A princely example of the world’s first nautical atlas

Around 1580, the navigating officer Lucas Jansz. Waghenaer (ca. 1533-1606) from Enkhuizen completed the 23 charts for the first volume of Spieghel der zeevaerdt, the world’s first nautical atlas or pilot guide. It was his own original work, not copied from existing sources.

The atlas was based partially on Waghenaer’s observations as a navigation officer and partially on his wealth of experience in practical navigation methods. While the text is based on the traditional 16th-century navigation publications. The charts add a component unknown until then, making this the world’s first published pilot guide.

Indispensable aid

Until well into the 17th century, the pilot guide was an indispensable aid to Dutch, French, German, English, Spanish and Portuguese seamen as they navigated the European coastlines. While an oblong format was customary at the time, the atlas was innovatively printed in folio format. Later, Waghenaer brought smaller (and more practical) formats onto the market, when he published the pilot guides Thresoor der zeevaert and Enchuyser zee-caert-boeck.

Most exquisite charts

Joannes van Doetecum engraved copper plates of the charts, transforming the relatively simple originals into the most exquisite charts of the period. It is possible that Waghenaer received financial support for his project from François Maelson, the mayor of Enkhuizen.

The art of navigation

The Spieghel der zeevaerdt opens with a beautifully engraved title page and a dedication to William I, Prince of Orange, followed by an introduction to the art of navigation, including an explanation of how a nautical atlas is produced and how it should be used. The atlas also includes the routes and distances between many points on West-European coasts.

The first volume of the atlas is dedicated to the chart of Europe and the western part of North Africa, followed by 22 detailed charts of sections of the European coasts between the southern tip of Texel island and Cádiz, which constitute the coasts of ‘western navigation’. A year later, the second volume of the atlas was published, which included the charts of the coasts northeast of Texel, i.e. ‘eastern navigation’.

A structured atlas

The nautical charts in Spieghel der zeevaerdt are included according to a clear structure. Four pages are dedicated to each charted area. The first page includes sailing directions for the relevant coastal strip, which is depicted on the second and third page. The fourth page is blank.

While all the charts have a scale of ca. 1:400,000, a larger scale is used for estuaries and harbours. Degrees of longitude and latitude are not included.

Although details of the coastline have been simplified, the charts are very clear. They include the results of depth measurements, the course of navigation channels, beacons and other landmarks such as church spires and houses that are visible from the sea. A cluster of depth figures is included next to most ports, which are references for the use of charts when sailing into and out of harbours and rivers.

Vivid and functional

Following the Portuguese principle brought into practice a half century earlier, Waghenaer combined each coastal chart with a corresponding coastal profile. He was the first, however, to systematically apply this principle to charts of a uniform scale. As a result sailors were able to determine at a glance the type of coast they were faced with. With the inclusion of sea monsters and accurately detailed ships on all charts, the result is a vivid and functional atlas.

New editions

Several new editions of Waghenaer’s pilot guide were published in different languages in the years after 1585. The charts’ original titles and profile text were in Dutch. Later, the titles were re-engraved and a Latin title was included. The profile texts were also in two languages. In 1588, The Mariners Mirrour, a pirated edition of the atlas was published in London. Apart from the the first volume of the Spieghel der zeevaert described here, the Utrecht University Library also owns a copy of the complete edition of 1585 (MAG: T fol 165 Rariora (LK)); this copy has been digitized as well and can be viewed on line.

Dedication to the Prince of Orange

Enkhuizen, then a very prosperous port, was the first West Frisian city to wrest control from Spanish rule in 1572. It is not so surprising, then, that Waghenaer dedicated the first volume of his life’s work to the leader of the uprising against the Spanish: William of Orange.

The quote below from the dedication to the States of Holland and West Friesland included in the second volume, shows that the prince must have been presented the first volume shortly before his death on 10 July 1584 in Delft.

'Mijne Heeren, gheleden omtrent twee jaren [...] hebbe ick onder den naem van [...] de Prince van Orangien [...] in druck laten uitgaen [...] Den Spieghel vande Zeevaert [...].Vande welcke syne Princelicke Excellentie [...] ons [...] dede verstaen een seer goet ghenoeghen ende gonstelijck aenghenomen te hebben [...]’'

Gold tooling

The presentation copy shown here was probably bound in Leiden by Lodewijk Elzevier, who worked as a binder for the publisher Plantijn.

The beautiful original covers were of cardboard bound in calfskin, finished with gold tooling and a green silk ribbon closure.

The book was probably auctioned in 1585 with the rest of William of Orange’s library in Delft, as it does not appear in the catalogues of the library of the House of Orange-Nassau that was compiled between 1686 and 1749. Nothing is known of the whereabouts of the book between 1585 and 1830, when it came into the possession of Utrecht University Library.

The dedication 'Illustrissimo . Principi . Aurasino.' on both covers also indicates that this must have been the presentation copy for William I, Prince of Orange.

Further reading

LKB (ed. MvE), 2011
Title page sea atlas, Lucas Jansz. Waghenaer, 1584
Bookbinding sea atlas, Lucas Jansz. Waghenaer, 1584
Chart of Europe, Lucas Jansz. Waghenaer, 1584
Title cartouche chart English Channel, Lucas Jansz. Waghenaer, 1584

Spieghel der Zeevaerdt (MAG: P fol 111 Lk (Rariora)); Leiden: Christoffel Plantijn, 1584