. “His atlas became one of the best selling publications of the 16th century,” she says. “He became very wealthy and spent his money creating the largest library in North West Europe and ever bigger houses to accommodate his collection which amounted to about 5,000 books. Many cartographers copied his texts closely for at least half a century after his death.”

And this is all very well and good, but it still seems staggering that Ortelius’ masterpiece was produced only 78 years after Columbus had discovered America, 72 years after Da Gama had landed in India and 36 years before Janszoon sighted Australia. In modern terms, the maps were full of giant gaps but in 16th century Europe, it was all that anyone knew.

“Can you imagine what it must have been like to be a map maker then?” laughs curator Wildeman. “Especially with Amsterdam later being recognised as the map making capital of the world. That must have been psychologically extremely powerful. Imagine literally having the world in your hands and being one of an elite that knew its secrets. That’s a very compelling thought.”


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