In conversation with Sjoerd de Meer – Rotterdam Maritime Museum
Treasure Trove of 17th Century
text: Manasa Saarloos Rao | inputs: Sjoerd De Meer (curator cartography)
photography: Theo de Man
A couple of months ago, I was asked by Ricardo Burgzorg, the director of Indian Film Festival The Hague to visit the Rotterdam Maritime Museum to talk to Sjoerd de Meer, the curator of the cartography. I was pretty excited as I learned the topic of the interview is about the recent acquisition of the 17th century maps of the Dutch East India Company by the Rotterdam Maritime Museum.
Maritime Museum Rotterdam provides a riveting look into the city’s connection to the ocean and its many waterways. The museum has a large collection of material on the history of shipping and seafaring, including ship models, a reconstruction of a 2,000-year-old vessel, and numerous seafaring paintings. Visiting Maritime Museum is fascinating, making the history passing beneath the eyes. When I watched those masterpieces, it felt like they have so many stories to tell as they have been the silent witnesses to the key moments in maritime history.
Sjoerd de Meer , cordially welcomed me and had many interesting stories to share. I learnt about the book containing the VOC charts, has been published by the museum. I was curious to find out more about those centuries old maps – that were top secret at the time of VOC (Dutch East India Company) that found their way back home to the Netherlands after nearly 300 years of absence. The acquisition of a collection of 21 Dutch East India Company (VOC) is not less than a miracle. These charts on vellum and paper are dated between 1647 and 1670. When inquired about the odds of such rare maps coming to the market, Sjoerd says, “It’s incredible that such treasures could ever come to the market. It is possible that one or two of the VOC charts might come up for sale, but 21 all at once, is a miracle”.
Visiting Maritime Museum is fascinating, making the history passing beneath the eyes.
He further added, “The charts belonged to the Corpus Christi College in Oxford, England, constituting part of the legacy of the president of the time, Thomas Turner, who passed away in the year 1714. Since then, these charts appear to have passed into oblivion until 1933, when they were accidentally rediscovered by the librarian. They were found stored in their original tubes or cylinders which are now lost. They were subsequently presented to the School of Geography, in Oxford on a permanent loan. The maps were studied and were written about by some scholars, but they were not known to the general public. In 2005, they were returned to Corpus Christi College. But the management of the college realized that this is not quite the right place for these maps and that they must find a suitable home. Thus, the entire collection was sent to Sotheby’s auction house in London with an anticipation of finding a relevant buyer. Meanwhile, when we, Rotterdam Maritime Museum discovered that the collection was coming up for the sale, we felt the Museum is the rightful home for it. As we already own a collection of VOC charts and world maps of Mercator, 1569 and Willem Jansz Blaue of 1619, we thought this new treasure trove would be an asset to our museum collection”.
The charts show the ‘octrooigebied’ (the area under charter) of the Dutch India Company between the Cape of Good Hope and Japan. There are also nine maps of English provenance. The collection consists of 13 VOC charts on vellum, depicting the Indian Ocean between the Cape of Good Hope and Sumatra, Sunda Straits (2 examples), the coast of Java with Bantam and Batavia, the Moluccas, Java and Borneo, Java Sea to Japan, Seram, the Gulf of Siam, Gulf of Tongkin, the coasts of Orissa and Coromandel (India) and the Gujarat coast of India, The seven charts on paper depict Kathiawar (India), Sri Lanka, India’s east coast, Astrachan towards Bengal, Bengal (2), and Celebes (Sulawesi).
The Dutch East India Company had reliable nautical charts created by cartographic workshops. It was a well organised company with rigorous rules on equipping ships. Lists were kept of the navigation material that was required on-board. Each set was accompanied by globes, manuals, logbooks, blank sheets and even a tin of cylinder for storing charts. In an attempt to restrict their circulation, the VOC ordered that any charts not returned at the end of the voyage would have to be paid for. The master mariner and petty officers had to sign for receipt and they also had to undertake to hand in the material upon safe arrival in Batavia. The maps produced were invariably hand drawn in a futile attempt to limit their circulation. The straight lines on the chart are compass lines helping the master mariner to navigate and plan the sailing route. At the bottom left the fragment shows a point where several compass lines converge. This is the central compass rose, characteristic of sea charts. Around this rose, complete compass charts generally have sixteen secondary compass roses which are all linked by lines. This creates a network of so-called rhumb lines which make a right angle with all meridians and which make it possible to navigate using a fixed compass point.
The number of maps in the Corpus Christi was made in Batavia. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Batavia was the administrative centre of the VOC in South East Asia. English charts are mainly just sketches with coastlines, copied from Dutch VOC charts in the collection. However, a very early printed chart of the Ganges River, presumably a proof, is also included. This fascinating set of charts symbolizes the transmission of Dutch cartographic knowledge to the English at the end of the 17th century. Eight of these charts on vellum are signed by Joan Blaeu. John Blaeu (1599 – 1673) was an official cartographer of VOC from 1638 to 1673. He had a family firm in Amsterdam and they were the official mapmakers of the VOC. They produced very high quality maps and atlases. Joan Blaeu (I) is regarded as one of the best of his trade during the 17th century. With this new acquisition, the Maritime Museum owns approximately a quarter of all the charts on vellum signed by Joan Blaeu in the World. The rest of the charts are unsigned but they were identified as being ascribed to Jan Hendricksz Thim, a cartographer who worked in Batavia around 1670 who went to become the chief Cartographer of the VOC in Batavia.
With this new acquisition, the Maritime Museum owns approximately a quarter of all the charts on vellum signed by Joan Blaeu in the World.
The positive aspect of a trade according to me is that the world gets stirred up together. Out of all the charts shown to me, no doubt I was curious to discover more about the charts that gave an idea of the trading relations of VOC with India. India and the Netherlands maintained for over four hundred years of intensive trade relations. From these trade relations gradually developed an interest in Indian culture, then an exchange and solidarity between the two cultures. Out of all the charts, the Coromandel chart in Rotterdam Museum helps us revisit the tales of VOC trade with Indian sub-continent. In 1612, a future Governor-General of the East Indies named Hendrik Brouwer, had described the Coromandel Coast as the ‘left arm of the Moluccas and the surrounding islands because without textiles that come from there, the trade in the Moluccas will be dead’. When Intra-Asian plan was designed, the key commodity in the blueprint apart from pepper and other spices was the Indian Textiles. India was at the heart of the Dutch East India Company’s trading operations in Asia. How it all happened and what was the reason behind it? Read more in the article VOC and India. VOC and India