Linschoten’s beautiful map of India and the Middle East was at the heart of one of history’s most consequential cases of espionage that resulted in the collapse of Portuguese hegemony in India to the benefit of other European powers.
This magnificent map is based on secret Portuguese charts acquired by the Dutch adventurer and spy Jan Huyghen van Linschoten. Its depiction of India is advanced and features many details and locations critical to maritime trade. During the 16th Century, the Indian Ocean was widely regarded as a ‘Portuguese Lake’, with Lisbon maintaining a monopoly on European trade with the subcontinent. Her rivals were highly envious, but their lack of understanding of the long and treacherous sailing route to India and their dearth of knowledge of the political and business environment in the region inhibited their initiative.
The Portuguese were well aware that without excellent and highly detailed intelligence, their rivals would never be able to challenge their position in India. For decades they successfully guarded their secrets. However, one day they trusted the wrong man.
Enter Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, a Dutch merchant and explorer who somehow managed to be appointed as the secretary to the Archbishop of Goa, serving from 1583 to 1588. He was given free access to the most sensitive Portuguese documents and secret manuscript maps. Linschoten returned to the Netherlands and wrote the Itinerario: Voyage ofte schipvaert van Jan Huyghen van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien (1596), which included the present map, being a “tell-all”, “how-to” guide for Europeans to successfully open up trade with India and East Asia.
Consequently, the English formed the East India Company (the EIC) in 1600, followed by the Dutch, who set up the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (the VOC) in 1602. It was not long before these new players were in India, successfully dismantling the Portuguese trading monopoly.