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Mapping the Ocean, 1550-1750


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


Knowledge is power! The success of Dutch overseas expansion in the early modern period can be explained partly by the relatively unimpeded exchange of information in the Dutch Republic at the time.
Atlases and maps were an important source of knowledge for people active in the maritime sector and beyond. This MA Research Seminar studies early modern maps as sources for historical scholarship, and explores how cartographic material can be used alongside printed, handwritten, and visual sources of navigation and overseas expansion.

We will use Brian Harley’s classic study The New Nature of Maps. Essays in the History of Cartography (2001) as an historiographical point of departure. Educated as a social geographer, Harley emphasizes what maps can tell us about the political and social context of the maritime world and the powers of persuasion that cartographers and their patrons have employed, and argues for example that information that is deliberately being withheld is just as vital for our understanding of the meaning of maps.

We will confront his philosophical and iconographic approach to maps with the very different (descriptive) tradition of maritime cartography in the Netherlands – re-assessing the long-standing consensus of intended accuracy and authority, and examining the various ways in which Dutch maps of Asia and the Atlantic world can be re-interpreted.

This course will be given in cooperation with drs. Martijn Storms, curator of maps and atlases at Leiden University Library. Several sessions will be held in the Reading Room of the UB.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;
  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;
  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;
  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;
  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  10. (ResMA only): The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    • in the specialisation Colonial and Global History: how global (political, socio-economic, and cultural) connections interact with regional processes of identity and state formation; hence insight in cross-cultural processes (including the infrastructure of shipping and other modes of communication) that affect regions across the world such as imperialism, colonisation, islamisation, modernisation and globalisation (in particular during the period 1200-1940);
    • in the subspecialisation Maritime History also: the development of maritime history from the 16th century onwards; insight into recent issues in the field;
    • in the specialisation Europe 1000-1800: broader processes of political, social and cultural identity formation between about 1000-1800; awareness of problems of periodisation and impact of ‘national’ historiographical traditions on the field.
  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:
    • in the specialisation Colonial and Global History: empirical research from a comparative and connective perspective;
    • in the subspecialisation Maritime History also: comparative research; archive research;
    • in the specialisation Europe 1000-1800: the ability to analyse and evaluate primary sources from the period, if necessary with the aid of modern translations; ability to make use of relevant methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis to interpret sources in their textual and historical context.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  1. Is able to assess the scholarly value of maps as opposed to other primary sources that are being used more regularly by researchers in Maritime History and Colonial and Global History;
  2. Is able to critically assess the existing historiography on maritime cartography, and provide suggestions about methodological innovation;
  3. (ResMA only): Is able to indicate potential avenues for future research on the intersection of maritime cartography and colonial/global history, and provide insights in the contribution of maps as sources for interdisciplinary research in Maritime History and Colonial and Global History.


The timetable is available on the MA History website.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total course load 10 EC x 28 hours= 280 hours

  • Lectures: 9 × 2h + 3 visits to UB Reading Room (2h): 24 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature: 48 hours

  • Assignments (weekly assignments + oral presentation): 36 hours

  • Writing a paper (including finding literature, primary sources): 172 hours

Assessment method

  • Written paper (ca. 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography)
    Measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-14 (ResMA also: 10 and 15)

  • Oral presentation
    Measured learning objectives: 3-7, 9, 13

  • Written Assignments (500 words reflecting on secondary literature)
    Measured learning objectives: 3, 4, 7, 8, 11, 13-14


Written paper: 60%
Oral presentation: 20%
Written Assignments: 20%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient, and that the student has actively participated in group discussions.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Submission of assignments

  • Dissemination (after class) of the lecturers’ powerpoint presentations.

Reading list

  • Brian Harley, The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

  • Additional literature (to be announced)


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Prof. dr. M. van Groesen