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Afbeelindinge van ‘t zeer vermaarde eiland Geks-kop…

  • Author: Anonymous
  • Date: 1720
  • Dimensions: 23.5 x 30 cms


Fool’s Cap Isle from “Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid” [1720], a satire on the speculative Mississippi Scheme & South Sea Bubble

About this piece:

AFBEELINDINGE/ van ‘t zeer vermaarde eiland GEKS-KOP. / Gelegen in de Actie-Ze, ontdekt door / Monsr.Lau-rens, werdende bewoond door / een verzameling van allerhande volkeren / die men dezen generalen Naam (Actionisten) geeft.

[A Description of the most celebrated Island of Fool’s Cap, situated in the Sea of Shares, discovered by Monsieur Law-rens, inhabited by a collection of people generally known as shareholders]

23.5 x 30 cms. Uncoloured. Wide margins. One or two unobtrusive light brown spots to lower letterpress, but overall a very fine & clean example.

Famous satirical map of the Island of  Fool’s Cap, from the Dutch work Het Groote Tafereel der Dwaasheid : The Great Theatre of Folly, a series of bitingly poignant, humorous and often obscene engravings and broadsides illustrating & lambasting the origins, progress, downfall & consequences of the speculative Mississippi & South Sea Bubble schemes in France, England and Holland in the early 18th Century.

The Mississippi scheme was originally initiated under the auspices of the French Comptroller of Finances, John Law [1671-1729], who comes under considerable hostile fire in the work and is referred to in the title of this engraving as the discoverer of Fool’s Cap island.

Law was the scion of a well-known Scottish noble family, The Laws of Lauriston. He had been accused of murder following a duel in London in 1694. Escaping to the Netherlands before he could be convicted, he later returned to Scotland at the time of the Union with England in 1707 to promote his scheme of a National bank backed by credit and paper banknotes. It was a scheme that he subsequently promoted in France, where, in 1716, he established his own private bank, La Banque Générale Privée, one of only a small number permitted to issue banknotes.

In the light of France’s crippling debts and stagnant economy in the wake of prolonged European wars since the beginning of the Century, Law proposed that French industry might be revitalised & stimulated by replacing the gold specie that underpinned the French currency of the time and gradually replace it with paper credit (notes), and then gradually increase that supply of credit, and to reduce the national debt by replacing it with shares in economic ventures. Though the ideas as implemented ultimately proved catastrophic, as Antoin Murphy has noted, his theories lived on and in the 20th and 21st Century “captured many key conceptual points which are very much a part of modern monetary theorizing”

In 1717 Law founded the Compagnie D’Occident, with the aim of exploiting the natural riches and fertile territories owned by the French in Louisiana, particularly in the hinterlands along the Mississippi River Valley. Law also obtained the royal monopoly to trade in tobacco and slaves throughout these regions. By 1719 Law’s Bank had become the Banque Royale, endorsed by King Louis XIV, and the Compagnie D’Occident had absorbed most of its rival trading companies, including the Compagnie des Indes and Compagnie de la Chineand now becoming the so-called Compagnie Perpetuelle. 

At this juncture, with the backing of the French government, Law now issued 50,000 new shares in the new Mississippi Company at 500 livres with just 75 livres downpayment, and the rest due in nineteen additional monthly payments of 25 livres each. The share price rose to 1,000 livres before the second instalment was even due, and ordinary citizens rushed to invest. Based on the apparent success of the Company (at least on paper), Law now offered to pay off the national debt of 1.5 billion livres by issuing an additional 300,000 shares at 500 livres paid in ten monthly instalments. By mid 1719 the Company had issued some 600,000 shares with a par value of 300 million livres. The share price continued to rise to astronomical levels, increasing some fifteen fold within just a few months. By the beginning of 1720 Law was officially appointed Comptroller General of Finances by the Duke of Orleans, effectively bringing the Banque Royale and Mississippi Company together under one umbrella. Law’s Banque Royale continued to issue notes to sustain the continued speculative dash for cash, but the negative impacts on the French economy began to be felt with increasing severity, particularly in the rapid rise in food prices. Eventually, in May 1720, the Bubble burst, the Government admitting it did not have sufficient gold specie to underpin the amount of notes in circulation, there were severe runs on the Banks as investors attempted to convert their notes into specie, the Company shares plummeted to a point where, by November 1720, they were deemed worthless. Law himself was dismissed by the Duke of Orleans and fled to exile in Venice, where he lived off his gambling winnings, dying in relative obscurity there in 1729.

The Fool is a central character of medieval and renaissance literature, perhaps best characterized in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The Fool’s Cap was an equally long-established and well-known metaphor and symbolic motif, hitherto best represented in cartographic terms in the enigmatic and curious Fool’s Cap World Map published in Flanders in the early 1590’s, in which the face of the Fool, beneath his tasselled hood, is represented by a contemporary World map on the model of Abraham Ortelius, suggesting the boundless universality of human folly.

This satirical engraving comprises a central medallion showing an Island in the shape of the Fool’s Cap with the Fool’s facial features also included as well.  The topographical features of the island, including its capital Quinquempoix (after the Parisian street Rue Quincampoix, where the Mississippi Company’s offices were located), the Rivers Thames & Seine, and other features and settlements reflect the follies of financial speculation, including Blind Fort, Bubble River and Mad-House. In the waters surrounding the Fool’s Cap Island appear the islets of Sadness, Poverty and Despair. To the left, an illustration of one of the Amsterdam coffee houses on the Dam, attacked by agitators in the wake of the financial collapse. To the right a wheeled wind machine moves off towards Vianen, pursued by a number of men.

Wind & air are used frequently throughout the work as symbols of both the fleeting, illusory nature of paper speculation (all air and no substance) and also to represent one of the basic elements of life (albeit useless in itself apart from to breathe), still able to be enjoyed by those suffering financial ruin.

The lines of the rhyming Dutch poem below the engraving provide a more detailed satirical resumé of the engraving and its hidden meanings.

It roughly translates as follows :

This sketch shows the foreign region

of Fool’s Cap, to which in the end 

Nobody could find their way

Through the Mississippi & Bubble winds & South Sea storms.

But many a one who left firm ground

To look for salvation on that shore

Found himself deceived.

At first all gleamed beautifully to the eye

But now it is full of poisonous vermin.

Nobody found his way through the sharp thistles

And thorns which surround that land

Full of scorpions, spiders & snakes

where the cat & night owl join  forces.

They shunned the light to live content

From plunder in the darkness.

What fruits can that land provide,

As it is only a mirage,

Other than falsehood, sadness and venom?

While Foolishness reigns in Quincampoix,

And holds court there,

Ruling through evil practice

His fresh-baked kingdom.

But oh! Where shall the prince land?

The island quakes & a furious south wind

Roars on to the shores

Leaving everyone in a quandary.

And the Island shouts out “Take yourselves off”

So anyone who does not want to drown

Must think about fleeing swiftly.

At this sad rumour people promptly take 

Many risks in the latest fashion.

For the shares are needed as sails

To get from Fool’s Cap’s silly shore

To another land

Of despair, sadness, poverty & shame.

Or better still to the Netherlands

To Kuilenburg, or Ysselstyn,

Or Vianen, may be,

There to bow their numbskull heads

While Quincampoix lies in pieces.

Refs : Book : Sabin 28932; Landwehr 230; Map : Hoppen Cartographica Curiosa 2 #44, BM Satires 682.