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The untold story of the Spice Map

By Peter Geldart Published Dec 02, 2023 5:00 am

Having declared its independence from the dominant Spanish empire in 1581, the up-and-coming Dutch Republic wanted to muscle in on the riches of the Far East, in particular the all-important trade in spices with the eponymous Spice Islands.

To access this great source of wealth, the Dutch navigators and traders needed maps to chart the fastest, safest course for their ships sailing to Asia, and to protect their precious cargos. In an early case of commercial espionage, Amsterdam was able to acquire Portuguese and Spanish maps, which were copied by Dutch cartographers—the IT specialists of their age—without whom people literally lost their bearings. These mapmakers included the astronomer and clergyman Petrus Plancius.

Dutch mapmaker Petrus Plancius would be a key player in the lucrative spice trade because his maps ensured the safety of ships and their precious cargo.

On December 2, 2023, a very rare copy of the first edition of Plancius’s seminal “Spice Map” will be sold by León Gallery in its Kingly Treasures Auction. One of only six examples of the map in its “first state” known to have survived, the discovery and sale of this map will be a “Eureka!” find for the collector who buys it.

This extremely important map, which shows all of Southeast Asia from Siam and the coast of Vietnam in the west to the Solomon Islands in the east, was a huge improvement on previous printed maps of Southeast Asia. The large islands of the Philippines, Luzon and Mindanao, are well-drawn, although the Visayan islands between them are less accurate. Panay is named “Panama,” Negros “Negoes,” Cebu “Cabu” and Leyte “Sabura.” Palawan is confused with the Calamianes group of small islands to its east. To the southeast a vast New Guinea is tentatively shown as part of the theoretical “southern continent.” The map is one of the first to show “Beach” (at bottom left), the tip of the continent to be later known as Australia.

The map, which measures 38 cm x 55 cm, has been described as “the most famous, most important, most beautiful, most wanted and one of the rarest of all maps of Southeast Asia.” It is known as the “Spice Map” because of the drawings at the bottom of nutmeg (Nux Myristica), cloves (Caryophilorum Arbor) and three colors of sandalwood: yellow (Santalum flauum), red (Santalu rubrum) and white (Santalum album).

Most wanted: The Spice Map in its elusive, “first state” edition

The full title of the map is: INSULAE MOLUCCAE celeberrimæ sunt ob Maximam aromatum copiam quam per totum terrarum orbem mittunt: harum praecipuæ sunt Ternate, Tidoris, Motir, Machian & Bachian, his quidam adjungunt Gilolum, Celebiam, Borneonem, Amboinum & Bandam. Ex Insula Timore in Europam advehuntur Santala rubea et alba, Ex Banda nuces myrysticæ, cum Flore, vulgo dicto, Macis, Et ex Moluccis Caryophilly : quorem icones in pede hujus tabellæ ad vivum expressas poni curavimus. 

This can be translated as follows: “The islands of the Moluccas are very famous because of their extremely great wealth in spices, which they export over the whole world. The most important islands are Ternate, Tidor, Motir, Machian and Bachian. Some would expand this list to include: Gilolo, Celebes, Borneo, Ambon, and Banda. From the island of Timor, red and white sandalwood is shipped to Europe, from Banda nuts with their flowers commonly named mace, and from the Moluccas clove tree. At the foot of this map, we have arranged to include pictures of these products drawn from nature.”

The Spice Map has additional importance for Philippine collectors because it is the map from which Jodocus Hondius Jr. copied the Philippines for his miniature map Philippinae Insulae, published in 1598 in the Tabularum Geographicarum Contractarum by Petrus Bertius. 

The map was made by the Flemish-Dutch astronomer and cartographer Petrus Plancius (1552-1622), who was also a minister in the Calvinist Reformed Church. Plancius copied 25 confidential manuscript charts by the Portuguese cartographer Bartolomeu Lasso, obtained from Lisbon by the brothers Cornelius and Frederick Houtman. Following the successful rebellion against their Spanish overlords in 1579, the Dutch wanted a share in the lucrative trade in spices from the Far East. Plancius supported a covert mission to promote the Dutch voyages of exploration to the Spice Islands that would result in the establishment of the Dutch East India Company, the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), in 1602. 

Plancius’s Spice Map was not included in any atlases or books, but was issued separately and sold only as a loose chart. It was engraved by Joannes van Doetecum and published in Amsterdam by Cornelis Claesz in 1592-94. According to the expert Günter Schilder (in Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica, Vol. VII), until now only five copies of the first state of the map were known to have survived, of which four are in institutional collections; one, in private hands, was sold at auction in Europe in 2018.

The first state has the engraver’s name “Ioannes à Doetechum fecit” in the lower cartouche, below three scale bars, and can easily be identified because the title is printed separately in letterpress and glued into the title cartouche. 

On the second state, also published by Claesz before 1609, the title was engraved on the copper plate. Only five copies of the second state are known, all in institutional collections.

In 1617, after Claesz’s death, a third state of the map was published in Amsterdam by Claes Janszoon Visscher, who had acquired the copperplate. In the lower cartouche the engraver’s name is replaced by “CIVisscher excudebat Ao. 1617.” Although still rare, some two dozen copies of the third state are held in institutional and private collections. 

In 1598 a pirated English copy of Plancius's map, engraved by Richard Beckit, was published in John Wolfe's Discours of Voyages into ye Easte & West Indies, an English translation of Jan Huygen van Linschoten's Itinerario.

The Spice Map has additional importance for Philippine collectors because it is the map from which Jodocus Hondius Jr. copied the Philippines for his miniature map Philippinae Insulae, published in 1598 in the Tabularum Geographicarum Contractarum by Petrus Bertius. 


Author Peter Geldart is a member of the Philippine Map Collectors Society (PHIMCOS).