Mar 28, 2007

Book Review: Voyages into ye East and West Indies

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Voyage ofte schipvaert van Jan Huyghen van Linschoten naar Oost ofte Portugaels Indien ... 1579-1592, also known as Voyages into ye East and West Indies, by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten Van Linschoten, Jan Huyghen, and Wolfe, John (editor, translator)

Amsterdam: Walter J. Johnson, Inc. /Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Ltd (1974), 462 pages


Jan Huyghen van Linschoten was a Dutch merchant and traveler who was appointed in 1583 as secretary to Dom Fray Vicente da Fonseca, the Archbishop of Goa. During the six years that he spent in Goa Linschoten copied Portuguese maps, recorded trade information, and collected detailed sailing instructions to India, Southeast Asia, and China, as well as less reliable information about Spanish possessions in the New World. Returning to the Netherlands, Linschoten composed an itinerary of his travels entitled the Voyage ofte schipvaert van Jan Huyghen van Linschoten naar Oost ofte Portugaels Indien ... 1579-1592, which incorporated all he gleaned from the Portuguese, and this information helped the English and the Dutch break the Portuguese monopoly on the Indian Ocean trade. An English edition of his Voyage was published in London in 1598, and the 1974 edition is a facsimile of the original English version.

Linschoten noted that the reason he decided to serve the Archbishop and leave Lisbon was that “the trade of Marchandise there not being great, by reason of the new and fresh disagreeing between the Spaniards and Portingales [Portuguese]…” , a reference to the Battle of Alcântara and the capture of the Portuguese crown by Philip II of Spain. Linschoten provided a wealth of information about every place he visited in his travels; the following is his description of the Portuguese fortress of Diu and the reasons for the city’s importance in the Estado da India as a regional breadbasket:
This land aboundeth, and is very fruitfull of all kinds of victuals, as Oren [pine], Kine [cattle], Hogges, Sheepe, Hennes, Butter, Milk, Onions, Garlicke, Pease, Beanes, and such like, whereof there is great plentie, and that very good, and such as better cannot be made in all these Low Countries…of all these victuals, and necessarie provisions they have so great quantity that they supply the want of all the places round about the, especially Goa and Cochin…

Portrait of Jan Huygen van Linschoten, from the princeps edition of his Itinerario16th-century portrait of Jan Huygen van Linschoten, from an edition of his Itinerario

One of the strengths of the Voyage is the author’s insistence on providing the most accurate information he could gather. Linschoten knew of the existence of the Korean peninsula, but believed it to be an island and had little else to share with readers:
A little beyond Japon under 34. and 35. degrees not farre from the coast of China, lyeth another great Iland called Insula de Core, whereof as yet there is no certaine knowledge, neither of the greatnesse of the countrie, people, nor of the wares that are there to be found.
Still, Linschoten was as eager to believe in the myth of priest-king Prester John as any other early modern European traveler, and he located the realm in Abyssinia. His descriptions of the kingdom of the fabled Prester are nearly as fanciful as those of Sir John Mandeville:
Now to say something of Prester John, being the greatest and mightiest prince in all Africa, his countrey beginneth from the entrance into the red sea, and reacheth to the Iland of Siene… so that to set down the greatnesse of all the countries which this Christian king hath under his commandment, they are in compasse 4000. Italian miles… his government is over many countries and kingdoms that are rich and abundant in gold and silver, and precious stones, and all sorts of metals…
Despite the claims of publisher John Wolfe that “we in our times are thoroughly learned and instructed by our own experience,” there are quite a few regions around the globe that remained unknown to Europeans at the end of the sixteenth century. Several of the maps depict a well-defined Northwest Passage that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the interior of Africa contains little in the way of accurate details. Linschoten described the existence of a little-known stretch of land that would later turn out to be the continent Australia, simultaneously also referencing the unnamed continent of Antartica:
This land beginneth under 7 degrees on the south side [of the island of Java] and runneth east and by south 150 miles long, but touching the breadth, it is not found, because as yet it is not discovered, nor by the Inhabitants themselves well knowne. Some thinke it to be firme land, and parcel of the countrie called Terra incognita, which belong to, should reach from that place to the Cape de Bona sperãce [Good Hope], but as yet it is certainly not known, and therefore it is accounted for an Iland.
The 1974 edition, as a facsimile, uses an Old English font that takes some time to get used to. In addition, there are inconsistencies in the spelling throughout the text (such as country, countrie, countrey), and the translation is in Early Modern English. This edition does not contain an index, table of contents, or footnotes; readers who seek an easier read would be well advised to cast about for the 2001 Elibron Classics edition, which is a reprint of the 1885 Hakluyt Society translation. Both versions, however, provide 21st-century scholars with a wealth of information about how the world looked to Europeans, and how much of the world remained unknown to them.

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