This rare and intriguing pair of charts on a single sheet, both taken from a westward-facing perspective, is from Johannes van Keulen II’s ‘Secret Atlas’ of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). It depicts two areas along the Gulf of Mannar, near the southern end of the Coromandel Coast (Tamil Nadu) that had long been prosperous from maritime trade and pearl fishing. The area was conquered by the Portuguese in 1548, and taken over by the VOC in 1658.
The upper chart depicts Kayalpatnam, and shows various Dutch settlements, surmounted by their tricolor, as well as Dutch churches, including the one marked ‘Groote Kirke’. The seas feature detailed nautical information, including bathymetric soundings and the locations of hazards.
The chart on the bottom depicts the important port of ‘Tutucoryn’ (Tuticorin, today’s Thoothukudi), likewise surmounted by the Dutch tricolor. A great line of coral reefs is depicted off of the coast, upon which annotations warn mariners of their danger to navigation.
The ‘Secret Atlas’ of the VOC
The present charts are part of the ‘Secret Atlas’ of the VOC, issued in Amsterdam by Johannes van Keulen II, which featured printed charts based on the manuscript charts that were privileged for the use of the Company’s sea captains. They lend a unique insight into the knowledge of coastal India possessed by the VOC, one of the key players in India during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Exquisitely engraved, the charts reflect the best practices of Dutch maritime cartography.
The VOC established a dedicated and highly organized hydrographic office that went to great efforts to obtain the best information on the navigation of the waters around South and Southeast Asia. The Company developed master charts of various regions that were continuously updated by intelligence supplied by ships’ captains returning to the Netherlands. For some generations, these charts generally remained in manuscript form so that their dissemination could be carefully controlled, so that their valuable intelligence would not fall into the hands of rival powers, such as the British East
India Company (EIC) and the French East India Company. While certain details were occasionally leaked to commercial map printers, much of the most valuable information remained under wraps.
However, by the mid-18th Century it became economically prohibitive and technically impractical to create sufficient manuscript copies of charts for use on VOC vessels. Moreover, the manuscript-making process was especially vulnerable to compounded human error. It was decided that the Company’s master charts would be printed by a trusted mapmaker in limited quantities, with their dissemination strictly controlled. Enter Johannes van Keulen II (1704 - 1755), the man who was entrusted to publish the “Secret Atlas” and the scion of what would become one of Europe’s longest-lived map publishing dynasties. The family firm was founded in Amsterdam in 1678 by Johannes’ grandfather, Johannes van Keulen I (1654 - 1715) and would operate until 1885. Johannes I gained great acclaim for his sea atlas entitled Nieuwe Lichtende Zee-Faakel (translates as the ‘New Shining Sea Torch’), the first volume of which appeared in 1681. Johannes
II took over the family enterprise in 1726, while only in his early twenties; however, he proved to be highly industrious and brought the firm to the apogee of its success. In 1743, Johannes II was appointed as the official hydrographer to the VOC.
By the time that Johannes II was authorized to print the VOC’s secret charts, five volumes of the Zee-Fakkel had been issued. In 1753 Van Keulen published the “Secret Atlas” as the sixth volume of the series, although few examples were ever issued. The atlas included 73 charts, of which 9 focused on parts of India.
References: Koeman, Atlantes Neerlandici, vol. IV, Keu 135B, map nos. 14 & 15 (p. 366).