[The following entry is from guest blogger and SF State University undergraduate, Patricia Tomita, who completed a short research assignment at the Sutro Library in Spring 2020. She supplied all of the text and images that follow.]

When reading history, a source from the past is like a time machine adventure. Thinking to yourself, “I know this story,” and then discovering something else entirely. When analyzing the map inside late 15th-century Dutch book, De Nieuwe en onbekend Weereld: of Beschryving van America en ‘t Zuid-Land, Sutro Library Archivist Mattie and I unknowingly uncovered a mystery about the map’s design. This blog post will introduce the questions we discovered regarding the language(s) of the map as well as analyze the engraved art. More profoundly, we will question the authenticity of the book to its time based on identifying the varying characteristics of the Sutro Library’s copy to other representations of the same map.

Close up of the map’s cartouche.

At first sight, this map depicts what Dutch cartographer Jacob Meurs, believed the appearance and geography of the American continents looked like. The first identifier, or title, of the map was in Latin, “Totus Americae Descriptio.”  We wondered why Latin was used—was it due to the still widespread knowledge of Catholicism and Latin in Europe? However, this theory did not explain the polylingual nature of the map which included languages such as Spanish, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch. The polylingual map suggests that Meurs was versed in many European languages, but also that he changed the map’s language to reflect where that language was spoken geographically.

California seen as an island.

Another interesting feature of this map is that it presents California as an island.  According to Stanford University Libraries’ online exhibit, California as an Island in Maps https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island , California was illustrated as an island from as early as 1510, as seen in “Las Sergas de Esplandian,” published that year by cartographer, Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo. “This rendering, coming from Montalvo’s imagination, became firmly embedded on maps,” and continued to be illustrated as such throughout the 17th and 18th centuries until the “blunder” was exposed in “a Passage by Land to California” by Father Eusebio Kino, an Italian Jesuit, cartographer, and explorer. The California Island cartography blunder became a phenomenon that “defied the science of mapping.”  The closest European power to California was the Spanish Colonies – I question if California was depicted as an island an attempt to allude to a potential area of colonization or achieve a political agenda. Stanford Libraries’ online exhibit includes several maps with the California Island blunder[1]: French “Planisphere Representant Toute L’etendue Du Monde”[2] by Louis Renard engraved in 1715, Latin “Nova Orbis Terraquei Tabula Accuratissime Delineate” [3] by Aa Pierre Vander (of German descent) in 1713, and “Novissima Totius Orbis Tabula” [4] by Carel Allard (of Dutch descent) in 1683. Maps, as we have discovered throughout history, are not just used for navigation, but as an explanation of global political power and prestige.

Hand-colored map featuring Poseidon in the upper left and cartouche at the bottom (this image is not from the State Library’s collections)

Returning to the Dutch map at the State Library, there is a cartouche engraving of Native Indians and colonists in the bottom left corner of the map. In this image (shown above), the centerpiece is a Native Indian woman who is pictured naked – sexualizing of Native women as seductive and temptations of sin were consistent throughout European art of the time. The snake sitting next to her in the cartouche, is often a symbol of temptation in the Christian faith. Europeans pursued colonization as a means of Christian evangelical missions for saving the “uncivilized man.” The cartouche’s other elements depict native men as primitive characters (seen on the left) when juxtaposed against their European counterparts (seen on the right) who are collecting goods and staking their claim on the land.

Coat of Arms for Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this map is upper left-hand side. In the original Dutch, first edition of this book there is a cartouche at the top left corner featuring Poseidon, the Greek god of the Sea accompanied by mythological sea creatures, angels, and goddesses.  But oddly, we discovered that other copies of this exact book did not contain the Poseidon cartouche in the upper left-hand corner. In fact, we consulted the State Library’s English translation of this book and discovered an entirely different image in the upper left hand corner: the coat of arms for Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury.  Nevertheless, we continued to search for a copy of the map with the Poseidon cartouche, and came across a German copy of the book that included the map with colored aspects to the entire map.[5]

Why are there two different versions of this map in the different translations of this published book? One reason for the English map cartouche being different could be that Sir Anthony Ashley-Cooper could have been a financial contributor to English voyages to the New World or to the printing of the book. Another theory we considered is that the original first edition Dutch book held at the State Library does not hold the original map that was supposed to accompany the book. The research that led to the development of this postulation begins with finding that the only other copy with the same map featuring Poseidon was inside a German copy of the book. Additionally, the State Library’s map’s paper is different from the rest of the pages of the Dutch first edition book. These aspects suggest the map was inserted into the book at a later date, thus introducing the question of why and who had tampered with the book? Was it bought this way? I asked about a possible paper trail we could follow to gather more evidence to our theory – but there was none since the book came to the Library long ago.

There are more questions than answers about this map, more theories, and discoveries to be made about how maps skewed and bent the European perspective of the Americas. I hope to continue my research with the Sutro Library and dig deeper into this mystery.

Works Cited

[1] Stanford University Libraries, https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island


[3] Nova orbis terraquei tabula accuratissime delineate, https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island/catalog/sh513mv2843

[4] Novissima totius Orbis tabula, https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island/catalog/rn092zx5076

[5] 1671 Jacob Van Meurs Rare Original Antique Map of America – Island of California https://www.classicalimages.com/products/1671-jacob-van-meurs-rare-original-antique-map-of-america-island-of-california

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