Monday, May 15, 2006

Mystery Maps of 15th and 16th centuries (Article)

Gavin Menzies has been in the news again lately this time regarding his controversial theory about the origin of the Maori.

Menzies is also still heavily publicizing the recently discovered Chinese map which he claims supports the theories in his book.

As such it would be good to review some of the claims made here with reference to the mystery maps of the 15th and 16th centuries that may provide much enlightenment on the geographical knowledge transmission.

At his website, Menzies and his colleagues mention a few important maps from this period that have been discussed previously in the blog. Antonio Galvão, the "Apostle of the Moluccas," in 1563 writes:

In the year 1428, Don Pedro, the king's eldest son, who was a great traveller, went into England, France, and Germany, and thence into the Holy Land and other places, and came home by Italy, through Rome and Venice. He is said to have brought a map of the world home with him, in which all parts of the earth were described, by which the enterprizes of Don Henry for discovery were much assisted. In this map the Straits of Magellan are called the Dragons-tail, and the Cape of Good Hope the Front of Africa, and so of the rest.

I was informed by Francis de Sosa Tavares, that in the year 1528, Don Fernando, the king's eldest son, shewed him a map which had been made 120 years before, and was found in the study of Alcobaza, which exhibited all the navigation of the East Indies, with the cape of Bona Sperança, as in our latter maps; by which it appears that there was as much discovered, or more, in ancient times as now.

We have discussed Galvão's comments earlier and how they indicate a knowledge of the "New World" before the voyage of Columbus.

In our last blog entry, we also mention the map described by Alfonso de Albuquerque in 1512:

I am also sending you an authentic portion of a large map belonging to a Javanese pilot, containing the Cape of Good Hope, Portugal and the Land of Brasil, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and the Spice Islands. It also shows the navigation fo the Chinese and the Gores, with the rhumbs and the routes taken by their ships and the interiors of the various kingdoms and which kingdoms border on which. It strikes me as the finest piece of work I ever saw and I am sure Your Highness would be delighted to see it.

The names were written in Javanese script and I found a Javanese who could read and write the language. I send Your Highness this fragment that Francisco Rodrigues copied from the original, in which Your Highness will see where the Chinese and the Gores really come from and the route your ships should follow to reach the Spice Islands, where the gold mines are located and the islands of Java and Banda, where nutmeg and mace come from, and the territory of the king of Siam. You will see the extent of Chinese navigation and where they return to and the point beyond which they will not sail. The main part of the map is lost in the Flower of the Sea. I interprested this map with the pilot Pero de Alpoim, so that they would be able to explain it to Your Highness. You may take this portion of it as very authentic and accurate, because it shows the routes they take in both directions. It does not show the archipelago called Celate. which lies between Java and Malaca. Your Highness´ creature and servant, Alfonso de Albuquerque.

Such a sophisticated map written in Javanese and including Brazil only 12 years after it was "discovered" by the Portuguese is astonishing, and de Albuquerque demostrated its high value in sending it to the king.

According to a note at Menzies site, another map possibly showing or mentioning Brazil in 1447 has been discovered with the following reference (unverified by this author):

O Brasil num Portulano do Sec. XV - Portuguese National Library - ref. H.G. 17204 / 17v.

This map stands as the best link for the mysterious charts mentioned by Galvão as existing less than a century earlier, and supposedly showing the Straits of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope.

Francisco Rodrigues, mentioned by de Albuquerque, in 1513 wrote a manual of roteiros or rutters, maritime charts for the East Indian trade. The notes of his work indicate that they were copied from charts used by local East Indian pilots. They contained detailed descriptions of coastlines and were among the first charts to show latitudes for southern and eastern Africa.

When the Portuguese entered the area of Southeast Asia, we have mentioend that the Luções were controlling most of the trade with China in Southeast Asia. The Ming dynasty was clamping down on foreign trade with a few exceptions. Of these the most important according to Portuguese sources was the trade arrangement between Lusung and Guanzhou.

The Luções showed great eagerness in assisting the Portuguese with their explorations which is in-keeping with one of the themes of this work.

Thomas Suarez suggests that the first mention of indigenous maps in Insular Southeast occurs in the Yuan dynasty annals of the 13th century. Interestingly the Yuan and Insular Southeast Asian maps, and at least one Gujerati map mentioned by Vasco de Gama, followed the "Mongolian style" of marking grid lines on the map together with geographical descriptions.

Menzies theorized that the maps mentioned by Galvão were transmitted to Dom Pedro by Nicolo di Conti in Florence in 1428. His theory though rests on maybe a less accepted dating of di Conti's return to Italy from Asia.

The evidence does seem to suggest that di Conti provided important information that revolutionalized the European conception of the globe. Some information traced to di Conti and related to southern Africa does turn up in maps and globes of the time, but nothing else related to the New World.

According to di Conti's testimony to papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini, the Venetian traveled through Asia for 25 years starting his journeys in Damascus.

After maybe six or seven years of travel, di Conti's tale ends in the kingdom of Champa. Then about four years before he returns to Florence, di Conti states that he departs from Champa for South India.

This would indicate that between his arrival and departure from Champa, some 15 years may have elapsed.

According to di Conti, during most of his Asian travels he was a member of the court of Prester John of Greater India. It was also the latter king that married him to his wife. By the time di Conti reached Egypt and met Pero Tafur, he had four children with his wife.

All of this would suggest that di Conti met Prester John either in Champa or somewhere near Champa, where he got married and began having children. No information is given for this time period by Bracciolini, but Tafur gives us some idea of di Conti's activities.

Of course, Champa was a natural trading partner of Lusung, which was located off its eastern coast, and where I have suggested that "Prester John" was located.

After spending much time in this region, di Conti would eventually learn that the Indian Ocean was not enclosed by land as suggested by Ptolemy. Indeed the Venetian is credited with dispelling this myth.

And we can also say that if the information contained in the Galvão and de Albuquerque maps did indeed exist in Southeast Asia during his time he would have been the natural person to transmit such knowledge. No other person since Marco Polo had spent so much time in the region.

And many scholars do in fact believe that Paolo Toscanelli's suggestion to Christopher Columbus to sail to the East Indies from the East, was inspired by Nicolo di Conti.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Bracciolini, Poggio: De varietate fortunae, book iv [c.1445] (ed. by Abbé Oliva, Paris 1723).

Brotton, Jerry. Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World, Reaktion Books, 2003.

Cartas de Afonso de Albuquerque seguidas de documentos que as elucidam. Edited by Raymundo António de Bulhao Pato, 7 vols. (Lisbon , 1884-1935) volime I, carta IX, 1 April 1512, pp. 29-65.

Major, R.H. (ed.). India in the fifteenth century: Being a collection of narratives of voyages to India in the century preceding the Portuguese discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society) (English trans. by J. Winter Jones, Hakluyt Society, London 1857). Republished by Asian Educational Services, June 30, 1992.