Click here to skip to content

Caribbean: Maps

The Caribbean holds an important place in the history of discovery and cartography, the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas being the accepted location of the first landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. The cartographic history of the Caribbean reflects that of the New World and to some extent Europe from the 16th century. Hence the map collections in the British Library contain many examples from this period.

Caribbean Islands, Columbus' letter 1493

Map of Caribbean islands from an illustrated edition of Columbus's Letter, Basel, 1493. (G.6663) ©The British Library Board

One of the earliest depictions of the Caribbean is a map of the islands from an edition of Columbus's letter printed in Basel in 1493. The artist has sketched a notional group of islands with a European type landscape and inserted the names from the text of the letter.

Most of the early maps of the Americas were manuscript such as that by Juan de la Cosa (c.1500), who sailed with Columbus on his first and second voyages. This is the earliest surviving world map to show the New World and the Caribbean. The Portuguese 'Cantino' map of 1502 reflects the rivalry between the European maritime nations over 'the wealth of the Indies'. Although the originals of these maps are not held in the British Library, the Map Library has good facsimiles.

Alberto Cantino, Fragment of world map, 1502.

Alberto Cantino, Fragment of world map, 1502. ©The British Library Board

The first printed map to show contemporary discoveries in America is by Italian map-maker Giovanni Matteo Contarini, engraved by Franco Rosselli (1506). The only known original of this is held in the Map Library. It is thus one of the British Library's great treasures. The map shows the Caribbean prominently but the land mass shown just to the west is not America but Asia!

Another famous map in the Map Library collection is by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. This was published in 1513 in his edition of Claudius Ptolemy's Geographia. It was the first printed map to show a part of the New World and shows the Caribbean as its centre point.

Martin Waldseemüller 'Tabula Terra Nova' from Claudius Ptolemaeus Geographia, Strasbourg, 1513.

Martin Waldseemüller 'Tabula Terra Nova' from Claudius Ptolemaeus Geographia, Strasbourg, 1513. ©The British Library Board

An important and impressive map of central America and the Caribbean of this period was published in Theodor de Bry's Americae pars quarta. Frankfurt, 1594. The map accompanies the reports of Girolamo Benzoni, an Italian who spent about 14 years travelling through the Spanish possessions of the New World. This, along with many other narratives of voyages with maps is in the Early Printed Collections of the Library.

The 17th century was the period of the great Dutch sea atlases by such chartmakers as the Van Keulens, Pieter Goos, Hendrik Doncker etc. of which the Map Library has many examples, but these rarely give much land detail being designed for navigators. During this century the islands underwent many changes in ownership and individual maps of them began to reflect this.

As British imperialism spread in the 18th century the map-making industry improved, and many large scale maps of British possessions were produced such as Barbados by William Mayo (1722), Antigua by Robert Baker ( 1748-49) and Jamaica by Patrick Browne (1755). These show, for example, sugar plantations and property ownership.

William Mayo, A New and exact map of Barbadoes. London, 1722.

William Mayo, A New and exact map of Barbadoes. London, 1722. ©The British Library Board

In addition to printed maps there are large-scale manuscript maps produced for colonial military purposes, mainly in the King George III Topographical Collection. This and the King's Maritime Collection constitute the most important individual collection in the Map Library. It originally formed part of the Royal Library of King George III and was given to the British Museum by George IV in 1828. There are further manuscript maps and plans of the 17th and 18th centuries in the Manuscript Collections, notably by William Hack, who achieved fame by copying Spanish charts captured by pirates for King Charles II. His charts are particularly distinctive and colourful and include maps of Jamaica (1682), Port Royal (1683), the Bahama Islands (1687), and Santiago de Cuba (1687).

The introduction of colonial legal deposit further benefited the map collections, bringing to the Library the results of colonial surveys which were carried out towards the end of the nineteenth century. During this century the Library acquired British military surveys printed by the Intelligence Division War Office and the Topographical Section, General Staff (later the Geographical Section General Staff). In 1963 a collection of manuscript field sheets, sketches and printed material from the Directorate of Military Survey (DMS) was received. The DMS archive was deposited in 2000 and the regular deposits from the DMS include Caribbean material. The Library has also been a depository for mapping produced by the Directorate of Colonial Surveys (later Directorate of Overseas Surveys) since 1946, providing coverage of the former British territories of the Caribbean. It also holds topographical and geographical maps of the area where such surveys were published, including official mapping of the territories of foreign powers.

 

Contact

Map Collections
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7702
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7780

E-mail: Ask the Reference Team