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Mapping the mysterious East

 Detai of Ramusio map of Asia Direct European experience with East Asia started with Vasco da Gama's expedition around Africa to India in 1497-1498, a voyage that began a very profitable commerce for the Portuguese that would last well into the seventeenth century. The Portuguese considered their maps to be top-secret, but in spite of their best efforts, details of Asian geography gradually leaked out.  Detail of Ortelius map of AsiaOne of the first maps to take advantage of this new information was drawn by the Italian mapmaker Giacomo Gastaldi for Giovanni Battista Ramusio's mid-sixteenth century collection of travel accounts. Gastaldi's map drew on the previously unpublished reports of the Portuguese in Asia collected by Ramusio, with the result that his map shows a Southeast Asia that is beginning to take on its true shape, in contrast to its appearance in earlier maps. The southern orientation of Gastaldi's maps was not uncommon in the mid-sixteenth century (the European maps in Stumpf are oriented in the same way), but this approach went out of fashion soon after.

This map of Asia by Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) of Antwerp represents a significant advance in cartography.  Detail of Speed map of AsiaThe map was part of Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum published in 1570, the first atlas with maps consistently sized and styled. Ortelius based his maps on extensive research among travelers' accounts and earlier maps, and included in the atlas a catalogue of all of the maps and mapmakers consulted. The Theatrum was enormously popular throughout Europe. Twenty-five editions of it were issued during Ortelius's lifetime, and Phillip II of Spain was said to have kept a copy close at hand in his office. Ortelius's map shows a more complete understanding of Southeast Asian geography than Gastaldi possessed, but it also reveals how little was known about the northern Chinese coast, Japan and Korea.

The English lagged behind the Portuguese and the Dutch in trade with Asia, but they began to take a greater interest during the seventeenth century, and would come to be the dominant European power in Asia by the end of the eighteenth century. The first English world atlas, John Speed's Prospect of the most famous parts of the world (1627), included this map of Asia, based on a Dutch map by Jodocus Hondius. The map is decorated in the Dutch "carte-à-figures" style, with images of typical inhabitants of different parts of the continent. Unlike the figures in his American map who are shown as primitives, the Asian figures depict people who appear strange but not uncivilized. The map is also decorated with views of major Asian cities. With the exception of the ancient towns of Jerusalem and Damascus, though, the towns are all ports frequented by European traders, a reflection of limited European knowledge of the interiors of Asian lands, as well as of the principal interests of British map buyers.

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