These beautifully coloured and gilded maps of North and South America are part of an atlas of Asia, Africa and America, compiled and printed by the heirs of Jan Jansson in Amsterdam, and later owned by King George III (1738–1820).
The maps date from around 1687 and demonstrate the extent of European colonial expansion into the ‘New World’ of the Americas at this time. Vast swathes of both the northern and southern continents – areas yet to be explored by Europeans – are left blank, or have mythical illustrations.
Surinam and Oroonoko
The only English colony in South America during the 17th century was Surinam, which was first settled in 1630, and then again in 1650. In 1667, however, it was surrendered to the Dutch.
Aphra Behn’s novella Oroonoko (1688) was set in Surinam in the early 1660s, during the years when it was as an English sugar plantation territory. Behn describes in great detail the flora and fauna of the colony, as well as providing an almost anthropological account of the Amerindian natives. It is thought that she spent some time there during this period, and this may explain her in-depth knowledge of the place and its people.
Behn also wrote about the transatlantic slave trade, which was rapidly increasing as a result of a royal charter issued in 1663 to establish trade throughout the expanding British Empire. It is estimated that between 1663 and the end of the 17th century Britain had transported over 332,000 enslaved Africans to colonies in the Americas, where the majority were forced to work on plantations producing crops such as sugar.
Where is the colony of Surinam on these maps?
Surinam was named after the river it was built on, which flows from the northern coast of South America into the Caribbean Sea. On these 17th-century maps it is situated within a larger territory known as Guiana, a vast area which now encompasses Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana and parts of Venezuela and Brazil.
Just below Surinam on these maps, the mythical El Dorado and the city of Manõa is shown on Lake Parime. Guiana had been the gateway for centuries of explorers, including Sir Walter Raleigh (1554–1618), searching for gold and other valuable resources in the Amazon rainforest.
 ‘Estimates’, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database
- Article by:
- Abdul Mohamud, Robin Whitburn
- Politics and religion, Travel, colonialism and slavery
With a focus on the 17th and 18th centuries, Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn trace the history of Britain’s large-scale involvement in the enslavement of Africans and the transatlantic slave trade. Alongside this, Mohamud and Whitburn consider examples of resistance by enslaved people and communities, the work of abolitionists and the legacy of slavery.
- Article by:
- Jim Watt
- Travel, colonialism and slavery, Politics and religion
In the 17th century, London was at the centre of global trade, with goods and individuals arriving in the capital from all over the world. Jim Watt looks at how travel, trade and empire shaped the works of Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Josiah Wedgwood, Oliver Goldsmith and Ignatius Sancho.
- Article by:
- Janet Todd
- Travel, colonialism and slavery, Politics and religion, Rise of the novel
As a young woman, Aphra Behn was a spy for Charles II's government in Antwerp and probably in South America. Two decades later, she used these experiences to write Oroonoko, the story of a prince kidnapped from West Africa, enslaved and taken to a British colony in South America. Janet Todd explains how this extraordinary novella was shaped by the historical and political contexts and beliefs of Behn's time.