John Speed’s Prospect of the World

Near-blind and approaching his death, John Speed produced his final atlas in 1627. The first English world atlas, A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World, was the product both of Speed’s cartographic skill and his passion for all things historical.

The most renowned of the early English mapmakers had in fact spent his early career producing genealogies, Biblical maps, chronologies, and studies of antiquities. Among his projects of the early-seventeenth century was the History of Great Britaine, published with a royal privilege in 1611, the same year as the King James Bible, in which several of his genealogical diagrams were also included. At the dawn of Stuart period, the new king encouraged and commissioned works that would consolidate his power through the divine right of kings; like the KJV, Speed’s work offered subtle support for the king to whom it was dedicated. While his primary goal may have been to write a history, however, it was the accompanying atlas that consolidated his spot in the cartographical canon.

Offered together with the History of Great Britaine was a set of county maps of England and Wales, as well as maps of Ireland and Scotland, known together as The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain. With these maps, Speed established his modus operandi, using existing maps by established cartographers as models, having his own plates engraved in Amsterdam, and having the maps themselves printed in London. Among the changes he made were often new borders, showing costumed figures representing locals.

15 years after the success of his History and Theatre, John Speed’s Prospect of the World bears the same features. Many of its 22 maps, which show the continents, various countries, and the world in two hemispheres, depict native inhabitants wearing their customary garments, whether feathered hats or animal-skin loincloths. Like his earlier plates, those engraved for the Prospect were produced in Amsterdam, by Abraham Goos, among other Dutch engravers, and then sent to London to be printed and held in the stock of the publisher, in this case George Humble. Furthermore, although attributed to Speed, the maps in John Speed’s Prospect of the World are again modelled on the work of other cartographers, generally copies of contemporary Dutch maps by the likes of the Blaeu, Visscher, and Hondius-Jansson firms.

And much like the History and Theatre, the Prospect is as much a work of history as it is of cartography. Accompanying the maps is extensive text describing at length the geography, geology, history, culture, government, people, customs, and resources of the lands shown. Although generally considered less stylish than the history accompanying the Theatre, Speed’s writing in the Prospect demonstrates his detailed knowledge of world geography and history, albeit seen through the lenses of his Christian faith, classical education, and sixteenth and seventeenth-century European exploration. His sources include scripture, ancient geographers such as Ptolemy and Strabo, and contemporary work such as Peter Heylyn’s Microcosmus.

John Speed’s Prospect of the World begins with a discussion of God’s creation of the universe and the consequent structure of the world as “ordered by divine providence…into a Sphericall figure”. Illustrating this is a ‘New and Accurate Map of the World’ on a double-hemisphere projection, adorned with allegorical personifications of earth, water, air, and fire, celestial diagrams, and portraits of the four explorers to have circumnavigated the globe. There follows a range of scientific, religious, and historical discussions related to the world as a whole, from estimates about the Earth’s diameter to a description of the Flood, the techniques of Ptolemy to early Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese explorations and the new lands uncovered by them:

“With these additions the world by some is divided into sixe parts, Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Septentrionalis, Incognita, and Terra Australis Magellanica: which are thus disposed in the Globe of the earth”.

Speed follows the world map with sections on each of the four continents, ranked from most to least significant! He begins with Asia, as “the method propounded in our generall description of the World, gives Asia the prerogative, as well for worth as time”. Its map, showing the entire continent from Russia down to Java, and ornamented with figures from various parts of Asia, as well as views of its important cities, is presented alongside a discussion of the continent’s notable features, such as its “fertile soyle and temperate ayre”, customs, commodities, and history.

Next comes Africa, which, “as it lay neerest the seat of the first people, so questionlesse it was next inhabited: and therefore requires the second place in our Division”. And although Speed acknowledges the rich history and wealth of natural resources found in the continent, he also declares that “there is no Region of the world so great an enemy to mans commerce”, warning of the threat of “great plague”, “scarcity of water”, and “ravening beasts, or other horrible monsters”. In fact, several such beasts are depicted on the map of Africa, with elephants, a lion, zebra, and ostriches depicted at its centre. Likewise in the oceans, birds and sea monsters appear alongside European ships sailing between the many surrounding islands.

Speed begins his next chapter concerned that “Europe may perhaps thinke her selfe much injured to be thus cast back into the third place of my Division, and rec∣koned the last of the old world: but my promise shall be here made good, to give her her due”. Indeed, he goes on to boast that Europe is incomparable “for the studie of Arts, for sinceritie in Religion, and what ever else God hath pleased to blesse his Church with from the beginning”. Many of the centres of art and religion are depicted along the upper border, where the cities of London, Paris, Rome, Constantinople, Venice, Prague, Amsterdam, and Lisbon are shown.

Finally, “America must yeeld her selfe to the last place of my division”. In addition to the figures of native Americans, whom Speed warns “goe naked, and are very lustfull people”, the map of the Americas in the Prospect displays one of the great cartographic misconceptions: California as “an Iland of about 500 leagues from the North Cape. First mentioned as an island in Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s novel of 1510, California appeared separated from the mainland in maps throughout the following centuries, and even for decades after the mistake was revealed!

In the next section of the Prospect, Speed provides a description and map of a range of important European and Asian countries, kingdoms, and empires, both contemporary and historic: Greece, the Roman Empire, Germany, Bohemia, France (“they are of a fiery spirit for the first on-set in any action, but will soone flagge”), Belgium, Spain (“Portugall is the third Kingdome in our last division of Spaine”), Italy, Hungary, Denmark, Poland, Persia, the Turkish Empire (“a terrour to the whole world”), China (“the mistresse of arts, and example of civilitie to all the other parts of the world”), Tartary, and Bermuda (“it hath pleased God of his especiall grace and mercy to deliver this Nation from that sinke of errours”).

The maps that accompany these colourful descriptions invariably present a wealth of geographical and topographical information, as well as the illustrations of locals from all walks of life, and small town-plans along the upper border, offering snapshots of the region’s most important cities and sites. As a genealogist, Speed also included heraldic details such as local crests and shields on many of the maps. Last of the 22 maps that make up John Speed’s Prospect of the World is one of ‘The Invasions of England and Ireland With al their Ciuill Wars Since the Conquest’, which shows sites of battle both on land and at sea, with small notes providing brief overviews of the conflicts.

From the first edition in 1627, the Prospect was bound with the Theatre, the county and kingdom maps which follow the British civil war map, prefixed by their own title-page and dedication. Further editions of the work appeared in 1631, 1632, 1646, 1650, 1652, 1653-4, 1662, 1665, and 1676, published in succession by George Humble, then his son William, then William Garrett, followed by the Rea brothers, and finally by the firm of Bassett and Chiswell.

The 22 maps of John Speed’s Prospect of the World and the 67 maps of his Theatre, coupled with Speed’s historical, geographical, and cultural analyses, provide a detailed and illuminating overview of the known world. The first atlas to be published by an Englishman, the work set a high standard to which future generations of British mapmakers could aspire, and remains an invaluable source of information about the seventeenth-century European understanding of the world.