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.
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.