Marion Peters

Mercator sapiens

The Worldwide Research of Nicolaes Witsen (1641-1717), Mayor and EIC-boardmember of Amsterdam
By Marion Peters


The dignity accorded a regent implied an obligation of responsibility as magistrate for the public welfare. Nicolaes Witsen took this mission very seriously. Nearly all the time that remained after his governmental obligations were fulfilled he spent in maritime and geographic research, intending to promote trade and glorify the Creator. In order to gain extensive knowledge, he focussed on all possible fields of science; from technology, astrology, geography, and geology to anthropology, natural history, history, and theology. This made Nicolaes Witsen the Mercator Sapiens par excellence – the wise merchant who seeks counsel in science to benefit his business.
Witsen was the author of several voluminous works: a book about the means of transport over water, Aeloude en Hedendaagse Scheepsbouw en Bestier [Old and new shipbuilding and steer] (1671/1692), a general map of ‘Tartary’ (1687; a region currently in Siberia and Mongolia), a number of regional maps, and a book of commentary on those maps, Noord en Oost Tartarye [North and East Tartary] (1690/1705).
This book attempts to gain insight into the function of Nicolaes Witsen as a researcher and to answer the question: What did Witsen mean to achieve with his research and published works?


Witsen owed his career in city government exclusively to a system of nepotism and favoritism through ‘blood friendships’ – kinship. It was also this system of patronage that enabled Witsen to do his geographic research. In this thesis both Witsen’s patronage in the Republic of Letters is considered as well as the manner in which he, through patronage, was able to organize his sources of information. The research into Witsen’s patronage has been carried out on the basis of book dedications. From these it appears that: 1. patronage in the Republic of Letters involved in particular a specific product (but if the author was a client, the patronage therefore also protected the person); 2. the dearness of the magistrate to be asked to patronize a book was in the first place inspired by the consideration of how much influence and credit he had in favoring people.
Witsen was also dependent upon a system of patronage and service in the development of a foreign information network. His network had the structure of a pyramid, with Witsen at the top and a number of socially high-ranking key figures spread around the world. These figures in their turn could rely upon their own networks and so on. Beside the fact that the two main works in Witsen’s life benefited from this information network, this network also enabled him to expand his knowledge of the world in general, as well to increase his collections as to please his learned friends.
The years around the turn of the century appeared the most successful of Witsen’s career. The highlights were the outfitting in 1696 of a grand scientific expedition to Australia during his VOC presidency and the visit one year later of the Russian Delegation with czar Peter I to Amsterdam.

Czar Peter’s Visit

One of the reasons Peter and his large delegation headed straight for the Netherlands must have been the special reputation this mayor had at the court of Moscow. Not only had he assisted the court with advice, but the court was also familiar with his maps and his book Scheepsbouw [Shipbuilding]. As mayor of the world’s most powerful commercial city, Witsen’s expertise extended to all fields in which Peter was interested, namely shipbuilding, mapmaking, geography, trade, and military science. The Russians stayed from August 22, 1697 until June 3, 1698. For Witsen, their visit wasn’t just a strong boost to his research, it resulted also in a personal friendship with the Czar and his personal entourage.
The consequence was that Witsen took the radical step of putting aside the original version of his book Noord en Oost Tartarije (1690) to drastically rewrite the text. From that time, Witsen was also loyal to the Russian cause, and this on many fronts. Witsen had good reasons to oblige the czar. His interest in Russia originated from his endeavors to promote Amsterdam trade business. Through his friendship with Peter and by making maps of the unknown and largely uncolonized Tartary, he could increase trade, prove his friendship to the czar and pave the way for evangelization of the Tartars. With the solidification of his friendship with the czar, Witsen’s cartographic ambitions obtained more of a political tint. The sovereign also had a high interest in a good map of Tartary, ofcourse, as well from a strategic perspective as to confirm his power. Furthermore, Witsen was involved in almost all of the new publications on Russia, and he carried out research on mineralogy on behalf of the czar. Though Witsen’s behavior caused irritation among several regents – he disregarded the ban issued by the State General to supply arms to foreign powers – the opinion on how to associate with foreign nations was different at the time. Obviously Witsen was honored with rewards – for example, special regulations issued by the throne to develop trade. For the czar, ‘ukases’ were the means by which he could thank lobbyists for helping the Russian cause.

Research ambitions

The question with which Witsen began his research was whether Nova Zembla was contiguous with the continent or an island, with the intention of discovering a possible northern route to India. This question also formed one of the reasons for the decision he took in 1664, having completed his law studies in Leiden, to travel with a trade delegation to Moscow. As he gained more knowledge, Witsen extended his research of the northeastern coastline to include the whole Russian and Tartar realms: from Muscovy, Siberia, to the Chinese Wall and further on to Hokkaido and Korea. Traces of this gradually increasing research are visible on the big map of 1687. It shows an unusual conic projection, in which the central meridian has been shifted from the centre of the map to the middle of Nova Zembla.
Peter’s visit and the expedition to Australia brought about a fundamental change in the set up of the book. Whereas the first edition of 1692 was restricted to Tartary and was mainly an historic guide to complement the map, after Peter’s visit and the VOC-expedition, the book expanded into a compendium in which everything that was known at the time about the countries, the trade, and the itineraries could be found. Among the most important changes Witsen made in his text of 1705 were the listings of products from Tartary. Also in the second edition he used the biblical creation to explain all sorts of questions – such as the distribution of mankind and the consequences of the Flood. Moreover, Witsen strongly emphasized in the new edition the importance of his own initiatives in the research tasks.
Simultaneously with his geographic investigations, Witsen continued to work on his compendium on shipbuilding, -stowing, and -steering of 1671, of which the second edition was printed in 1690. Overseas trade was always transported by ship. Apparently, Scheepsbouw was written based upon the same principles as his book on Tartary: the promotion of trade, the question of the distribution of mankind, and homage to the Creator. Implicit as idea in Scheepsbouw is that in the wake of trade the way is made clear for the Christian mission.

Methodology of the Tartary Book

Noord en Oost Tartarije was initially intended to be an illucidation to the big map. As with Scheepsbouw en Bestier, Witsen set up the book as two parts of one whole; the first volume citing existing literature on Tartary, while the second volume concentrated on actual research. In the second edition (1705) he abandoned this approach. The new structure of the book was an individual treatment of the various regions. Evidence from eyewitnesses and original investigation were Witsen’s priorities now. But how could the reliability of a message be checked? Witsen opted for various systems – for example, by searching for several confirmations of one observation. One of the reasons for the composition of his book Noord en Oost Tartarije was indeed to clear away cartographical uncertainties. Another consideration was that it provided him the opportunity to add commentary to the already published maps as well as to correct them. In order to approach ’the truth’ as closely as possible, Witsen summed up all available information on one subject; the reader could draw his own conclusions. As a rule, Witsen only aimed to compare facts, not to analyze or synthesize. He only made his opinion known in crucial matters of cartographic dispute. In this way he emphasized time and again that northern passage was impossible. Although original research and verification were Witsen’s priorities, he appears to have allowed himself all sorts of interventions in order to disguise his sources in the book on Tartary, as soon as it concerned collection of news from sensitive areas. He censored eyewitness reports and also concealed the names of his reporters. This cover up was in part inspired by prudence and in part a means to protect the informant, but it was also no doubt the consequence of sloppiness and carelessness. However, when it concerned his mapmaking, Witsen usually did mention his informants.


Things started going wrong for Witsen in around 1705. His friend and supporter Joannes Hudde had died in 1704. Witsen was faced with a growing unpopularity among his friends, and finally with a change of power in the city government. His active role as magistrate was over. The changed circumstances were not without consequences for his clients and for his life’s work. Physical ailments and fear of failure prevented him from finishing his magnum opus. It is incredible to imagine that although two editions of Tartarije had been published, his contemporaries had hardly gotten a look at them. Of the big map, only the version from 1687 was made public, and the fact that a second edition of Scheepsbouw existed was discovered only in 1915.

Correspondence with Gijsbert Cuper 1683-1716

An important source of information on Witsen’s activities is the scholarly correspondence that he conducted during 33 years with the mayor of Deventer, the historian Gijsbert Cuper. In the Republic of Letters, correspondence between scholars was held to a code. If a ‘commerce of letters’ was begun, the contract of scholarly friendship implied a duty to assist one another. In the ‘commerce’ between Witsen and Cuper, questions of ethnological and geographical nature were treated. At the same time, the correspondence shows how Witsen went about his research, Witsen’s role for Cuper (and Cuper’s role for Witsen), what caused the stagnation of Witsen’s publications, and the manner in which they related to scholars. Most of the letters were written after 1708, when Witsen was still mayor in name only and had more time available. At that time, Cuper had also started to write his letters in Dutch as opposed to Latin.

Family Library

Books and art complemented each other in Witsen’s study. A person’s study reveals much about its owner, such as the development and origin of his interests, friendships, and relationships. In analysing Witsen’s library one encounters a genuine methodological problem. First, one must determine if the catalogue from 1747 in the name of Witsen’s cousin Nicolaas Lambertson Witsen is about the same collection of books as that of Witsen himself. Second, the library must be systematically evaluated and brought together into a new catalogue. Although it can be shown that Witsen indeed willed his entire library to his cousin and namesake, it appeared after further research that the library was composed out of several inheritances. Thus, the basis for the library was laid possibly before 1500. Therefore, only the books published in the period between 1697 (the date of death of the father of Nicolaas Lambertson) and Witsen’s own death in 1717 could be, with assurance, regarded as obtained by Nicolaas Witsen.
To conduct a census, all books from the auction catalogue from 1747 were put into the computer. It then appeared that, among other things, the nature and amount of books does not reconcile with the number of parcels and the categories of the catalogue. A repeated categorization of the books necessitated the use of the classification system of the five main categories – Theology, Law, History, Arts & Sciences, Literature – invented in 1965 by François Furet and in general use in the library sciences. The result shows a library with a broad orientation, but with an accent on History and Theology. In order to give a more refined idea of which kinds and amounts of books appear – this on the basis of the classifications of contemporaneous auction catalogues and the titles which repeatedly appear therein – an alternative, more ‘organic’ subdivision is made, which is oriented to the library in question. This refinement has as advantage that it 1. can be included in other catalogues; 2. brings out the specific characteristics of this library; and 3. is capable of a vertical presentation of the aforementioned main categories. Books about navigation disappear from view in the Furet system, for example. They are found in, among others, law (17), history (9), arts and sciences (19), and letters (5) and their related subcategories – in total 50 works, in such a way as that they are unrecognizable as such. The result is found in Appendix IV.
A more thorough study of the library and Witsen’s work as researcher and regent resulted in yet another possibility in classification, namely the reason for the presence of a book. By looking at the library in this light, the characteristics of Witsen’s library becomes more apparent, while the problems of the origins of inherited volumes and the endless addition of titles is avoided. The presence of a book in Witsen’s library can be explained by one of these main reasons: 1. interest; 2. relationships; 3. gifts; and 4. inheritance. This proves that Witsen was not a collector of fine books and even less someone who strived for ‘completeness’, but a person who bought a book especially for its contents. Witsen bestowed even more worth on the possession of ‘unprinted’ books and unique specimen. In the guidelines for libraries of the day, these were seen as the best, the rarest, and the most cherished part of a library.

Witsen’s Collection of Rarities

Aside from his library, Witsen owned an extensive and diverse collection of rarities. In his parent’s home, a collection was a part of cultivation and the family culture. Witsen tried to get the important components of his collection into a ‘museum of paper’ or a pictorial atlas. These components were 1. a written registration, which besides giving a quick overview of the contents, could serve as basis for a sales catalogue. Further there was 2. a drawn registration, in which each special piece he obtained was sketched by a professional. Witsen must have also been busy at the end of his life preparing 3. an engraved registration.
Auction catalogues from 1728 and 1761 served as a basis for the research into the collection. Coupled with the described items in these catalogues are Witsen’s own comments on his objects from the books Scheepsbouw and Tartarije as well as in his correspondence with Cuper. The collection which was auctioned in 1761, proves that, just as in Witsen’s library, the auction catalogue of 1728 gives an incomplete reflection of the original collection. Moreover, it can be shown that only the objects which were found in the ‘art room’ and the ‘front salon’ were catalogued, that the coin collection on offer formed but a fraction of the real collection, and that the family memorabilia was kept out of the auction.
Just as is the case regarding his books, little is known about the manner of order Witsen brought to his own collection. On the basis of the contents of the catalogue a subdivision is therefore made between 1. visual archives, and 2. realia (three-dimensional objects.) The latter were subdivided into 2a. naturalia (plant- and animal preparations and stones) and 2b. artificialia (manmade objects.) In regard to the realia a categorical analysis on the basis of the auctioned collection has been chosen.
Concerning the artificialia and naturalia, the order and naming of the categories in the auction catalog has been maintained out of practical considerations. Even though it can be questioned whether Witsen categorised his own collection in this manner, it is still the method of obtaining insight into the composition, development, and criteria thereof. At the same time it shows which role Witsen’s collection played in his research and his social reputation. It is obvious that the owner of such a universal collection had not one, but countless motivations in collecting. Next to documentation and assistance in research are notable: glorification of the Creator, esthetic satisfaction, and the development of prestige and status. For his operations in general the 17th century credo particularly applies – that it served ’to teach and amuse’.

Mercator Sapiens

When one considers that just two of Witsen’s projects reached a select public, and then even in a premature state- the Scheepsbouw in 1671 and the wall map in 1690 – and that all his other work remained in-house, one must ask one’s self what finally came from Witsen’s ‘Wise Merchant’ ideals. Quite a bit – at least during his active years as mayor. Regarding the Russian realm, Witsen knew how to foster enormous goodwill from the Russian throne with his broad knowledge and expertise. As early as the beginning of the 1690s he was performing as trade adviser and was rewarded for his cartographic efforts with trade ukases. The relationship only improved, with as highpoint the visit of Czar Peter’s Delegation in 1697-1698. The friendships which followed resulted in, partly through Witsen’s contribution, an enormous exchange of contacts and trade agreements, while Witsen himself was rewarded with more ukases. The conclusion resounds that in spite of the drama around the production of his intellectual work the primary aim of his research, the promotion of Amsterdam trade, appeared successful for at least fifteen years.

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