The 17th century C Selden map of Southeast Asia

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Now on exhibit at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum (next to the Star Ferry landing on the Hong Kong side of the HK SAR) is an ancient, unique and original map, the Selden Map. It measures l.8 m by l m, which makes it a fairly large map. And it depicts Southeast Asia including the Philippines vis-à-vis China in a fascinating way.

In the first place, it is a 17th century map, obviously made in Asia (whether in Nagasaki, Japan, or Xiamen, China, is currently being debated), that does not put China at the center but off to one side. For the map concentrates on the Southeast Asia islands (like the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei) and mainland (Vietnam, Burma, Siam).

The reason for the above configuration is that it is a map that shows the trade routes between China and Southeast Asia during the Ming Dynasty when Chinese traders roamed the Southeast Asian seas. Furthermore, it is very detailed about the landmass that the trade routes moved around on, showing rivers, mountains, bays and the sea.

It is called the Selden Map because it was donated in 1659 (definitely 17th C) to the Bodleian Library of Oxford University by John Selden, a London lawyer. It lay buried in the bowels of the Bodleian despite some annotations put on it (Romanized names basically) sometime before or after the donation. It was only in 2008 that Robert Batchelor of the Georgia Southern University came across it while doing research at the library and discerned its importance. Since then its rarity and attention to detail has precipitated the writing of two books discussing it, a conference at Oxford University in 2011 and last weekend another one in the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.


Members of the Philippine Map Collectors’ Society were alerted to this event and some of us traveled to Hong Kong to see the map, which for the first time in 400 years left the Bodleian Library to travel for an exhibit in Hong Kong (until June 24). I was bowled over by its presentation of the Philippine archipelago. It showed encircled places in Northern Luzon, Ilocos Norte primarily, down to Manila Bay. These have been interpreted as ports of call for trade. Lingayen Bay was clearly there and so was Manila Bay. Mountains and trees were meticulously drawn.

Yet this map is more about the sea routes than geographical features, present and clear as these are. It shows directions from China to the various Southeast Asian islands (including some of the disputed ones today). It was meant for the Chinese traders who dominated the Southeast Asian trade with competition from the Portuguese and the Dutch and British. It cannot be said to be too accurate, it’s more like a general picture of routes acknowledging blurred areas, changing configurations. The Chinese traders knew the routes from experience, not from maps. One speaker at the conference said that the Chinese of the time and for a long time before and after believed that the earth was flat and square and China in the middle. They drew maps for a long time but they were rutter maps (as in manuals of sea routes without land coordinates). And it wasn’t till the 1840’s that they figured out how to make maps accurate.

So, the discussion is who and where did this map come from. One theory is that it was made in Nagasaki, an important trade center in the China-Southeast Asian trade. The Japanese craved Chinese silk and only Nagasaki was the port that allowed them to bring it in. It was therefore like Manila, an entrepot where all kinds of foreigners congregated and someone among them perhaps patronized by either a Japanese authority or even a leading Chinese merchant drew the map. Another theory, more plausible to me, is that it was made in Xiamen for the powerful Chinese trader of Southeast Asia at the time, Li Dan. He traded with Manila and Nagasaki and spent long sojourns in each place as part of his trading activities. He is thought to have commissioned the map because it uses Fukienese (Hokkieniese) terms, uses Chinese paper (though the other view says Japanese paper). The Bodleian Library Conservator who spoke said the Selden Map used Chinese paper and Chinese black carbon ink. Though it is not implausible that they could have used those in Nagasaki too.

Anyway, the Selden Map is fascinating. Just seeing the Philippine land mass there occupying a large portion of it gives one a thrill of recognition and wonder. The Hong Kong Maritime Museum has an electronic copy in a machine that allows one to focus and magnify the parts that one is interested in. I kept looking and trying to guess what those white encircled ports in Northern Luzon were – Currimao? Laoag? Cape Bojeador? I am sure a geographer more familiar with the terrain would know.

Someone in our group voiced the opinion that perhaps we should have an electronic copy of our great cartographic contribution to the world, the Murillo Velarde map, drawn and in Manila by the Jesuit priest Pedro Murillo Velarde and engraved on copperplates by the Filipino engraver Nicolas Bagay in the 18th century. These engraved copperplates disappeared during the British Occupation of Manila and Cavite between 1762 and 1764. Down the centuries we have hoped to stumble upon these copperplates again someday (hoping against hope they were not melted for their metal) just as Robert Batchelor did the Selden Map at the Bodleian Library. Who knows it may be somewhere there, a forgotten donation, by someone (most likely British, of course) who was in Manila then. Let us hope. Meanwhile, appreciate the Selden Map where we are one of the stars.

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