Key to the East: Jan Huygen van Linschoten’s 'Itinerario'

For most of the 17th century the Dutch East India Company, or VOC, brought wealth and prestige to the Low Countries, ushering in what would be known as the Dutch Golden Age. Business was booming, profits were soaring, and the greatly expanded middle class flaunted its newly acquired wealth. It was an age of masterpiece paintings and scientific breakthroughs. What allowed the VOC, established in 1602, to amass such vast fortunes at breakneck speed? The answer lies with the book that has been dubbed ‘the key to the East’: Jan Huygen van Linschoten’s Itinerario.

Early years

Born to a well-off family in Haarlem in 1562, Jan Huygen van Linschoten grew up in the town of Enkhuizen, at the time already home to a thriving fishing industry. It is unknown what the origin of the addition ‘van Linschoten’ (from Linschoten) is – none of his relatives carry the same moniker, and it is unlikely his heritage traces back to the village in Utrecht. His father, Huig, was an innkeeper, which no doubt allowed the young Van Linschoten to encounter many travellers and sailors eager to share stories of their adventures. His head must have been filled with visions of the strange and exotic at a young age. In the opening paragraphs of the Itinerario he states that, as a child, he ‘took no small delight’ in the ‘reading of histories and strange adventures’ (Itinerario, p. 2). He likely attended the Latin school in Enkhuizen, where he learned to read and write, do mathematics, and perhaps also read Latin. At the age of sixteen, Van Linschoten followed in the footsteps of his older stepbrothers by traveling to Seville, Spain, to find employment and learn a trade, as was customary for young men in his social sphere. He eventually found his way to Lisbon in the wake of the Spanish King Philip II, who took over control of the Portuguese Crown. Once there he was taken into the company of João Vicente da Fonseca, archbishop of Goa, a city and region in India. He promptly left European shores with his new employer, in search of the adventures he had so often envisioned.

Scramble to the East

Van Linschoten’s relocation to Goa was made possible by the Portuguese monopoly in trade with the East at the time. Long before the colonial empires of the English, Dutch, or French were established, the Portuguese had asserted their dominance in the region, with Spain their only real competitor – and with the merging of the crowns that too ceased to be an obstacle. They established the Estado da India Portuguesa¸ or ‘Portuguese State of India’, with Goa as its capital. Needless to say, other European nations were eager to get their hands on a slice of the profits. They faced several problems: lacking such advanced methods of navigation such as the internet or GPS, sailors were forced to rely on maps, astronomical observations, and – for new routes more so – on roteiros, or ‘rutters’. These were texts that contained detailed information on safe seafaring routes, collected on earlier journeys. They contained information on sights to keep an eye out for, such as particular islands, or other clues that revealed a ship was heading in the right direction. The Portuguese possessed the information required for safe passage to the East, which they kept closely guarded as a national secret. Of course, this information was highly coveted by their European rivals, but it had eluded their grasp for a long time. That is, at least until Van Linschoten arrived in Goa after a five-month journey.

Life in Goa

The city of ‘Golden Goa’ was at the time seen as a true pearl of the Orient. The city was established in the 15th century by the Adil Shahi dynasty of neighbouring Bijapur, who intended it as their new capital. It was captured by the Portuguese in 1510, after which it rapidly grew in size and importance. Many Portuguese natives settled there and through active government encouragement wed local women. Aside from its use as an administrative centre and trading post, the city also served as a base for the Portuguese Christianization efforts in the region. Van Linschoten would remain on the island for a full five years. He worked as some sort of assistant to the archbishop, though in what capacity is unknown. Information on his actual day-to-day duties are scarce, but his knowledge of Portuguese was most probably insufficient for him to occupy a post that involved much writing. His circle of acquaintances and friends included Portuguese inhabitants of Goa, other foreign members of staff, merchants, and sailors – including others from the Netherlands. These visitors did not only come from areas directly adjacent to Goa, but also from as far away as Japan. One of them, Dirck Gerritsz Pomp (1544-1608), was born in Enkhuizen and was known as ‘Dirck China’ for his extensive knowledge of China and Japan. He too must have supplied Van Linschoten with many interesting titbits on faraway places.

Van Linschoten took a special interest in learning about Goa itself, studying its inhabitants, their habits, their culture and religion, and the local plant and animal life. Although he would not have had much direct contact with the natives, his protracted stay allowed him to learn much by simple observation. Additionally, he must have picked up a great deal of nautical and mercantile information by visiting the docks, both of which provided him with unique insight into the structure of the Portuguese empire in the East. All of this information, the stories, the gossip, and the news he acquired in Goa over time laid the groundwork for the preparation of his greatest achievement.

Van Linschoten’s observations

Throughout his writing, Van Linschoten mostly remains focused on facts, but he occasionally lets slip an interesting observation. Some of these would not be seen as very tactful if written today: While praising the inhabitants of Malacca for being one of the most courteous and friendly people in Indonesia, he claims the natives of Java are ‘stubborn and obstinate’ (Itinerario, p. 24-25). One wonders which disgruntled sailor or merchant sketched this undoubtedly biased view to Van Linschoten. During his description of Japan Van Linschoten comments that the Japanese hate the Chinese with a passion, and that they are ‘in all their affairs and customs the opposites of the Chinese’ (Itinerario, p. 35). While the two countries did not always see eye to eye this claim seems more than far-fetched.

Return home

Van Linschoten greatly enjoyed his life in Goa. His letters back home betray as much: at one point he even says he could see himself remaining there for the rest of his life. He declined the opportunity to join an expedition headed for China. While his thirst for adventure may have been real, he was not reckless: he considered the proposition too risky, and was not prepared to lose money. All the signs pointed to him staying in Goa for many more years to come. Then, sadly, disaster struck, and before long he embarked on his journey back home at the end of 1588. The cause was the death of both his stepbrother, Willem Tin, and of his mentor, the archbishop, who had already returned to Portugal at this point. He never laid eyes on Goa again. His homecoming was delayed by a shipwreck near the Azores. Van Linschoten decided to remain on the island of Terceira to oversee the salvage of lost goods. This also afforded him the opportunity to write a description of the island. He eventually found his way back to Enkhuizen in September 1592, where he found work as treasurer and became engaged to Reynu Meynertsdr Seymens, who was already three months pregnant at the time of their marriage.

Journey north

Van Linschoten did not become complacent after coming home. He took part in Willem Barentsz’s 1594 attempt to find an alternative route to Asia through a northern passage. Like Barentsz, Van Linschoten believed that to be the most viable option for traveling to Asia, as it meant completely avoiding any Portuguese opposition along the way. Complete knowledge of the northern regions was still sparse, and many believed the road north to be much shorter than the southern route.

Van Linschoten participated in two attempts as advisor and overseer, but did not join the third and fateful expedition of 1596, which would prove fatal to Barentsz himself. He published a book on his experiences on these northern voyages, entitled the Voyagie, ofte schip-vaert van by Noorden om langes (Franeker, 1601). Before that, however, he focused on getting the Itinerario ready for publication

Three books, one binding

The book that is here referred to the as the Itinerario actually consists of three several books, each with its own title, title page, and page count, also called a convolute. The first part is the Itinerario proper, which is a report of the journey Van Linschoten undertook from Lisbon to Goa and back again. It contains material on several countries in the area, but mostly extensive information on Goa itself, its surroundings, the state of affairs in Portuguese India, and valuable information on regions that were still as good as unknown to most Europeans. Aside from being very appealing to the interested lay person, this text also taught merchants which spices could be obtained where, and at what cost. More than that, it revealed weaknesses in the Portuguese grip on the region, especially detailing that their hold on the Indonesian territories was strenuous at best. It was there that the Dutch were able to establish their strongest base in the region and drive out the Portuguese almost entirely.

Publisher, printer, bookseller and agent

Van Linschoten’s efforts in writing the Itinerario attracted the attention of the Amsterdam publisher, printer, and bookseller Cornelis Claesz, who saw great potential in the project. Claesz had a great deal of experience in publishing books on seafaring, geography, and travels. His involvement had a marked influence on the further development of the book. First, he asked Van Linschoten to provide additional information on the west coast of Africa and America, to make the book appeal to a wider audience.

The only problem was that Van Linschoten himself had little to no knowledge on these topics. The solution came in the form of Berent ten Broecke, better known as Bernardus Paludanus, fellow resident of Enkhuizen, a good friend of Van Linschoten’s, and a renowned scientist and doctor. Paludanus, whose cabinet of curiosities drew visitors of high standing from all around Europe, wrote those parts on Africa and America Van Linschoten could not provide himself. These topics were compiled in the third book of the Itinerario, the Beschryvinge, or ‘Description’. Paludanus also included many annotations throughout the main text. In the first edition these are set off from Van Linschoten’s writing with the use of two typefaces: Gothic for the main text and Roman for the annotations.

Writing the Itinerario: the work of many

Claesz also requested that Van Linschoten write a section containing sailing instructions which might prove valuable to the more professional reader, rather than to a general audience. It was this Reys-geschrift, or ‘Travel Writing’, that contained the information that proved to be so valuable to the establishment of the VOC, and thereby Dutch dominance in East Asian trade and colonization. These instructions not only detailed the best passages for traveling from Portugal to its Indonesian colonies, but also between India, the entire Indian archipelago, China, and Japan. In short, it provided the information the Portuguese had for so long successfully shielded from prying eyes.

Van Linschoten did not technically write this section himself: he made use of a variety of sources, most of them Spanish and Portuguese. Some of these sources were the books or texts he managed to gain access to in Goa through his contacts in the archbishop’s staff. The rest were likely stories and information he had pried out of, or were spilled willingly by, unsuspecting sailors staying in Goa. The Reys-gheschrift was commissioned to be printed in advance of the rest of the Itinerario, allowing Cornelis Houtman to take it with him on the official first Dutch expedition to Indonesia, which took place from 1595 to 1597. As a result, the Reys-gheschrift, despite being the second of three books, is dated 1595, whereas the Itinerario itself and the Beschryvinge are dated 1596.

The maps of the Itinerario

Claesz, with his keen eye for marketing, also felt it prudent to add a selection of choice maps to the Itinerario. These were made by some of the best-known mapmakers of the 16th century. It features one world map, the Orbis Terrarum Typus de Integro Multis in Locis Emendatus by the renowned Petrus Plancius, which Claesz had already published separately in 1594. Five detail maps were also added, which were made by Arnoldus and Henricus, two brothers from the illustrious Van Langren family of cartographers. These were based on some maps made by Petrus Plancius that had also been published by Cornelis Claesz (Schilder, p. 205). While all the locations depicted on the maps are in some capacity mentioned in the Itinerario, they do not correspond directly to the text. Later reprints and translations of the book feature substitute maps, or different versions of the same map.

Collaboration in Enkhuizen

Aside from Claesz and Paludanus, other notable figures were also involved with the production of the Itinerario, some more directly than others. Claesz contracted the father and son team of Johannes and Baptista van Doetecum to prepare engravings for the book. These were based on Van Linschoten’s own drawings, which he had produced during his time on Goa and Terceira. Some of them depict people from all regions of the world and all walks of life, whereas others show scenes from life in Goa, and yet other engravings portray indigenous plants and fruits. One example features a drawing of a durian, to which Van Linschoten adds that ‘the fruit that they call Durians are praised above all others for their flavour and loveliness’ (Itinerario, p. 86-87). No mention is made of their scent.

The Doetecum family also produced several engravings for Lucas Jansz Waghenaer (ca. 1533-1606), who was a navigational officer, cartographer, and yet another famous ‘Enkhuizenaar’ (citizen from Enkhuizen). Waghenaer had published the Spieghel der Zeevaerdt in 1584, the world’s first nautical atlas, and as such had made quite a name for himself. He and Van Linschoten are known to have collaborated, and as Waghenaer used some of Van Linschoten’s material in his Thresoor der Zeevaert. Waghenaer was supported by François Maelson (1538-1602), a local physician and occasional advisor to the Stadtholder of the Netherlands, Prince Maurice. In all likelihood Maelson also helped Van Linschoten in his endeavours, as the Itinerario contains a dedication to the Prince.

Publication and International Editions

The first edition of the Itinerario was published in 1596. At the time it was still customary for bookshops to only sell books as stacks of paper. These could then be brought to a binder’s shop by the customer to have them bound and provided with a cover. Claesz, however, also offered fully bound editions of the Itinerario in his Amsterdam store, most likely at a higher price for a wealthier audience.

The book became an immediate bestseller, and many reprints followed. An English translation was published in 1598 by John Wolfe of London, which was translated by William Philip. This version is divided into four books and features some different maps than the original. French, Latin and German translations were produced not long after, allowing other countries to also benefit from the no-longer secret information presented in the book.

The Utrecht Copy

The Utrecht University copy is a first edition, and features the original parchment binding with a figure stamped in gold on the front and back covers. All illustrations, including the maps, feature beautiful illumination. Just like the binding, this was not usually done at the bookseller’s, but rather by an independent artisan. As such, each copy of the Itinerario features unique illumination, if any. Sadly, some maps and illustrations have gone missing over time, some of them stolen. These missing engravings can be viewed in the Bavarian State Library version of the Itinerario, available through Google Books, although without illumination. The Utrecht copy was bequeathed to the university library in 1838 by Gerrit Moll, former professor of mathematics, physics, and astronomy, as well as managing director of the Utrecht observatory.

The Utrecht University Library also holds a copy of the 1623 edition, titled the Itinerarium, which also contains his account of the journey north.

From stardom to obscurity

Despite Van Linschoten’s meteoric rise to stardom during his lifetime, it is remarkable how quickly the Itinerario’s importance waned. In hindsight, this is not too surprising: as more expeditions to the East followed, knowledge about the area increased rapidly. Van Linschoten’s information became outdated, or was proven outright incorrect in some respects. Later travel reports started to supplant his as the most essential. The 1644 reprint by Everhardt Cloppenburch is the last known Dutch edition to be released under the original (or a similar) name. In 1665 Gillis Joosten Saeghman of Amsterdam printed the Journael van de derthien-jarighe reyse […] gedaen door Jan Huygen van Linschoten, which contains much the same information as the Itinerario, although rearranged and often worded differently. It features cheap reinterpretations of the original engravings, as well as several new ones. It can be seen as the last true iteration of the book until it was revived hundreds of years later. With the northern route eventually being seen as the insurmountable challenge it proved to be, Van Linschoten’s other writing faded into obscurity even faster, and with it his name. He is barely mentioned in any writing in the years that followed, and when he is it appears the authors were not always familiar with him.

The End of Van Linschoten’s Travels

How did Linschoten fare under the success of his book? Although its use and popularity would start to decline during the 17th century, this was not yet the case during his lifetime. There is no denying he became a man of recognition and influence, as evidenced by his marrying into a family of regents, and his mixing with the local elite. He spent the remaining years of his life working as the treasurer of Enkhuizen, as a man of quite some financial means and influence. Even so, he was faced with disappointment near the end of the life: he applied for a state pension, but was rejected on the basis that past royalties and earnings from his book should have been plentiful enough to support him. Whether or not that was the case we will never know, as he died not long after in 1611 at the age of 48. His legacy has lasted many a lifetime.

Further reading

Nick Becker (in co-operation with Marco van Egmond), April 2015
Binding of the 'Itinerario', 1596
Title page 'Itinerario', 1596
Portrait Jan Huygen van Linschoten, 'Itinerario', 1596
Print page 24-25, 'Itinerario', 1596
Detail cartouche plan of Goa, 'Itinerario', 1596
Print page 32-33, 'Itinerario', 1596
Detail print page 58-59, 'Itinerario', 1596
Title page 'Reys-gheschrift', 1595
Detail plan of Terceira, 'Itinerario', 1596
Title page 'Beschryvinghe', 1596
Detail map of the Island of Moçambique, 'Itinerario', 1596
Coastal profiles Saint Helena, 'Itinerario' (p. 140-141), 1596

Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, Itinerario. Voyage ofte schipvaert [...] naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien [...]. Amsterdam: Cornelis Claesz, 1596 (Utrecht UB, MAG: T fol 133 (Rariora)).

  • Binding: Original binding binding of parchment over pasteboard, gilt.
  • Provenance: From the legacy of Gerrit Moll, professor in mathematics, physics, and astronomy, director of the Utrecht observatory, 1838.