Navigation and Cartography (1400-1600)

A la Espada y el Compas

Date: 1599
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This image represents the ideal of the knight-cosmographer, a crusader who uses modern navigation in order to gather wealth, knowledge, and territory for his empire. Vespucci and Magellan were often depicted as fully armored knights using navigational instruments like compasses and armillary spheres to find their way at sea. Iberians in the sixteenth century turned exploration and the quest for new knowledge into a kind of modern crusade, a tradition that would later be adopted by northern European explorers like Sir Walter Raleigh and John Smith. The phrase "To the sword and the compass, more and more and more and more" and the image of a knight with one hand on his sword and the other holding dividers above the Americas on a graticuled globe reveals how closely conquest and navigational science were linked in early modern imperialism.

See: Canizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Nature, Empire, and Nation: Explorations of the History of Science in the Iberian World. Stanford: University of California Press, 2006.
CITATION: A la Espada y el compas Mas y mas y mas y mas. 1599. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.



Ambassador's Globe

Date: c. 1525
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Artifacts


This globe from c. 1525 depicts the far-spread regions of the world that the Spanish and Portuguese had been exploring since the fifteenth century. The most accurate coastlines are of Western Europe and the Mediterranean, but this cartographer was quite familiar with the Atlantic coasts of Africa and South America as well. The Portuguese had been surveying the African coast for over one hundred years and several of their trading posts are included on this globe. The detail of America's Atlantic coast is even more impressive, especially considering this entire hemisphere was unknown forty years earlier. The Caribbean Islands, the first region of the New World to be explored, all have fairly accurate coasts and important features of the mainland, like the mouth of the Amazon River, are also included. In 1525, the American interior and the Pacific Coast were still terra incognita. Although globes are still far more accurate geographical representations than maps, they were especially necessary in the years before Mercator pioneered the use of mathematics to project spaces on the round earth onto a flat map. Cosmographers could achieve a high degree of geographical accuracy by charting places on a globe with lines of latitude and longitude, but globes were bulky and difficult to create, thus they were less useful than maps for navigators at sea.
CITATION: Ambassador's Globe. Nuremberg, c. 1525. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: 2003 1481.




Date: 1555
Owner: iStock Photo
Source Type: Images


This bronze mariner's astrolabe was one of many similar instruments used to determine a ship's latitude at sea. A navigator would position the astrolabe parallel with the horizon at noon, when the sun reaches its peak in the sky, and measure how many degrees of arc were between the horizon and the sun (a known star could also be used at night). To determine latitude, navigators needed to know an astral body's declination, the variation in its position over time (which would be found by consulting an astronomical almanac), and do some basic arithmetic (90 degrees - the sun or star's altitude + the declination = latitude).

The degree markers running along the ring of this astrolabe would be lined up with the rotating pointer in the middle to achieve a relative measure of accuracy. Several other navigational tools, such as the quadrant and cross staff, also measured the sun's altitude at noon to determine a ship's latitude. Although it was virtually impossible to calculate longitude while at sea, navigators could reach a location of known latitude by sailing to a given parallel and traveling along it until reaching land. Astrolabes were hardly exact and errors of several degrees could put a ship too far north or south of its desired port. Nevertheless, simple, durable, and practical instruments like the astrolabe were essential for Iberian navigators of the 14th to 17th centuries and facilitated European dominance of the New World.

CITATION: Norbert Speicher. Small Astrolabe. Courtesy of iStockphoto. ID: 2874694.



Cosmographer at Work

Date: 1537
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This image is the frontispiece to a 1537 work about spherical geometry, a study made possible by the renaissance of classical learning that was nearly complete by the early modern era. The cosmographer leans over a globe with a graticule of latitude and longitude, a conception of geographic space influenced by the works of Euclid and Ptolemy, and the floor is even laid out in a standard grid. The inclusion of heavenly bodies, stars and astrological signs used for navigation, also echo classical cosmography. Yet the theme of this image is distinctly modern; indeed, Europeans (especially Spaniards) in the early modern era conceived of themselves as having surpassed the ancients in knowledge, technology, and power, all of which had much to do with the discovery of America. The Iberian empires in America, a continent included on the globe, were larger than Rome's at the height of its power, and the fact that the ancients were ignorant of the existence of the New World--and the plants, animals, and peoples within it--did much to diminish their authority. The instruments created to navigate, chart, and conquer the Americas were also seen as superior to those of Greco-Romans. This frontispiece thus includes images of astrolabes, dividers, quadrants, and hourglasses, as well as musical instrument and books to laud contemporary skills in the arts. This picture illustrates Europe's new found confidence that modern technology and learning would enable them to expand across the globe (note the absence of Christian iconography in favor of scientific and classical imagery).

CITATION: Bosco, Sacro. [Cosmographer at work]. 1537. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.



First World Map to Name America

Date: 1507
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Maps


This 1507 world map by Martin Waldseemuller is the earliest known document to name the New World "America." The classical tradition and modern science are both exalted on this map, personified by the images of Ptolemy and Amerigo Vespucci who both hold modern navigational instruments (a quadrant and dividers respectively). This graticuled map adds Spanish and Portuguese discoveries in Africa and the New World onto the basic Ptolemaic template for world maps. The emphasis, though, is on the contributions made by Amerigo Vespucci, whose name still graces North and South America. He developed a rudimentary method for calculating longitude and his extensive practical experience earned him the position as the Casa de Contratacion's first pilot major. Vespucci was also the first explorer to insist that the New World was its own landmass and not attached to Asia at its western periphery. This notion had an immense effect on contemporary cosmography. The fact that the Americas (and Americans) were wholly unknown in either the classics or scripture would prompt early modern Europeans to question the validity of both of these ancient authorities. 

CITATION: Waldseemuller, Martin. "Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii alioru[m]que lustrationes." France, 1507. 1 map on 12 sheets ; 128 x 233 cm., sheets 46 x 63 cm. or smaller. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, ID: G3200 1507 .W3 Vault. Original Image Number: ct000725C.



Map of Caribbean

Date: 1592
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Maps


This Italian made map of the Caribbean and parts of North, South, and Central America includes several elements typical of portolan charts, like the location of settlements and colored banners to depict the allegiance of various regions. In 1592, when this map was produced, most of the banners indicate Spanish territories (with red and white striped flags) such as Peru, Mexico, and Florida. Since the chart is mapping a relatively small area (the Caribbean Sea), problems with portolans, such as the curvature of the earth, are less pronounced, making this map a fairly reliable navigational tool. Although this map does not employ a graticule, there is a latitudinal marker (with north located on the right hand side) running along the bottom of the chart. Many extant sixteenth century portolans were made by Italians as composites of existing charts. The Iberian portolans, like the Padron Real, were closely guarded secrets and thus few were produced and even fewer survive.
CITATION: O'Doria, Hercules. [Map of the Carribean]. 1592. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.


Map of Cholula

Date: 1581
Owner: Benson Latin American Collection
Source Type: Maps



This 1581 map of Cholula painted for the relaciones geograficas reflects the practice of Nahuatl speaking peoples in central Mexico of creating social settlement maps, charts that portray a city's social hierarchies. Cholula is drawn as a geometric grid surrounding a large central monastery, both of which were created by the mendicant friars after the Spanish conquest, and labeled in the Spanish language. Each of the twenty-four blocks actually represents several smaller blocks, and six of these show large churches dispersed throughout the city. Yet these churches were all located within a few kilometers of each other while Cholula was actually about twelve square kilometers large. The reason for this is that the six churches were meant to represent the city's centers of power, a condensed form of the twelve individual polities that had dominated Cholula prior to Spanish rule. Each church on the map is designated as a cabecera, or head town, and given a number that preserves the order of the twelve former power centers that are shown on older Nahuatl social settlement maps. The map is thus geometrically inaccurate but it reflects both the traditional and contemporary hierarchies of Cholula in a way that blended Spanish and indigenous elements.

See: Mundy, Barbara E. The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geograficas. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996.

CITATION: The Relaciones Geograficas Map of Cholula, 1581. Courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, the General Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin.




Map of South America

Date: 1596
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Maps


This Dutch map from 1596 is in many ways on the threshold of modern mapping, but retains several elements characteristic of fifteenth century charts. It includes a scale and the degrees of latitude along both the top and bottom of the page. Yet in lieu of graticule, this chart has a single compass rose with the standard thirty two lines, albeit one that points to geographic, as opposed to magnetic, north. While it includes territories that are clearly marked by color as well as their principle cities, Brazilian cannibals, Patagonian giants, and fabulous creatures are also drawn. Despite these misconceptions, it is significant to note that there are no regions labeled as terra incognita; Europeans were becoming confident that their exploration and empirical observations enabled them to know the entire world.

CITATION: van Langren, Arnold Florent. Delineatio omnium orarum totius Australis partis Americae... Afbeelinghe van alle See-custen des gheelen Zuyderschen deels van America. 1596. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.



Map of Teozacoalco

Date: 1580
Owner: Benson Latin American Collection
Source Type: Maps


This indigenously drawn map is based on the ancient Mesoamerican trope of cartographic histories, charts that displayed a city's founding, dynastic lineage, and/or community boundaries. Teozacoalco, located in a remote area of Oaxaca, did not have as much Spanish cartographic influence, thus this map--painted for the relaciones geograficas questionnaire in 1580--very closely resembles (and may in fact have been copied from) a traditional cartographic history. The different territories within Teozacoalco are identified by forty six logographic place names drawn around the circularly represented city. Each of the smaller towns that composed the city is set apart by a web of rivers within the circle, an idealized projection meant to emphasize the unity and social coherence of the community. The scale of this map, however, becomes smaller as it expands from the center because it was concerned with depicting the community's structure from a subjectively human point of view rather than an objective mathematical one (as in Mercator's projections). On the left hand side of this chart, the artist portrayed three vertical dynastic genealogies where each generation of rulers is represented by a couple facing each other. Although this idealized map of Teozacoalco would have been useless to cartographers in Spain trying to chart their American empire, its emphasis on the community's rich history, importance, and unity was central to Mesoamerican spatial understanding.

See: Mundy,Barbara E. The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geograficas. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996.

CITATION: The Relaciones Geograficas Map of Teozacoalco, 1580. Courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, the General Libraries, the University of Texas at Austin.



Mercator Maps

Date: 1595
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Publications

The "Nova et aucta orbis terrae descriptio ad usum navigatium emendate accommodate," created by the Dutch cartographer Gerard Mercator in 1569, was the first map to mathematically project from a spherical globe onto a two dimensional chart. Known as isogonic cylindrical projection, Mercator stretched out the degrees of latitude near each pole, flattening the globe so as to allow navigators to calculate accurate loxodromes, or straight lines of bearing, without the imprecision inherent to portolan charts. Yet Mercator's maps retained several of the inaccuracies found on other maps of this era, most notably the inclusion of the northwest passage, the waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans north of Canada. Iberian navigators, who had become expert in the creation and use of portolan charts, were slower to adopt projection maps than their contemporaries in northern Europe, and the sciences of navigation and mapmaking pioneered by Portugal and Spain in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries became outmoded. 


Portolan Chart

Date: c. 1565
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Maps


Like many charts of the period, this map was drawn on vellum, a special type of parchment made from the skin of stillborn sheep. It includes several Spanish cities marked by red and white striped flags, including Quito, as well as the Galapagos islands in the Pacific. As on most portolans, the 'mother' compass rose (usually located in the middle, but on the lower right of this damaged map) is surrounded by several other interconnecting roses, all of which are aligned with magnetic north. Another common convention is that each rose has thirty two rhumb lines, or loxodromes, running from its center, to form a grid across the chart. The eight principle compass directions, or "winds," are drawn in bold red, the eight lines for half directions (that bisect principle lines) are done in green, and the thirty two quarter lines are done in lighter red. Using a straight line and a bisector, a navigator would use these lines to plot their ship's position at sea. There is a faded line along the top of the page that indicates latitude, with north located on the left hand side of the page, but--like most practical sea charts of the sixteenth century--this map does not use a graticule. It is probable that the animals depicted in this map are Darwin's rheas, large flightless birds living throughout western South America that are now close to extinction.

CITATION: Portolan chart of the Pacific coast from Guatemala to northern Peru with the Galapagos Islands. c. 1565. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division: G4802.C6P5 1565 .P6 Vault : Vellum 9.



Source References

Web Sites

undefined (Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas): Exhibit with links to images of 16th century Latin American maps. 

Early Maps  (Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas)

David Rumsey Map Collection (Cartography Associates)

Exploring the Early Americas (Library of Congress)


Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Blake, John. The Sea Chart: The Illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational Charts. London: The Conway Maritime Press, 2004.

Brotton, Jerry. Trading Territories: Mapping the Early Modern World. New York: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Canizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Nature, Empire, and Nation: Explorations of the History of Science in the Iberian World. Stanford: University of California Press, 2006.

Craib, Raymond B. Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. 

Ehrenberg, Ralph E. Mapping the World: An Illustrated History of Cartography. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2005.

Kagan, Richard. Urban Images of the Hispanic World, 1493-1793. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Koch, Tom. Cartographies of Disease: Maps, Mapping, and Medicine.Redlands, CA:  ESRI Press, 2005. 

McGarry, E. John. Ploughing the South Sea: A History of Merchant Shipping on the West Coast of South. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006.

Mundy, Barbara E. The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geograficas. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996.

Mundy, Barbara E. The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geograficas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Padron, Ricardo. The Spacious World: Cartography, Literature, and Empire in Early Modern Spain. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Parry, J.H. The Discovery of the Sea. New York: The Dial Press, 1974.

Pimentel, Juan. "The Iberian Vision: Science and Empire in the Framework of a Universal Monarchy, 1500-1800." Osiris, 2nd Series.15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise. (2000): 17-30.

Sandman, Alison. "An Apologia for the Pilots' Charts: Politics, Projections and Pilots' Reports in Early Modern Spain." Imago Mundi. 56: 1 (January 2004): 7-22.

Schwartz, Seymour and Ralph E. Ehrenberg. The Mapping of America. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980.

Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Thompson, J. Eric S. "Canoes and the Navigation of the Maya and Their Neighbors." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 79:1/2 (1949): 69-78.

Turnbull, David. "Cartography and Science in Early Modern Europe: Mapping the Construction of Knowledge Spaces." Imago Mundi. 48 (1996): 5-24.

Woodward, David. The History of Cartography, Volume 3: Cartography in the European Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.