Monday, 22 December 2014

Bargimgaparaa. Carta del Cantino

Name: Carta del Cantino
Year: 1502
Mapmaker/publisher: Alberto Cantino
Manuscript location: Biblioteca estense universitaria di Modena, Italy
Figure 1. The Cantino Planisphere, 1502. The original is kept at the Biblioteca estense universitaria di Modena, Italy. The map image can be obtained from this link. Fig. 2 zooms in to the portion of the map enclosed in the black rectangle.
Is this where 'Singapore' (or variations of the name) first appear on a map? 

The map featured above (Fig. 1) is known as the Cantino world map (or planisphere) or Carta del Cantino. This manuscript map dates back to 1502, and is named after Alberto Cantino. Cantino was a diplomat active in the Portuguese court, working for the Duke of Ferrara (in present day Italy). 

Portugal at that time was the leading nation in maritime exploration. Maps, navigation charts and navigation directions were closely guarded state secrets then, and were often targets for espionage. While in the Portuguese court, Cantino bribed a mapmaker to create a map showing the latest navigational and map knowledge of the Portuguese. The result is this map, which was then smuggled out to the Duke of Ferrara. The map is currently part of the collection of the Biblioteca EstenseModena, Italy  

Since the early 1400s, the Portuguese had been actively exploring the Atlantic coast of Africa, moving gradually southwards. By 1502, the Portuguese had had rounded the southernmost tip of the African continent (Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488) and have recently reached the coast of India (Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, Kerala in 1498). 

This explains why the parts of the Cantino map featuring the Europe and Africa coastlines are pretty accurate. The accuracy decreases steadily as one heads eastward. Nonetheless, one can easily pick out the main geographical features. First, we have Arabia peninsula, and the Persian gulf in the shape of a rounded rectangle. Moving east, we have the Indian subcontinent, with southern tip that is too sharp. Further east, is an oversized peninsular feature, which represents the Malay peninsula and Indochina. As the Portuguese had not ventured so far east at that date, the information of this peninsula must have come from Asian sources, presumably from the Arabs or the Indians.    

Figure 2. Zooming in to the part of Cantino map that shows the southern end of the Malay peninsula (The area enclosed in the black rectangle in Fig. 1) .

Let us take a closer look at the tip of this large peninsula (Fig. 2).  The most prominent feature, written in red, is Malaqua. This undoubtedly refers to the present city and UNESCO world heritage site of Malacca. This confirms that this peninsula on the map represents the Malay peninsula.

At the southermost tip of the peninsula, one should be able make out a word written in red against the green background. If you squint a bit you may be able to read Bargimgaparaa. This is not quite our modern Singapore or Singapura. However several scholars and writers have attributed this to be a related toponym of Singapore. According to Suarez, Bargimgapara is a corruption of  Bahr-Singapura, where bahr is Arabic for land[1] (Although a quick internet search for the meaning of bahr gives it as "a large body of water or river"). In a recent article, historian Peter Borschberg writes and quotes from an Arabic source that "the name term bâr can be equally applied to refer to a kingdom of a coastal region"[2]. Whichever the case, there seems to be a consensus that the Bar- in Bargimgaparaa refers to some geographical entity. 

Interestingly, in the same article Borschberg contends that the word is Bargungaparaa. Frankly, from the resolution of the picture, I cannot really tell whether it is un or im, so I will leave it to the reader to decide whether it be Bargimgaparaa or Bargungaparaa. It should be noted that later maps that are very similar the Cantino map (These maps were either derived from the Cantino map or derived from maps that were the source of the Cantino map) typically has it as Bargimgapara. One such example is shown below: the 1513 printed map Tabula Moderna Indiae from Waldseemüller's edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia. 

Figure 3. The part of Waldseemüller's Tabula Moderna Indiae (1513) that shows the southern end of the Malay peninsula. The place name at the southernmost tip reads Bargimgapara. You can get an image of the full map at this link.
Within less than a decade after Cantino map was produced, the Portuguese arrived at and conquered Malacca. The doorway to the Spice Islands had been opened, and the mapping endeavours of the Portuguese continued in earnest. Soon, much more accurate maps and charts of the land and seas around this region were produced.

So back to the question of whether this is the earliest map that features a variant of the name 'Singapore'. Since the Cantino map is derived from other map or chart sources, by definition, this map cannot be the earliest one. There may be older maps still waiting to be discovered in archives in Portugal or the Middle East [3] or they may all have been destroyed in war, earthquakes or other catastrophes. Until these are found, the Cantino map is to the best of my knowledge, the earliest surviving map that features 'Singapore' (or variations of it). 

[1]Thomas Suarez, Early Mapping of Southeast Asia (Periplus, Singapore, 1999). p. 104
[2]Peter Borschberg, "Singapura in Early Modern Cartography: A Sea of Challenges" online
[3]There are earlier Arabic manuscripts (not maps or charts) that mention 'Singapore', dating back to the 1400s . That will be the subject of another blog entry.

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