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Linschoten and the waterways around Singapore 1299

Jan Huyghen van Linschoten was born in Haarlem in the Dutch Republic. He travelled to India and served as secretary to the Archbishop of Goa, João Vicente da Fonseca. While working for the archbishop, Linschoten had access to confidential information about trade routes and markets of the Indian Ocean littoral and western Africa that he collected, translated into Dutch and published as the Reysgeschrift (1595), Itinerario (1596) and the Beschryvinghe (1597). Up until the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Portuguese had been successful in controlling the release of information about their navigation routes and trade in the East Indies and Africa. With Linschoten’s publications, however, crucial information about trade routes and markets were irreversibly released into the public domain. It is no exaggeration to say that Linschoten’s works were seminal in spurring merchants from northern Europe to organise voyages to the East Indies in open defiance of the monopoly which the Portuguese had enjoyed then. Linschoten’s Reysgeschrift and Itinerario were soon translated into English and other European languages. The books were published in English and German in 1598, Latin in 1599 and French in 1610.

The Reysgeschrift, published by Cornelis Claesz of Amsterdam in 1595, contains an overwhelming collection of rutters or navigational instructions. More importantly, it contains fairly detailed information for sailing the different maritime passages around the island of Singapore. The most detailed account is found in chapter 20 which outlines the voyage between the Portuguese-held ports and colonies of Malacca and Macau. References to Singapore begin with the arrival of ships off the western entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait which Linschoten refers to as a branch of the Johor River. He noted the presence of Pulau Merambong, an island in Johor, as a navigational landmark, and explained that taking this waterway would lead vessels to a location near Johor Lama, the former capital of Johor. Ships sailing the route between Malacca and China, however, did not take this supposed branch of the river, but continued southwards, sailing on the inside of Pulau Sembilan (now Jurong Island), down the western coast of Singapore island (Pasir Panjang) to reach their next navigational landmark, the rock formation known to mariners of the early modern period by various names such as the varella, Longyamen, Batu Belayers, Sail Rock or Lot’s Wife. This rock formation was arguably Singapore’s most recognisable natural landmark and once stood in present day Labrador Park. It was destroyed in the 19th century by the British to widen the entrance to Keppel Harbour. The varella marked a fork in the maritime passages around what is today the island of Sentosa. Ships taking the outer (southern) route called this the New Strait of Singapore, which took vessels around the southwestern coast of Sentosa and the Buran Channel. The inner route, known as the Old Strait of Singapore, took vessels between the northern coast of Sentosa and Telok Blangah (formerly Keppel Harbour). Because of the many submerged rocks and reefs in the area, Linschoten provided a fairly detailed description of this maritime passage with an eye cast on assisting captains and pilots in navigating these treacherous waters. The New and Old Straits of Singapore merged again in the east near the Singapore River estuary. The voyage then continued by hugging the eastern coast of the island before changing course for Pedra Branca, the navigational landmark at the eastern entrance of the Straits of Singapore.

Linschoten, J. H. van. (1910–39). Itinerario, voyage often schipvaert van Jan Huygen van Linschoten naar Oost ofte Portugaels Indien, 1579–1592. H. Kern (Ed.) (5 vols). The Hague.

Linschoten, J. H. van. (1939). Itinerario. Voyage ofte Schipvaert van Jan Huygen van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien, 1579–1592, and Reys-geschrift vande navigatiën der Portugaloysers. H. Kern & J. C. M. Warnsinck (Eds.) (2nd ed.). The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Linschoten, J. H. van. (1956). Itinerario ofte schipvaert van Jan Huygen van Linschoten near Oost of Portugaels Indien inhoudende en corte beschryvinghe der selver landen ende zeecusten … Amsterdam: Cornelis Claesz.


The information in this article is valid as at 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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