Engraved by Petrus Plancius, the great Dutch engraver and first Hydrographer to the Dutch East India Company (VOC), and compiled from the latest and highly secret Portuguese sources, the map provides the most detailed cartographic knowledge of the region at the end of the 16th century that was collected by Huygen van Linschoten, the young Dutch secretary to the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa.
The map was originally bound into some editions of his seminal work, the Itinerario, especially the English edition of 1598, the first popular sailing guide to the ports and cities of the Portuguese trading empire in the Far East including the Spice Islands, China and Japan. The information portrayed in the map, that could bring the death penalty in Portugal if made public at the end of the 16th century.
In addition to being one of the rarest, most valuable, and sought-after printed map of the region, it is also one of the rarest printed maps of any region in the world with only an estimated total of 35 copies surviving into the 21st century, half of which are kept in museums and national libraries such as the Bodleian Library and the British Library, with the remainder scattered among private collections.
Plancius based his map on covertly-obtained Portuguese manuscript charts. The map is a vast improvement over previously printed maps of the region, with most of the islands well-delineated, well-placed, and correctly named.
The map is densely engraved with detail and cartographic decoration. Each island is thickly blanketed with toponyms. Some of the place names have were communicated to the mapmaker via Portuguese materials, but others were from earlier sources. For example, Beach in the lower southwest corner stems from Marco Polo.
New Guinea and the islands to the east are unfinished, with open coastlines to the south. This reflected the state of knowledge at the time, and the hypothesis that they might connect to a large southern continent.
While extraordinarily well-formed for the time, there are a few oddities in the map that have to do with it being a still little-known, to the Dutch, area. Palawan is confused with the Calamianes. The west coast of New Guinea is separated and shown as the island of Seram (Ceiram), which also has the Guinean port of Canam. This last detail would be repeated in later maps, such as those by Linschoten and Rossi.
In the seas, rhumb lines criss-cross the water, suggesting possible navigation. This navigational theme is echoed in the sailing ships that are in seas too. Beware, however, as there are many sea monsters dotting the map as well. A massive compass rose is a distinctive feature, as are the detailed strapwork cartouches housing the title, scale bars, and publication information.
In addition to the map's importance as an iconic illustration of the opening of the spice trade to Dutch traders, this map served as the model for Jodocus Hondius's Philippinae Insulae, the first printed map of the Philippine Islands.
This map appeared in the rare English edition of Linschoten's Itinerario: Iohn Huighen van Linschoten. His discours of voyages (London, 1598).
Spices and the East India trade,
This map is known as the “Spice Map” for its illustration of nutmeg, clove, and sandalwood included along the bottom of the map. The map was published as a means of promoting the commercial importance and viability of prospective Dutch voyages to the Spice Islands.
Trade with the Indian subcontinent and the East Indies was a central focus for the Dutch when the map was made. The Moluccas, just west of Papua, were of importance for they were the vaunted Spice Islands, originally the only source in the world for nutmeg, mace, and cloves. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to gain power in the East Indies, trading for spices in the Moluccas and controlling the spice market in Europe.
The Dutch wanted in on the lucrative trade, but they also had to contend with the Portuguese. The first Dutch expedition, led by Cornelis de Houtman in 1595—the year after this map was published—avoided India, the Strait of Malacca, and the Moluccas—Portuguese strongholds—in favor of the Sunda Strait. The Dutch set up their trade centers on the island of Java, at Bantam and, later, Batavia. After Houtman, the second Dutch expedition (1598-1600) quickly set sail for the East Indies. It was followed by five others. In 1602, the most powerful of these merchants and the Dutch government, the States General, created the Dutch East India Company (VOC), a monopoly to control the East Indies trade.