Early European Cartography of the Gulf, 16th century

Charting the Gulf: Tri-Centennial Connection at the Latin American Library



We begin with a selection of maps that highlight early European efforts to chart the Gulf of Mexico during the first three centuries of colonization.  The maps and charts included here are reproductions of original pieces in the Latin American Library’s map collection. One of the earliest maps in the collection is a copy of an extremely rare 1511 woodcut map published by Italian ambassador to Spain, Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (1457-1526).  The Library’s copy of Martyr’s map is re-created below.

Line drawing of Peter Martyr’s woodcut map of the coastlines of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Original artwork by Christine Hernández.

This is the earliest known extant European chart of the Caribbean and southern Gulf of Mexico coastlines from the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela –R° grande, across South America and up Central America to the Bay of Honduras islands (Bonacca) – guanaca, the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula – baya de lagartos, the islands of the Caribbean (Cuba, Jamaica, and Hispañola) – isla de cubaiamaica, and isla de española – the tip of Florida – isla de beimeni – and for the first time, Bermuda – la bermuda.  Below, ia an image of the title page from the Library’s copy of the 1516 edition of Martyr’s De orbe nouo decades, where the woodcut map first appeared in print.

De orbe nouo decades (1516), Title page, Pietro Martire d’Anghiera. Rare Book Collection, The Latin American Library

The rarity of this map is likely due to a decree issued in 1511 by King Ferdinand of Spain strictly controlling its dissemination to prevent navigational information about the New World falling into the hands of Spain’s foreign competitors in Europe.   The woodcut was not drawn by Martyr himself.  Peter Martyr was a member of the Casa de Indias, an elite organization charged with administering and controlling travel and commerce to and from the New World, including and more importantly, recently gathered navigational information.  Through his membership and close relationship with the Spanish royal court, he heard firsthand the accounts made by explorers like Columbus, Vespucci, and Magellan.  The woodcut that appeared briefly in Martyr’s 1511 version of the Decades was probably drawn by Andrea Morales, a pilot and cartographer of the Casa de Indias, who was responsible for the construction of the Padrón Real, the master map of the coasts and harbors of the known world for use by the Spanish Crown.