This very rare chart of Havana Harbour was first issued by Johannes van Keulen, the scion of the legendary Amsterdam chairmaking dynasty, around 1750, and was reissued (without changes to the plate) about three decades later by his son, Gerard Hulst van Keulen. One of the most attractive of historical charts of the subject, it provides a fine rendering of the city of Havana proper.
Havana’s stellar natural harbour is shown to expand into a great basin beyond its narrow mouth, which connect it to the Straits of Florida. The waters feature numerous bathymetric soundings, while the great walled city occupies the peninsula to the northwest of the port. Havana, founded in 1513, had for over two centuries been the great marshalling point for the Flotas, the annual fleets of Spanish galleons that carried vast quantities of silver and gold from South America and Mexico to Spain. This role, plus Cuba’s immensely lucrative sugar-slave economy, had made Havana one of the wealthiest and arguably the most culturally sophisticated city in the New World. Its streets and great plazas were lined with immensely grand and elaborately decorative buildings that would have held pride of place in any European capital.
The city of Havana is shown to be surrounded by its old walls and additionally defended by the immense fort of the Castillo de El Morro, at the western side of the moth of the harbour, while across is its sister bastion, the Castello de La Punta, while the Castello de La Fuerza protects Havana’s quayside. Within the city, the key, in the lower left, employs letters to identify 22 sites, labelled (A–Z) with the first 16 entries on the list (A–Q) noting Havana’s many grand ecclesiastical edifices, including A. Cathedral, as well as convents / monasteries and parish churches. Secular sites include the R. Audit Office (where gold and silver was inventoried!); S. St. Elmo’s Redoubt; T. Infantry Barracks; X. Main City Gate; and Z. Abattoir. The surrounding countryside assumes a bucolic appearance, with rolling hills, forests and arroyos, punctuated by roads and the odd rural church.
While the Van Keulens issued the chart in honour of the city’s role as one of the great ports of the Americas, it is also worth noting that through the 18th century Cuba still held a special place in the Dutch national consciousness. In 1628, the Dutch Admiral-privateer Piet Pieterszoon Hein stealthily captured an entire Spanish Flota off the Bay of Matanzas, not far from Havana, without shedding a single drop of blood, resulting in the greatest haul of treasure ever captured in single ‘piratical’ operation. The raid gained the Dutch an astounding 11,509,524 Guilders in loot, a sum so immense that its absence nearly bankrupted the Spanish imperial economy, while the windfall funded the entire Dutch war effort against Spain (being the ongoing Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648)) for some years. While the event was now generations distant, it had such a profound impact upon Dutch history that both Hein and Cuba remained household names. Havana also had a prominent role in contemporary news, as despite its great defenses, the city was conquered by the British naval expedition in 1762 (it was soon returned to Spain).
Some mystery still surrounds the circumstances behind the publication of the present chart, as evidence is scarce due the great rarity of the work. However, evidence suggests that the chart was first issued as a separately published work around 1750 by Johannes van Keulen II (1704 – 1755). His son, Gerard Hulst van Keulen (1733 – 1801), the last major principal of the legendary Van Keulen printing dynasty, inherited his plates, and published many of his charts, some as separately issued works, and some as part of atlases.
The present Havana plate was perhaps separately published (without any changes to the original plate) around 1780 by Gerard Hulst van Keulen, and was also issued as part of his new, heavily revised edition of the family’s venerable sea atlas of North American and West Indian waters, De nieuwe groote lichtende zee-fakkel. IV: West-Indische vaart (Amsterdam: Gerard Hulst van Keulen, 1782), today a truly rare work. The present example of the map seems to have been extracted from the atlas, as it features old guards mounted to the back of the centrefold. As by the 1780s the Van Keulen firm was more of a ‘boutique’ worship than its former role as a mass production publisher, all charts and atlases issued by Gerard Hulst van Keulen tend to be very rare.
A Note on Rarity
The present chart is extremely rare, we can trace only 4 institutional examples of the separate work, held by the British Library; William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan; Nationaal Archief (The Hague); and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Moreover, we are aware of only a single sales record for another example of the chart, which appeared in a 1997 London dealer’s catalogue. The atlas, De nieuwe groote lichtende zee-fakkel. IV: West-Indische vaart (Amsterdam: Gerard Hulst van Keulen, 1782), which may contain the chart, is also very rare, known in only a handful of institutional examples, and has only appeared twice at auction since 1976.
References: British Library: Maps *80595.(6.); William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan: Maps 8-I-1780 St; Nationaal Archief (The Hague): 4.MCAL.3294; Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Arsenal, EST-1505 (13); OCLC: 79791568, 1177079404; P.L. PHILLIPS, A List of Geographical Atlases in the Library of Congress, vol. 3 (1914), p. 475; Gonzalo de QUESADA (ed.), Handbook of Cuba (Washington, D.C., 1905), p. 467; (re: complete 1782 atlas:) KOEMAN, Atlantes Neerlandici, vol. IV, Keu 116.