This book builds fruitfully on earlier scholarship relating to illustrated travel books, cartography and the book trade in the Northern Netherlands to present a convincing account of the working practice of the Amsterdam publisher Cornelis Claesz. From this it proceeds to a specific consideration of the content and influence of Pieter de Marees’s description of the Gold Coast, Beschryvinge ende historische verhael vant Gout koninckrijck van Gunea…, first printed by Claesz in 1602. In the process we are shown how the book, and in particular the illustrations, which were variously copied and adapted, often with an emphasis on sensational features, not only served “to inform and delight” (to borrow the title of one of the chapters) but came to play a part in a growing current of racist thought which went hand in hand with colonial and imperial projects (and not just those of the Dutch Republic).
Elizabeth Sutton highlights the relationship between the Claesz publishing house and that of the De Bry family in Frankfurt in their production of travel literature, with both parties imitating and publishing in new translations and editions of works printed by the other – a process that seems to have involved a mixture of collaboration and rivalry. Already within a couple of years of Claesz’s publication in Amsterdam, De Marees’s text had been reprinted, with some revisions, in the De Bry collection of Voyages, first in German (1603) and then in Latin (in Indiae Orientalis Pars VI, Frankfurt, 1604). Here, as Michiel van Groesen and Ernst van den Boogaart have demonstrated, the Frankfurt publishers followed their practice of exaggerating certain features and inserting new illustrations and even new sections of text. As far as international readers were concerned, it must have been this version of De Marees’s text that made the most impact. But Sutton devotes more attention to the original since her primary concern is the Dutch context, and the image of Africa that the book projected there. Unlike the De Brys, Claesz was a publisher of maps, and Sutton is concerned to show the implications of the figurative imagery used in Dutch cartography which is often borrowed from the accounts of travelers, as well as, for example, from print series of the Four Continents.
In his dedication to the volume of 1602, De Marees says he took care not only to set out his narrative in good order, but to adorn it with some attractive plates, “met sommighe fraeye Fygueren te vercieren,” so that people might see what the men and women of Guinea look like and understand how they live. Despite this apparent claim to responsibility, Sutton believes that the idea for the illustrations came from Claesz, and that the designs for the prints were entirely composed in the workshop of the publisher, by printmakers who interpreted the text in the light of familiar formulae of Netherlandish illustration. At one point (88) she adds that De Marees probably supplied “explicit written instructions” to the engraver(s). There is no doubt, as she indicates with some comparisons, that the pictures follow certain norms of travel guides and costume books. But De Marees was an acute observer, and Sutton does not present a real argument against those scholars who have supposed that he must have supplied the engravers with some sort of drawings, at least of details of Guinean objects. It is all the more curious that Sutton does not address this issue more directly, nor in fact quote De Marees’s statement on the subject, given that she writes interestingly of the perception at this period that illustrations to travel writings provided readers with the assurance that they were confronted with eye-witness observations. She quotes (220) the comments of a later traveler, Jean Barbot, on the importance of illustrations as a guarantee of authenticity, and notes his claim that he had learned to draw for the purpose. His book on Guinea, finished in 1688, was published only in 1732, ironically with plates simply borrowed from De Marees.
Sutton, however, aims to show not just that the illustrations to the Beschryvinge correspond to familiar Netherlandish models in books and prints, but that this conformity would have attuned the book’s readers to the cultural differences between their own codes of conduct and the contrasting manners of the Africans depicted. Indeed the very fact that the figures are left uncolored – though some are ‘blackened’ in certain later adaptations of De Marees’s illustrations – and the circumstance that they do not look particularly African in their facial features would, she believes, have enhanced this effect. Yet the comparisons she provides are telling for their differences as well as their similarities. This is true, for example, of the plates from Claesz’s editions of the travel books of Linschoten and of Lopez and Pigafetta (104-05), and it is even more obvious when it comes to the images of personifications in contemporary Netherlandish engravings that she cites. Jacques de Gheyn’s scraggy Envy eating her heart out may have pendulous breasts but I find it hard to believe that an early seventeenth-century viewer would have thought of her emaciated figure when contemplating a sturdy African woman with a child suckling over her shoulder. More telling are the analogies between the manners of Guineans and that of lower class Netherlanders, as represented in the imagery of the period. To my mind, it would have been interesting to pursue a class analysis further, as a point of comparison and contrast – all the more so as in the general discussion of the image of the African ‘other’ which takes up a considerable part of the book, Sutton emphasizes the perceptions of Africans as prone to sexual license, a tendency which, as she indicates, was associated in Netherlandish art with the (drink-fuelled) lower orders. At the same time it seems to me that the imagery of African sexuality is not as uniformly negative as Sutton implies. Maarten de Vos’s elegant personification of Africa, engraved c. 1590 by Collaert in Antwerp and much imitated in maps and frontispieces, presents an eroticism that is surely meant to be alluring as well as exotic.
Altogether, however, Sutton’s book makes an important contribution to the debate about European views of African people in the early modern period, while also providing a very valuable account of De Marees, Claesz and the illustration of travel writing. The book is nicely produced and the illustrations are clear. Still, given the focus of the study, it is a pity the space was not found for more than seven of the twenty illustrations in the 1602 edition. It is also a pity that, as so often these days, the size of the illustrations is not related to their importance to the argument but determined by their shape, so that comparative illustrations often appear in unnecessarily large format, while the detail of crucial pictures is at times so small as to be almost indecipherable.
The Warburg Institute