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Map Maker Biography: Jan Huygen Van Linschoten (1563 – 1611)


Jan Huygen Van Linschoten was a brilliant Dutchman whose contributions to science and broader European maritime expansion in the late 16th and early 17th centuries cannot be overstated. His best-known publication, Itinerario, brought the lands and peoples of the East to drawing rooms, business headquarters and heads of state throughout all of Western Europe. The publishing of Itinerario in 1596 and its Reys-gheschrift, which was a compilation of contemporary-to-his-time nautical routes, directly and positively impacted the development of Dutch overseas expansion and had significant consequences for the history of Europe.

The revelations in it made public previously classified information concerning Asian trade, along with proven safe-passage navigational routes which had long been kept secret by the Portuguese, routes which had allowed their monopolization of trade in the region to flourish for decades. These secrets included describing ocean currents, location of islands, deeps, shoals and sandbanks. Such knowledge was critical to safe navigating in the ‘Age of Exploration’, and his accounts were elucidated by maps of unprecedented accuracy for their time. His work also provided an abundance of detailed information describing the fauna and flora of the regions he visited, as well as the indigenous populations of each area, from the Azores and St. Helen to Java and Sumatra.

Itinerario confirmed accounts made by sailors regarding the social negligence of the Portuguese state and entrepreneurs, the instability and collapse to decadence of the so-called ‘Portuguese State of India’. In it he asserted that the market of Bantam was yet free of Portuguese influence, important ‘insider information’ for developing Dutch influence in the region. His book was published in time to be on board vessels for the first Dutch voyage to the region, and Bantam would later become the capital of Dutch Indonesia.


Jan Huygen Van Linschoten’s father is thought to have been an inn owner and businessman, and as a child Jan’s imagination would have been stoked by the tales of the travelers and explorers who stayed at their inn. He attended the local Latin school where he had a standard education for the time, and by the age of sixteen he was ready to leave home in search of learning a trade and gaining employment. His first stop was in Seville, Spain, where he lived with his brother and worked for some time, before moving to Lisbon.

It was there that he met an acquaintance of his brother, João Vicente da Fonseca, who was the archbishop of the Indian city of Goa. The archbishop offered him the position of personal secretary, which he eagerly accepted, and he left European shores with his new employer on 8 April 1583, perhaps in search of the adventures he had envisioned as a child. Five months later he was in Goa, where he was to spend the next several years, where he would begin developing his talents and skills, eventually becoming expert in myriad fields.

Van Linschoten’s new position came at a time when the Portuguese still had a monopoly in trade with the territories in the East to which their early explorers had sailed. They had captured Goa in 1510, and greatly expanded their holdings throughout the 16th century. His new circle of friends there was comprised of local Portuguese, foreign members of staff, merchants, explorers and adventurers and sailors, some from as far away as Japan. He immediately took interest in learning about Goa itself, and busied himself recording his observations. His socializing would have made him privy to the latest rumors and reports of exotic places, and he availed himself of the opportunity of learning the structure and organization of Portuguese interests there wherever opportunity availed itself, including by visiting the docks, where he mingled with laborers, sailors, navigators and captains themselves, and even by secretly  copying documents and records to which he had access. 


The attractive map here, Deliniantur in hac tabula, Orae maritimae Abexiae, freti Mecani: al. Maris Rubri: Arabiae Freti Mecani: al Maris Rubri: Arabiae, Ormi, Persiae, Supra Sindam usque . . . was published in 1596 in the Itinerario. It was derived from earlier Portuguese portolan charts of the 16th century. Not only does the lavish style with the inclusion of sea monsters, sailing ships, terrestrial animals, and an intricately detailed compass rose resemble that of such charts, but the geographical information obtained undoubtedly came from early Portuguese sources. The map depicts several areas with incredible accuracy for its era. One such area worth noting is the shape of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula which far more closely resemble the shape and size of modern maps than do other examples from the same time period. 

Linschoten Itinerario 1596  

These combined sources of information, which included nautical, commercial, political, economic and social knowledge of Asia, were instrumental in laying the groundwork for his monumental work, the Itinerario, which in turn played a major role in European territorial expansion as the Dutch and English entered the race to establish themselves in India and the East Indies. The East India Company, a joint-stock company, was founded in England in 1600. The Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, was the first-known European multinational corporation, financed by shares that established the first modern stock exchange. It has been argued that the hegemony enjoyed by the Dutch for more than two centuries was made possible by Van Linschoten’s Itinerario.  

 Linschoten Itinerario 1596 - China


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