This is an exceptional & rare map from my private collection of antique maps of South East Asia, made by Sylvanus in 1511. Yes, look again – this IS SE Asia! To understand this map, we need to reach back into Roman history to understand why it looks the way it does.
This map is based on maps by Claudius Ptolemy, a geographer from Alexandria, Egypt who lived from around 90AD-170AD. While his original maps and printed works have been lost in time, manuscript copies were discovered in a monastery in the 15th century and widely printed. This work, Geographia, became the standard way scholars of that time understood the world.
One of Ptolemy’s central ideas was the Indian ocean was landlocked and couldn’t be reached directly by sea from Europe. Basically he believed that the southern portion of Africa was joined to a “Great Southern land” or Terra Australis. Since this was before Columbus discovered America, there was no knowledge of the American continent at this time. The theory was that China had a long peninsula that stretched all the way down to the Great Southern Land and, therefore creating a land-locked Indian ocean from both the west ( Africa) and the East (China).
Ptolemy along with other classical scholars of ancient Greece and Rome had heard vague travelers stories about a “Golden Peninsula” to the east. They named this land – Aurea Chersonese – the Golden Peninsula from stories of its fabulous wealth in what we now term the Malaysian peninsula.
So now when we look at Sylvanus’ extradinary map of SE Asia, we can begin to understand why it looks the way it does. The ‘leaf’ shaped peninsular is, in fact Malaysia and the end of the leaf could possibly be Sumatra. There is reference also to Aurea Argentea or the “land of Silver” in what is now Southern Burma and above this “Cirradia” from where the finest cinnamon can be obtained.
On the right hand side of the map is Sinae, the land of Silk or China. As mentioned, you can see that in this map, the coastline of China extends well to the south and, in world maps by Sylvanus, reaches what we term Antarctica.
There are many other details on the map that deserve mention – the “Anthroprophagi” or “eaters of human flesh” of the islands to the south and Sabana, on the southern tip of the peninsula located in the approximate position of Singapore. This suggests that Singapore, which developed into a thriving trading port later during colonial times, possibly had a much longer history of being a key trading center in the region.
Another key point about this map is that it was one of the first maps printed in two colours – red and black, by woodcut method. The printing itself is quite amazing and actually stands out from the map similar to Braille characters, so deep was the strike on the printed paper.
Sylvanus’ map of SE Asia was printed in 1511 – the same year that Alfonso De Albuquerque conquered the key trading port of Malacca for the Portuguese. Malacca had been one of the key links in Asian trade between China, SE Asia, India and Arabia for many centuries prior to European exploration.
This map therefore captures a moment in history that would change Europe and Asia for centuries afterwards and yet still harks back to more ancient times and knowledge of Asia from Roman and possibly Greek sources.