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Juan de la Cosa and his World Chart


The focus of this essay is Juan de la Cosa and his magnificent World Chart, a chart which documented the discoveries of Christopher Columbus in the New World, and which is often described as one of the most important of all currently known cartographic records of early European exploration of the Americas. It was made just eight years following the voyage which was to give way to European exploration, expansion and colonialism throughout the entire western hemisphere.

While Christopher Columbus is a household name known to people around the globe, Juan de la Cosa, an important Castilian cartographer and early explorer is known to relatively few outside academic circles despite his being the owner of the flagship Santa Maria. De la Cosa not only owned the flagship but was also on board when Columbus made his famous landfall in the Bahamas in October 1492. He also participated in the following two voyages of Columbus, serving as captain, advisor, and chief cartographer. He was known to have possessed comprehensive knowledge in many fields and was an invaluable aid to the early explorers with whom he sailed.

Born in the mid-15th century in Santoña, Cantabria, de la Cosa stands as a pivotal figure in the Age of Discovery, not only for his role as the owner and captain of the Santa Maria in Columbus’ landmark 1492 voyage but also for his extraordinary contributions as a cartographer and explorer. Unfortunately, his experiences in the Americas also included participating with Spanish conquistadors in decimating large numbers of indigenous peoples, and his death might be considered by many to be a just one for a conquistador. Though he returned safely to Spain several  times, during the explorations in his final voyage to the west he died in Turbaco, Columbia in 1509, having been shot with poisoned arrows by indigenous peoples whom his group had previously attacked.

In his lifetime, Juan de la Cosa made a total of seven voyages to the New World, including exploratory voyages with Amerigo Vespucci and Vasco Nunez de Balboa. He was an erudite, highly educated, adventurous explorer and observer who mapped much of what he found in Columbia, Panama, Jamaica and Hispaniola before dying in Columbia in the first decade of the sixteenth century. His extensive travels provided him expansive geographical and topographical knowledge that would inform his cartographic masterpieces.

De la Cosa's remarkable and beautifully illustrated World Chart is dated to the year 1500. Shortyly after becoming known it was lost, for more than three hundred years till found by chance in Paris in 1832. Twenty years later it was purchased by the Queen of Spain, Isabella II, and it has resided in Spain since that time. Done in traditional portolan style and encyclopedic in content, the eastern half is devoted to the well-known geography of Europe, plus Africa and Asia as they were known and documented at the time, and to the seas and oceans which surround or separate them. Its depiction of the Middle East and Asia follows the tradition of earlier charts such as the Catalan Atlas, with which de la Cosa might well have been familiar. Religion, travelers’ tales, and classical beliefs are used throughout the chart in addition to concrete topographical details.

In the east, three colourful magi are depicted riding westward in Asia, as was common, but Jerusalem is not at the chart’s centre, a departure from earlier charts. India’s peninsula is absent, suggesting a total lack of knowledge despite the voyage of Vasco de Gama two years before the publication of the atlas. Islands in the Indian Ocean are depicted inaccurately and place names in this region do not correspond to those accorded them by early Portuguese mariners. Gog and Magog, the evil forces described in biblical sources, are shown in the extreme upper right of the chart, bearing a strong resemblance to the imagery of the earlier Catalan Atlas, with the compass rose nearby to possibly suggest the contradictory nature of the religious, scientific, and mythological themes which are represented in the chart. 

To the west, Africa’s coastline is quite accurately depicted due to its having been navigated, explored, and ultimately settled by the Portuguese from the early decades of the fifteenth century. In traditional portolan style, place names are written at right angles along the coast, rendering it immediately identifiable. The interior is lavishly decorated with colourful vignettes of Portuguese settlements and various African potentates.

Across the Atlantic, we find a remarkable and recognizable representation of the continents of North and South America filling the remaining space of the chart and coloured in a verdant green shade said to represent and reflect the impression the continents made on the European visitors. To the west of Cuba, approximately in the area that marks the midline between the two continents, de la Cosa has drawn an image of St. Christopher crossing a river with the infant Jesus in his arms, an image suggesting that Columbus, like his namesake, is crossing the water to bring the gospel of Christ to new lands and peoples.

The amount of time spent by the author exploring in and around the Caribbean and its islands resulted in their being quite accurately drawn, with Cuba named on a map for the first time. The accurate rendering makes it clear that despite Columbus’ insistence to the contrary, this is not part of Asia. An island labeled Guanahani to the northeast of Cuba is the island named by Columbus as San Salvador, where he is thought to have first set foot in the New World.  

The chart is embellished with a number of compass roses, with the most ornate just off the coast of Brazil. This compass (or wind) rose contains an image of the holy family at its centre, a reminder of the religious dictates imposed on him in the creation of the chart. In addition to compass roses, he crisscrossed his work with rhumb lines both on land and at sea.

Juan de la Cosa's work is the earliest known European map to depict the Americas. Remarkably, it integrates the shores of the New World with the known coasts of Europe, Africa, and Asia, offering a unique and transformative perspective on the world’s geography. The World Chart, housed today in the Museo Naval in Madrid, is a testament to de la Cosa’s skills and his firsthand knowledge of the Atlantic and its newly discovered lands. Its depiction of the world includes a large landmass representing South America labeled as the Mundus Novus, and notably, it features the earliest visual representation of the northern coast of South America.

The contributions of Juan de la Cosa to the understanding of global geography cannot be overstated. His World Chart not only advanced European knowledge of the Americas but also challenged and expanded the contemporary understanding of the world. His map was a crucial tool for future navigators and a symbol of the Age of Discovery’s expanding horizons, and his legacy lives on through his contributions to cartography and exploration, which continue to inspire and inform historical scholarship regarding the Age of Exploration. 

 

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