It took Westerners (the Portuguese, then the Dutch, French and British) a long time to produce accurate maps of Malaya and Borneo: the basic shape of these lands was long a matter of debate and, early on, only a few coastal place names made regular appearances. Interiors wouldn’t be well represented until the 19th century.
Cartography was a crucial tool in sustaining territorial mastery and expressing colonial goals. Utility was often the guiding principle, however, and maps usually reflected what the colonial powers needed to know.
The skilful organisation of this book allows us to follow the unfolding story: it takes a broadly chronological approach but also deploys thematic analysis where appropriate. It’s also fascinating to see how successive, often competing, cartographical traditions influenced each other, and the role of local mapmakers and pilots isn’t forgotten. An added bonus is that many of the maps on display here are gorgeous artefacts.
It would be wonderful to see comparable volumes that apply the format and high production values of this work to other regions and historical processes. As one of the authors, Frédéric Durand, puts it, the purpose of maps is to represent physical space but they always have a fourth dimension: time. This echoes the famous remark of Joseph de Jouvancy – that chronology and geography are the ‘two eyes of history’. Maps lead us to the past because they encapsulate the obsessions of any given period.
MAPS OF MALAYA AND BORNEO: Discovery, Statehood and Progress by Frédéric Durand and Dato’ Richard Curtis, Editions Didier Millet, £29.95