1 May 2018

Charting the Early Modern - Mapping East-West Perspectives

Mr Selden's Map of China: The Spice Trade, a Lost Chart & the South China Sea

This is a wonderfully personable book. It's easy conversational style brings to life the academic adventure of doing historical research. By using museum and library collections, tracing connections through texts and maps, linking them to real people and places in such a way as to create a dual picture of the world and time being researched, and of the world and time in which that research is being conducted.

The Selden Map of China (東西洋航海圖 Dongxi yang hanghai tu: "Navigation Chart of the Eastern and Western Oceans") is a seventeenth century navigation chart, deposited in the Bodelian library in Oxford by John Selden, a legal scholar, in 1659. There is still some debate as to when and where, as well as, how and why the map was drawn - but Timothy Brook outlines in this short book his theory that the map was first obtained by Captain John Saris, commander of the trading ship, The Clove, around 1608-1609. The map gives a curiously accurate rendering of the South China Sea, detailing the trade routes along the coastal regions of China and Southeast Asia - and bears interesting comparison to the contemporary map-making skills of European navigators, from portolan charts to Mercator's famous projection, showing how the distortions of mapping linear directions over vast, curved surfaces can be sensibly shown on a flat map and still be accurately usable for the purposes of getting from A to B over such large distances.

I particularly liked the fact that Brook related Selden's map to one of his own which he had to surrender to a Chinese Customs Official on the Vietnam border in the 1970s, and how he deftly refers back to this incident at apposite moments throughout the text but without over-stressing the point that maps are important and controversial artefacts in the history of knowledge, both in the past as in the present. It's a point very deftly conveyed.

I also appreciated the fact that he credits other scholars and researchers as he goes in his text (rather than lumping them together, ghettoised, in an acknowledgements section divorced from context and from the rest of the book); too often such books represent themselves as monolithic achievements of a single individual, but here it's wonderful to see how Brook's thinking was influenced by others even though the book clearly presents his own personal thesis (it's doubly nice too, because a couple of the people he credits are my friends and colleagues!).

東西洋航海圖 (Dongxi yang hanghai tu: "Navigation Chart of the Eastern and Western Oceans") - or "The Selden Map", The Bodelian

He is also good at highlighting and acknowledging the limitations of both his research materials and his interpretation of them. In all, this is a wonderful read - showing how the study of material culture can bring the past closer to the present, shedding light on the development of the history of knowledge and the history of science, as well as examining the contrasts and parallels of perspectives - both East and West - which almost intersected at a crucial moment in the burgeoning first era of a globalising world.

I highly recommend it to anyone interested in cartography, exploration, the history of science, particularly in relation to China and Southeast Asia, and to early modern European interventions in this region; and to those interested in using visual sources and material culture to explore broader cultural and global history perspectives; as well as to anyone interested in how to go about writing intelligent, academic history for a popular audience - stylistically this little book is a real tour de force.


Explore the Selden Map in detail on-line here on The Bodelian website

How the Selden Map of China was recently conserved, here

Read more about The Selden Map of China here

Read more about 'The Clove' here on Waymarks

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