Terra nova, ac maris tractus circa Novam Franciam, Angliam, Belgium, Venezuelam Novam Andalusiam, Guianam, et Brasiliam


Dublin Core


Terra nova, ac maris tractus circa Novam Franciam, Angliam, Belgium, Venezuelam Novam Andalusiam, Guianam, et Brasiliam




Terra Nova is a sea chart of the western Atlantic Ocean, published by Frederik de Wit in 1675 Amsterdam as part of his sea atlas, Orbis Maritimes ofte Zee Atlas. A cartographer during the Dutch Golden Age of exploration, de Wit was a prolific map publisher, engraver, and seller (Crone, 1978). This portolan chart provides basic aids for navigating at sea by dead reckoning. The map shows the coastlines of North America and South America in black ink, with markers for Maryland, Newfoundland, the West Indies, and Brazil, to name a few. Two compass roses orient the map with North facing left and East facing up, aligning the map reader away from the coast, as if poised for a return trip to Europe. Rhumb lines run out in 16 directions from the compass roses and other points. There are also two cartouches: the central cartouche depicts a native riding an alligator. The corner cartouche depicts explorers, natives, and exotic animals. In the sea are sailing ships and a sea battle, perhaps indicative of real historical events or the direction of the wind. Overall, Terra Nova is an effective example of the portolan charts that helped to forward transatlantic exploration, record firsthand experiences at sea, and expand knowledge of new territories.


Wit, Frederik de


Gedruckt by Frederik de Wit in de Kalverstraet




Rachel Liu


Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License


Full-sized digital item can be found in McMaster's Digital Archive at: http://digitalarchive.mcmaster.ca/islandora/object/macrepo%3A26575


Paper, 49 x 57 cm


Dutch, Latin






North America, South America, Atlantic Ocean

Still Image Item Type Metadata

Original Format

Paper. Boundaries, borders and decorative figures hand coloured. Tears in Latin cartouche affecting presentation of title.

Physical Dimensions

Sheet 54 x 63 cm

Contributor's Research

Frederik de Wit’s 1675 Terra Nova is a nautical chart of the western Atlantic Ocean along the coasts of North and South America. According to historical information and cartographic convention, this type of chart was likely used for navigating at sea and is known as a “portolan chart”, from the Italian word portolano, meaning “a collection of sailing directions” (Ehrenberg, 2006). When used simultaneously with a mariner’s compass, a log line for measuring distance, and an hourglass for telling time, the chart allows a mariner to navigate by dead reckoning. Portolan charts are characterized by rhumb lines radiating out in 16 directions from central points, labelled coastlines to aid navigators sailing parallel to the coast, and different coloured lines and words to represent directions and important landmarks (Reinhartz, 2012). Terra Nova in particular has an incredibly accurate coastline, with the precise shapes of the various peaks and coves outlining the edge of the sea. The unexpected accuracy of these portolan charts begs the question of how de Wit and other medieval mapmakers could have developed maps uncannily similar to satellite imagery with no more than a compass, written directions, and an hourglass. With no access to any of the technology that would provide a proper birds eye view of the Atlantic Ocean and no discernible predecessors, it seems a mystery how the required information was compiled and displayed so accurately (Nicolai, 2014). As such, the origin of portolan charts has become a significant area of research for modern cartographers, though literature remains controversial and no unanimous agreement currently exists (Tobler, 1966). This research article will briefly outline the discussion around the origin and accuracy of portolan charts in general, especially through the lens of historical Dutch cartography.

An increase in the prevalence of trade during the Middle Ages meant an increase in shipping, exploration, and the demand for longer voyages. This newfound interest in exploration and expansion gave way to a need for maps to aid in the visualization of new lands (Cross, 1918). Thus, the portolan chart developed in the Mediterranean, called “pascaerten” by the Dutch. This is significant because the only current consensus on the origin of portolan charts is that it is closely connected to the development of the marine compass in the Mediterranean during the thirteenth century (Gaspar, 2008).

A key hint for determining the accuracy of a map lies in its map projection (Tobler). Map projections distort the surface in some fashion in order to transfer the surface of an ellipsoid onto the surface of a plane, and are necessary for the construction of maps. Scholars have previously assumed that, since ancient portolan charts were drawn from the perspective that the earth was flat, they could not be based on a map projection and any resemblance to a projection (such as the Mercator projection) would have been accidental. However, a recent 2014 study debunked this hypothesis (Nicolai). By recreating the drawing process using geodetic analysis, it was found that a network of distances and directions between coastal points on a flat earth would produce a result that is different from portolan charts to a statistically significant degree (Nicolai). A realistic quantitative model of medieval navigation was insufficient to create charts as accurate as portolan charts, which suggests that the accuracy of portolan charts might be the result of something much more deliberate. As such, cartographers have begun to look for other insights into the portolan chartmaker’s process that might determine possible map projections. For example, small but consistent distortions in portolan charts have been found to be caused by compasses that confuse magnetic and true north (a phenomenon called magnetic declination), resulting in the rotation portolan charts by up to 8.5 degrees (Reinhartz). This declination, in combination with the loxodromic rhumb lines, would yield readings resulting in a projection with curved parallels, such as a conical projection (Tobler). Other authors suggest an oblique azimuthal equidistant projection that uses the compass roses provided as centre points as a possible framework for portolan charts (Tobler). However, academic consensus on the validity of these models for portolan maps have not been reached, and so conclusions cannot be confidently drawn until further analysis has been conducted.

Moreover, the development of modern cartographic tools (such as 16th century advances in calculating latitude and longitude) allowed for more sophisticated methods of construction, the result of which is exemplified in de Wit’s more modern work. After the fall of Antwerp in 1585, traders and scientists fled to Amsterdam and built a new economic and cartographic centre, introducing new scientific innovations, increasing the number of trade contacts, and making more information readily available for Dutch cartographers in the seventeenth century (Cross, 1918). These developments allowed cartographers like de Wit to compile geographical information available from sailors’ notes, other maps, and copper plates into final portolan charts, such as Terra Nova. In this way, Amsterdam became a leading power in European expansion and exploration, as evidenced by the proliferation of maps that originate from Amsterdam and the flourishing beauty and artistry of Dutch maps. However, by the time the Mercator projection was adopted by marine navigators in the eighteenth century, the portolan chart had become all but obsolete. This is because Mercator’s projections, though it distorted distances on land, had a great advantage on open seas because it could reconcile a straight compass course with a straight line on a sea chart (Rehmeyer, 2014). Thus, with the rise of modern cartography came the decline of portolan charts, and as a consequence much knowledge surrounding the methods of construction of portolan charts still remains ambiguous. Ultimately, while the exact mechanisms behind the origins and accuracy of portolan charts remain a mystery for scholars, the importance of these nautical maps is unquestionable in terms of their influence on cartography and the age of exploration.

Crone, G. R. (1978). Maps and their makers: An introduction to the history of cartography. Folkestone, Eng.: W. Dawson.
Cross, W. R. (1918). Dutch Cartographers of the Seventeenth Century. Geographical Review, 6(1), 66.
Ehrenberg, R. E. (2006). Mapping the world: An illustrated history of cartography. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.
Gaspar, J. (2008). Dead reckoning and magnetic declination: Unveiling the mystery of portolan charts. E-Perimetron, 3(4), 191-203.
Nicolai, R. (2014). A critical review of the hypothesis of a medieval origin for portolan charts. Utrecht University Repository.
Rehmeyer, J. (2014, May 27). March 2016. Retrieved February 22, 2016, from http://discovermagazine.com/2014/june/14-the-mapmakers-mystery
Reinhartz, D. (2012). The art of the map: An illustrated history of map elements and embellishments. Sterling.
Tobler, W. R. (1966). Medieval Distortions: The Projections Of Ancient Maps. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 56(2), 351-360."


Wit, Frederik de, “Terra nova, ac maris tractus circa Novam Franciam, Angliam, Belgium, Venezuelam Novam Andalusiam, Guianam, et Brasiliam,” Omeka Testbed, accessed September 26, 2017, http://mapexhibit.mcmaster.ca/items/show/26.