Sunday, 9 March 2014

Marvellous maps

Ancient view: Flemish cartographer Barent Langenes’ map of Malacca, made in 1598, is oriented with the north to the left, giving the perspective of someone looking at Malaysia from Indonesia’s Sumatra.

Ancient view: Flemish cartographer Barent Langenes’ map of Malacca, made in 1598, is oriented with the north to the left, giving the perspective of someone looking at Malaysia from Indonesia’s Sumatra.

A brilliant — and academically important — private collection of maps has been made available to the public.

BEFORE there was GPS to help locate ourselves with pin point accuracy wherever we are on the planet, sailing the high seas depended on charts, compasses, radios and just plain know-how.

That is how Selangor’s ruler, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, made his journey around the globe. An avid sailor, the Sultan circumnavigated the globe in his yacht, SY Jugra, in 1995, a journey that took 22 months.

“Maps are important, I know this from my days circumnavigating the world, and from my role as Captain-in-Chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy. Nautical charts have for hundreds of years helped ensure the safety and effectiveness of mariners,” wrote Sultan Sharafuddin in his Foreword to Maps Of Malaya And Borneo, a glossy coffee table book that showcases the nearly 170 ancient maps of all shapes and sizes that the Sultan and his good friend, Datuk Richard Curtis, collected over nearly 40 years.


Sultan Sharafuddin had been collecting maps for more than 35 years when Curtis persuaded him to put their collections together and publish them in a book.

“Over the years, we have built up our respective collections to the extent they now comprise a remarkably extensive selection of historic maps of Malaya and Borneo,” Sultan Sharafuddin wrote.

“The maps in our collections come from many sources and show many things. There are maps depicting mythical creatures, there are nautical charts revealing the depths of the sea and the silhouettes of hills and mountains to aid navigation, there are geological maps, road maps and, of course, maps showing geopolitical boundaries. Each map has its own story: where, why and how it was created, by whom, from what sources and for what purpose.”

Currently the group managing director of Cahya Mata Sarawak Bhd, Curtis began amassing old maps early on – and a good thing he did, too, because some of them are now very pricey to collect.

“In the late 1970s, I started modestly collecting maps of Malaya and I still recall the day in London when His Royal Highness bought his first map at my instigation. Over time, we developed a particular fascination for historical (and historic) maps of our home country and, as our interest and respective collections expanded, we began to understand the vast amount of information that was contained in these maps, information that was often not available, and certainly not so visible, from other text-based sources, especially in Malaysia.

“Now that our map collections have become more comprehensive, it is appropriate to share them with the reading public through this book,” wrote Curtis in his Foreword.

Between the two men, they probably have the most comprehensive collection of Malayan and Bornean maps spanning a period of 600 years. The period encompasses the early European voyages to Malaya and Borneo during the Age of Discovery up to the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

The maps not only give a good glimpse of how cartography evolved over the centuries, but they also contain so many stories about Malaya’s (and later Malaysia’s) progress over the last 600 years. European exploration during the Age of Discovery allowed voyagers to map the “rest of the world”, which increasingly brought on new world-views about distant civilisations, and those distant civilisations acknowledging each other, reaching the most remote boundaries much later.

As Curtis and Sultan Sharafuddin started collecting relatively early, they managed to get a lot of important maps back then, most of which cannot be obtained now, or at least, not without spending huge sums of money.

Putting together all the information behind the maps was entrusted to Dr Frederic Durand, an associate professor at the University Toulouse II-LeMirail, France. Also the higher education attachè at the French Embassy in Malaysia from 2008 to 2010, Dr Durand’s academic expertise encompasses the geography and mapping of South-East Asia and history of Indonesia, Timor and Vietnam. Prior to this, he has authored 22 books.

Getting the background information to the maps was no mean feat, as many did not have any details about their maker, or even the year they were produced. It took a lot of painstakingly research on Dr Durand’s part to gather the information.

The book, containing more than 160 maps plus dozens more illustrations, had to be written by a specialist on cartography in order to appeal to academicians, though it is also presented in a manner that is very accessible to the layman, in this writer’s opinion.

Dr Durand, who was present at the book a launch, offered some insights on the enormity of his task. “One of the major problems that we faced during the realisation of this book was related to the difficulties of identifying the sources of the maps. In the 16th and 17th century, and even sometimes up to the mid-18th century, most maps had neither name nor date on it, and this is true even for those taken from ancient books or atlases.

“Through catalogues and databases created by map collectors all around the world, it was possible to trace all of them. But that was just the beginning of the story, because I had then to organise the collection in a coherent way so that it is meaningful to people, especially those unfamiliar with cartography. In the end, the chosen path was to present the history of Malaysia using the maps as a clue.”

The book is quite thorough, and dwells on the origins and fundamentals of cartography, how different civilisations viewed the world – in this respect, it serves as a wonderful introduction to mapping for the uninitiated.

It is interesting to note that even up to 1754, the Western world thought that Perak was a major island, probably confused by the outlets of Sungai Manjung and Sungai Perak, or some say, Sungai Beruas. And yes, the Silver State was already known as Perak even back then.

And for quite a while, Western cartographers also confused two rivers near each other as being a single river that is passable, when the fact is that they are separated by nearly 600m of land near Jempol in Negri Sembilan. The short overland route was known as Jalan Penarikan, part of a shortcut from the Strait of Malacca to the South China Sea that uses Sungai Serting that flows into Sungai Bera (a tributary of Sungai Pahang), while Sungai Jempol flows into Sungai Muar (in Johor).

There are books on the mapping of South-East Asia, but there is not one book that focuses just on the mapping of Malaya and Borneo. This is not a book one can flip through in a matter of hours, but rather one that will afford the reader long hours of pleasurable browsing. At the rate I am going, I can easily stretch my enjoyment over many weeks, if not months!

It certainly gives one a bird’s eye view of how this region evolved. For example, in the 1930s, a lot of maps showed the locations petrol stations as they were rare. “You needed to know where they were. Now you have all this information in the GPS. The maps show how we progressed, and how we mapped it, how our society was pulled together economically, culturally, politically, and in terms of buildings and services.

“You can see how both cartography and society developed, and appreciate how far Malaysia has travelled,” said Curtis at the launch.

“We hope our book will help all to understand the amazing scale of our national progress. Anyone with an interest in Malaysia should read it. But my plea is don’t try to ‘read’ the book. At the index, find something that you are interested in, and then go to the relevant pages. Just dip into it, and you will have a much better time,” he said.

Even a perfunctory glance through the book is enough to tell that the book will fascinate academics and laymen alike. It is likely to be a vital source of reference for those seeking a greater appreciation of how the concept of statehood came to be defined and redefined for Malaya and Borneo, and later on, how Malaysia marched on through the passage of time.

The even better piece of news is that this book is sold at a very affordable RM120, which is in keeping with Sultan Sharafuddin and Curtis’ commitment to making it available on a break-even basis. A slightly larger deluxe edition goes for RM450.

Maps Of Malaya And Borneo: Discovery, Statehood And Progress (Editions Didier Millet /Jugra Publication Sdn Bhd, 264 pages) is available in all major bookstores nationwide.

Tags / Keywords: Travel , Automotive , cartography


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