Travel reports of sea heroes and adventurers of the 16th and 17th century > Jan Huygen van Linschoten

In December 1583, Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1563-1611) left for Spain to learn more about overseas trade. But Jan, son of a Haarlem solicitor, was adventure-minded and his business ambitions extended beyond the Iberian peninsula. While seeking his fortune, he gained the confidence of the archbishop of Goa and so became the first Dutchman able to gain insight into the vast colonial empire Portugal had built up in the Far East. Back in Holland, Van Linschoten sold his travel report to the Amsterdam publisher Cornelis Claesz, who published it in 1596 in a book that was beautifully illustrated with prints and maps. The Itinerario is more than a travel report: next to the account of his wanderings in the waters of the Azores, Portugal and the islands of what is now Indonesia, two further texts by Van Linschoten have been included in the volume. These are the Beschryvinghe van de gantsche custe van Guinea (Description of the entire coast of Guinee) and the Reys-gheschrift vande navigatien der Portugaloysers in Orienten (travel report on the navigations of the Portuguese in the East).

The significance of this first Dutch compilation on India is primarily to be found in the valuable sailing instructions it contains. Van Linschoten had succeeded in getting hold of information that lay in the secret Portuguese administrative archives, to which no foreigner had access. By abusing the trust the archbishop had in him, he copied the relevant information page by page. That is how the Dutch came to get hold of the desired sea routes to India and between the Asian seaports, all in one go. Moreover, Van Linschoten also got hold of valuable and precise nautical data on currents, depths, islands and sandbanks, information sea captains could not do without if they wanted to navigate safely. Moreover, the text was accompanied by drawings of the coastlines and maps whose accuracy was unprecedented.

Dutch helmsmen prepared themselves for the long voyages to the Far East through research, study and practice. As early as 1580, they had translations of various foreign manuals at their disposal, in which the art of navigating the oceans was explained in great detail. Cartography too was becoming an art unto itself. Within a period of hardly ten years, the nautical skills of the Dutch helmsmen became more refined and extended to the Mediterranean and all the waters between the Canary Islands and Russia. When Itinerario was published in 1596, it added a missing link: a reliable route of for navigation and trade with India, the first step toward the commercial empire the Dutch built up overseas.

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