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Southeast Asia, Blaeu, 1635. [Paulus Swaen Old Maps Internet Auction]

The world map after Ptolemy, Gregor Reisch, 1503. In the inscription on the Ptolemaic landbridge connecting Southeast Asia and Africa, Reisch explains that the region may in fact be islands.


From The Asian Reporter, V13, #19 (May 6-12, 2003), page 13.

Big World

Early Mapping of Southeast Asia

By Thomas Suárez

Periplus Editions (Hong Kong)

Distributed in the U.S. by Charles E. Tuttle

Hardback, 280 pages, approx. 160 illustrations, $65.00

By Douglas Spangle

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by maps. I spent hours with my dad’s old black atlas spread out on the floor, tracing the coasts of islands like Buru (Boeroe in the old Dutch transliteration) or the twisted X of Halmahera (known to the old mapmakers as Gilolo). All this boyhood nerdistry paid off a few years later when I traveled overseas; I seldom visited a place I had not already visited on a map.

Thomas Suárez’s admirable project, Early Mapping of Southeast Asia, patently a years-long labor of love, presents a history of contacts between Europe and Southeast Asia by means of maps and their development over the centuries. It is a story of fact and of fantasy, exploitation and trade, understanding and misunderstanding, and it is gorgeously illustrated by old, older, and ancient maps.

Ancient Greek and Roman knowledge of the Far East was considerable, thanks to commercial travel and Alexander the Great’s march to India. Ancient geographers knew that the world was round, and Europe made few advances between that time and the Renaissance.

Medieval maps were typically of the so-called "T-O" type, with the world divided into three continents, Jerusalem or Paradise at the center, whose purpose was more theological than navigational. Early geographical maps, even so, were in large part based on exaggerated or fictional merchant and travelers’ tales.

Until Vasco de Gama’s circumnavigation of Africa became generally known in the 16th century, that continent was shown extending to the bottom of the map; the Indian Ocean was shown as an enclosed body of water. China was a rumor of silk at the upper right-hand corner. The existence of a peninsula called Golden Chersonese (probably Malaya) was vaguely known since ancient times, but only the edge of the map took the place of where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are now shown.

Three separate Indias dangle from the Asia of some maps — later differentiated as India, Malaya, and Indochina — to be joined later by a fourth when the land Columbus found was erroneously attached to Asia. The fantasy islands of Taprobane, Java Major, and Java Minor dance across south Asian seas, seemingly with no fixed location. Where the mapmaker was unsure of what lay in an empty corner, disporting whales and mirror-gazing mermaids tended to propagate.

Slowly, painstakingly, the representation of East Asia attained a shape recognizable to a modern eye — but it took till the beginning of the 18th century to do so.

In a sense, the development of maps reflects developments in technology and information-gathering. Longitude and an accurate notion of Earth’s circumference came late to navigators and mapmakers. It was a long time before advanced navigational instruments replaced dead-reckoning and hearsay as mapmakers’ tools, until today intelligence-types track Osama or Saddam Hussein by Global Positioning Satellites.

The development of mapping is also tied up with European colonialism. Empire after empire expanded, requiring more accurate charts, then relinquished ground before later empires: Portugal, Spain, Holland, France, and England supplanted each other as colonial masters in Southeast Asia as their cartographers and their techniques prevailed.

The maps in this book are all individual works of art, rare, often graceful, painstaking and beautifully reproduced, rendering it well worth the steep price. Suárez’s text is readable and informative.

A couple of comments seem worth making, though. First is the complaint that the page references in the text are often typo’d or inaccurate — a nuisance that should have been caught in a final proofreading. Second is that, of course, the point of view is from a European perspective — most, though not all, of the maps are European. Even so, Suárez does mention native mapping techniques, and these might even merit a book of their own. He mentions tattoo maps, itineraries played out in dance-like gestures (like bee dances, almost), maps that comprise theological territory. And of course, the mariners of the Pacific Ocean (and the whole world, actually) on clear nights had the biggest and most impressive map of all: the star-pointed night sky.


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