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Die Neüwen Inseln
[The New Islands]

Sebastian Münster was a German cartographer and scholar who was a firsthand witness to the beginning of the European Age of Exploration. A man of both science and religion, he published a Latin edition of Ptolemy’s Geographica and a translation of the Hebrew Bible as a professor at the University of Basel. This map was published as part of what is considered his greatest work, the Cosmographia Universalis.[1]

Sebastian Münster, Die Neüwen Inseln / so hinder Hispanien gegen Orient bey dem Landt Indie ligen, Basel, 1544, Map #93803, Holcomb Digital Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Cosmographia was published in many editions and several different languages between 1544 and 1628. This map comes from the first edition, published in German in 1544. WorldCat identifies several copies at other institutions, but this is one of the earliest. It is the first separately printed map devoted to the New World and the first to depict the North and South American continents as two separate landmasses.[2]

Texas, while yet unnamed, is still not difficult to spot in this early depiction of the North American continent. There are no mountain ranges in the area where they are depicted.

Nothing west of what would eventually become Texas was known, but Texas’ distinctive shape is not difficult to discern thanks to the definition of the unnamed Rio Grande and what may have been an attempt to depict the Mississippi. The entire southern portion of the known North American continent is referred to as “Terra florida.” The islands south of the Floridian peninsula are also depicted. It is the first map ever to name both the Pacific Ocean and the Straits of Magellan.[3]

Crude yet surprisingly accurate, the southeastern coastline depicts both the tip of Louisiana and the Florida peninsula, as well as the islands to the south. Sciana, now Puerto Rico, holds the standard that represents both world powers in the area.

In addition to its cartographic importance, this map is also an artistic accomplishment. It is a woodcut with fine details depicted.[4] The process of creating a woodcut map was time-consuming, expensive, and required the expertise of an artisan to carve an image in reverse into a block of wood, which was then used in a manner similar to a rubber stamp to imprint the image onto paper or fabric.

Several forests dot both the North and South American continents, and a mountain range, most likely representing the Rocky Mountains, does cover the western portion of the North American continent. Other than the far-eastern bend in the mountains, rather than continuing south, the location of this mountain range is not entirely inaccurate, though few European explorations had yet occurred that far west.

This map does include several errors, however, including the large gulf penetrating and nearly bisecting the North American continent. This gulf was reported by Giovanni da Verrazano, who mistakenly identified Pamlico Sound as the Pacific Ocean. Additional errors include the depiction of Yucatan as an island and the location of Marco Polo’s Zipangu (Japan, labeled ‘Zipangri’)[5] closer to North America than to Asia.

[left] Japan (Zipangri) is shown off the western coast of Mexico. [right] The Victoria was the only ship of the original fleet of five Magellan set out with from Spain in 1519. It successfully completed a circumnavigation of the globe in 1522 — unfortunately without Magellan, who was killed in the Philippines the year before.

Ferdinand Magellan’s only ship to survive the completion of his attempt to circumnavigate the globe, the Victoria, is shown off the west coast of South America. The flag of the kingdoms of Castile and Leon flies from the island of Sciana, later Puerto Rico, and denotes the boundary between Spanish and Portuguese possessions. Arguably the most shocking part of the map is located on the east coast of South America in present-day Brazil. Marked “Canibali,” there is a gruesome depiction of human body parts in stacked wood, which suggests preparations for a cooking fire and represents reports of cannibalism practiced by the indigenous Tupinamba.[6]

[left] Early accounts of eastern Brazil from sailors who landed on the coast recount witnessing cannibalistic behavior from the indigenous peoples — thus, Münster’s depiction was not entirely fanciful. [right] The map’s title appears on the verso in an intricately drawn border.

Münster’s Die Neüwen Inseln was groundbreaking for several reasons. It was the earliest and most accurate two-continent depiction of the Americas given the information available at the time. It was part of the first German cartographic description of the world, and it heavily influenced the revival of geographic studies across Europe. Münster compiled information from as many sources as he had access to, and Cosmographia became such a cartographic authority that it continued to be revised and published well into the seventeenth century, long after his death in 1552.[7]

Not every map that appears in the General Land Office’s online database is physically housed at the Archives in Austin. The Holcomb Digital Map Collection is a diverse group of items consisting of over 100 maps, atlases, books, and pamphlets belonging to Frank and Carol Holcomb of Houston and is the result of a 2014 collaboration between the Holcombs and the GLO Archives to make these important sources available to the public.

Click here to view the entire Frank and Carol Holcomb Map Collection online. Purchase reproductions to benefit the Save Texas History Program.

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[1] “Tabula Novarum Insularum, Quas Diversis Respectibus Occidentales & Indianas Uocant. [1st Map of the Continent of America].” Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc. Accessed August 15, 2018. https://www.raremaps.com/gallery/archivedetail/28342/Tabula_novarum_insularum_quas_Diversis_respectibus_Occidentales_and_Indianas/Münster.html.

[2]Ibid.

[3] “Novae Insulae XVII Nova Tabula.” David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. Accessed August 15, 2018. https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~296592~90067973:Novae-Insulae-XVII-Nova-Tabula?sort=Pub_List_No_InitialSort,Pub_Date,Pub_List_No,Series_No&qvq=q:munster;sort:Pub_List_No_InitialSort,Pub_Date,Pub_List_No,Series_No;lc:RUMSEY~8~1&mi=6&trs=269.

[4] The process of creating a woodcut map was time-consuming, expensive, and required the expertise of an artisan. Working closely with a cartographer, the artist carved the required image in reverse along the grain of a block of wood. Much like a rubber stamp, the raised parts of the carved wood block were inked, and then the block would be pressed onto paper or fabric to reveal the correct image. This is relief printing, in which the only ink picked up comes from the raised parts of the carved image. Francis J. Manasek, Curt Griggs, and Marti Griggs, Collecting Old Maps (Clarkdale, AZ (86324 USA, P.O. Box 518): Old Maps Press, 2015), 68–69.

[5] Sebastian. “Die Neüwen Inseln so Hinder Hispanien Gegen Orient Bey Dem Landt Indie Ligen.” University of North Texas Digital Library. December 01, 2010. Accessed August 15, 2018. https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc29444.

[6] John Goss, The Mapping of North America: Three Centuries of Map-Making 1500–1860 (Secaucus, NJ: The Wellfleet Press, 1990), 24.

[7]”Tabula Novarum Insularum, Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.

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