Willem Blaeu’s landmark “upside-down” map of New England and the mid-Atlantic

[Willem Blaeu], NOVA BELGICA ET ANGLIA NOVA. [Amsterdam, 1635/1640].
Engraving, 15.25”h x 20”w plus wide margins, original color. Latin text on verso. Some mat burn, but still a lovely example.

A lovely example of a most important map by Willem Blaeu, the 1635 Nova Belgica is a cartographic summation of European settlement and geographic knowledge of New England and the mid-Atlantic in the first quarter of the 17th century.

This map is based largely on the seminal 1614 manuscript map by the Dutch trader Adrien Block, and was in fact the first full representation of that map in print. Block explored the coast between Cape Cod and what is now New York City, and Block Island bears his name. His map was the first to provide a reasonably accurate depiction of the area, including an insular Manhattan and Long Island. Block and Blaeu were rather less successful in depicting New England, for example omitting Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket (though Block Island and Narragansett Bay are shown), and following Samuel Champlain in locating Lake Champlain too far to the south and east.

Blaeu updates Block’s map to show recent European settlements, including “Nieu Pleimouth” (Plymouth), “Nieu Amsterdam,” (New York) and “Fort Orange” (Albany). These and other place names are adopted from two earlier maps—John Smith’s New England (1616) and Johannes de Laet’s Nova Anglia Novum Belgium et Virginia (1630). One of the most charming of these adoptions is “Anglis Tragabigsanda,” reflecting Smith’s original attempt to name Cape Ann after his Turkish mistress.

Blaeu’s map is also the most decorative of the region that had been published to date. It is adorned throughout with images of native game, most particularly the beaver that formed a mainstay of the New Netherlands economy. According to Burden, the two vignettes of “Mohawk” villages at upper right are in fact borrowed from de Bry’s engravings depicting the native peoples of Tidewater Virginia.

The map was issued unchanged in Latin, German, Dutch and French editions of Blaeu’s Atlas Major between 1635 and 1663. Examples can be dated, however, by examination of the text on the verso, in this case Latin. Per Burden’s Mapping of North America, the present example can be dated to 1640.

Willem Blaeu (1571-1638) founded the dominant globe and map publishing firm of the 17th century. Blaeu was, among other things, the official hydrographer of the Dutch West India Company, in which capacity he had privileged access to important source material such as Block’s map. Known for the accuracy and beauty of its maps and charts and the quality of its materials, the Blaeu firm dominated European map publication for much of the first half of the 17th century. He was succeeded after his death by his sons Joan (1598/99-1673) and Cornelius (c. 1610-1642), and then Joan’s sons, though after a devastating fire the firm only limped along until its closure in 1706.

Burden, The Mapping of North America, #241; McCorkle, New England in Early Printed Maps, #635.1; Pritchard and Taliaferro, Degrees of Longitude, #8 (also illustrating the Block manuscript on p. 78).