Maritime Cartography and Commerce in Early Modern Europe

Jason Nguyen

The mapping of the seas has long been a preoccupation of navigators, scholars, politicians, and business executives. The early modern era, which roughly coincided with the so-called Age of Sail, witnessed the flourishing of European cartography as well the spread of trade and empire across the world. The importation of spices, sugar, coffee, furs, and other popular commodities incited the desire for all things global, including commercially produced cartographic goods. Maps, atlases, and globes bolstered consumer interest in geography, globalism, and sea travel by visualising the maritime networks that fuelled economic prosperity at home. By looking closely at these objects, one also discerns period presumptions about faraway lands and seas as well as the troubling activities that adjoined marine navigation and trade, including European imperial expansion and human trafficking.

Figure 1: Gerardus Mercator, New and more complete representation of the terrestrial globe properly adapted for use in navigation (1559). Image is in the Public Domain:[JN1] 

The practical demands of marine navigation conditioned the early composition of maps and charts. In the sixteenth century, the Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator codified a technique to help mariners chart their voyages. His eponymous approach of cartographic projection, which flattened converging lines of longitude so that they sat parallel on a map, allowed them to draw a line of constant bearing as straight (or a globe, these lines spiral toward the poles). His maps, which exaggerated the geography at the poles (given that due north and south were evenly spread across the map’s top and bottom), distorted spatial reality for the purpose of shipping.

Figure 2: Giovanni Battista Boazio, Sir Francis Drake in Santo Domingo 1585 (1589). Image is in the Public Domain:

Increased exploration coincided with the increased popularity and commercialisation of cartographic goods. In Antwerp, the cartographer Abraham Ortelius’s published the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570), the first modern atlas of the world’s lands and seas. Around the same time, the Italian cartographer Giovanni Battista Boazio engraved a series of maps that charted Sir Francis Drake’s voyages around the world, including many with fantastical sea creatures at the water’s surface. These images fed the European imagination by giving visual form to places only known through traveller’s accounts and the growing body of literature on pirates and privateering (books by Richard Hakluyt, Theodor de Bry, Samuel de Champlain, Daniel Defoe, and Jonathan Swift, among others, were best sellers). That Drake was a proponent of English colonisation in the Americas and a well-known trader of enslaved Africans illustrates the violence that adjoined early modern maritime exploration.

Figure 3: Petrus Plancius, Insulae Moluccae, or The Spice Chart (1592). Image is in the Public Domain:

Maps often advertised the riches to be gained by commercial expansion. For the Dutch East India Company, the cartographer Petrus Plancius published a map of the Moluccas that showcased the nutmeg, mace, sandalwood, and cloves that mariners acquired through trade. In port cities like Amsterdam and London, stock exchanges provided venues for the market valuation of imported commodities. These institutions also allowed private individuals to buy and sell stocks in trading corporations, which generated a secondary market in Europe that was physically detached from trade and colonisation (these operations gave rise to the boom-and-bust cycles of modern capitalism). In this regard, maps by Plancius functioned as promotional tools to entice would-be investors.  

Figure 4: Herman Moll, “A Map of the West-Indies” (1715) from The World Described (1732). Image is in the Public Domain:,_Florida,_Mexico,_and_the_Caribbean_-_Geographicus_-_WestIndies-moll-1720.jpg

Cartographic goods provided an image of European imperialism to the commercial public. A colour-coded map by Herman Moll highlighted recent British incursions in the Caribbean, notably the conquests of Barbados in 1627, the Bahamas in 1629, and Jamaica in 1655. He toned the islands green and labelled them as “English” (Spanish-controlled territories were coloured in red). Here, colonists operated sugar, coffee, and indigo plantations that relied on the expulsion and servitude of indigenous populations and the labour of enslaved Africans. Moll referenced slaving operations by including arrows to denote the direction of the trade winds—the prevailing equatorial easterlies that facilitated sea travel from Europe and Africa to the Americas. That period debates on Caribbean trade centred on the risks of maritime travel, as opposed to the life and subjectivity of indigenous people or enslaved Africans, illustrates the degree to which discourses on commerce actively concealed the horrors of colonial settlement.

Figure 5: Anonymous, “The Very Famous Island of Mad-Head, Situated in the Sea of Shares …,” from Het groote tafereel der dwaasheid (1720). Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography. Image is in the Public Domain:

Engravers turned to cartography to ridicule the naïve optimism in nautical adventure, imperial expansion, and commodities trading. One Dutch print illustrates a frenzy of investors, on the left, gambling on potential returns from the Island of Mad-Head, in the centre. Ports and cities include Deceivers Town, Fool’s Dyke, Foolsbury, Liarbury, Fort Blind, Fort Evil, and the Islands of Poverty, Sadness, and Despair. Three rivers form the profile of a stock trader in a fool’s cap. The image, composed following a stock market crash in 1720, parodied the frontispiece of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) to critique European aspirations and assumptions regarding global expansion. Distant islands were no more suitable for financial investment than they were for idealised colonies or commonwealths.

During the early modern period, cartography aided maritime navigation while also functioning as commodities in their own right. As commercial objects, maps, atlases, and globes offered the public an enduring geographic image of a world that was become increasingly interconnected through seaborne trade and colonisation. For contemporary scholars, cartographic objects also provide important references to the capitalist and imperial activities that supported economic prosperity and scientific development in Europe.

Jason Nguyen is an Assistant Professor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto. He is an architectural historian working at the intersection of architecture, science and technology, and political economy in the early modern world. This guest blog was reviewed in the context of the PortCityFutures team: Special thanks to Sabine Luning, Thomas van den Brink and Yvonne can Mil.

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