Sunday, 15 May 2016

Maps on display at the National Museum of Singapore I

The main gallery of the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) is the Singapore History Gallery. After a recent revamp and the reopening in November 2015, the entrance to the gallery is now dominated by a digital rendition of the famous Ortelius map, Indiae orientalis insvlarvmqve adiacientivm typvs. 
If you tire at watching the 21st century graphics, you can still enjoy the original 16th century map, which is also on display in gallery. The map is found in a small half-room, at the end of the pre-colonial section of the gallery, before the large Raffles portrait greeting the visitors as they enter the colonial section of the History gallery.

Name: Indiae orientalis insularumque adiacientium typus (from Theatrum Orbis Terrarum)
Year: 1570??
Map maker: Abraham Ortelius

This map Indiae orientalis insvlarvmqve adiacientivm typvs (A map of the East Indies and surrounding islands) is one of the many maps included in the atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, published by Antwerp based Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.  Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is also known as the first 'modern' atlas. Modern in the sense,  that it is the first systematic compilation of similar sized maps into a book form and that the maps were drawn based on the recent geographical knowledge, rather than based on the ancient (mainly Ptolemaic) geographical knowledge[1]. The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum was very popular when it was first published in 1570, and went on to have more than 30 editions in various languages, from 1570 to 1612 [1]. 

This Indiae orientalis map is based on the world map published in 1569, Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata by Gerardus Mercator. The Mercator map is famous as being the earliest map that used the projection method, known today as the Mercator projection.

In the Indiae orientalis map, we have at the southern tip of Malaca peninsula, a place name Cincapura. This undoubtedly denotes Singapura, from which the modern name of Singapore derives.  Although early, the Indiae orientalis was not the first map, manuscript or printed, to feature [Singapore] (or names similar to that). If you want to know more these very first maps which feature [Singapore], let me refer you to these previous entries,  a and b.

Taking a closer look at the Indiae orientalis map, you will see that Cincapura is not presented as an island. Rather, it denotes an actual settlement or port. Looking around the vicinity of Cincapura, you can also find several familiar place names in present day Malaysia and Indonesia: Mubar (Muar), Malaca (Melaka), Paam (Pahang), Calatan (Kelantan), Pera (Perak), Quedoa (Kedah), Palimban (Palembang) and many others.

There are some other interesting facts about this map. This map, together with another contemporary map by Ortelius, were the first printed map to mention Taiwan, albeit by its old Portuguese name Fermosa [2]. The depiction of the island on the map is however, not quite accurate, as it seems to feature Fermosa as a group of small islands. Taiwan, it seems has been shattered into many pieces.

Although the caption for this Indiae orientalis map attributes this map to 1570, I am somewhat sceptical about it, but that is  a subject for another future entry, and I wouldn't dwell on it here.

Situated  near to this map in the History Gallery, are two more maps: One is a 1606 map (mistakenly labelled as 19th century), entitled Contrafactur des Scharmutz els der Holander... (from Achter Theil der Orientalischen Indien, Frankfurt am Main). It depicts a October 1603 naval battle between the Portuguese and the Dutch just off the coast of Singapore, and  features the earliest close-up map of Singapore. This naval battle is not to be confused with another related incident, the seizure of Santa Catarina, which happened in February 1603. I have an earlier blog entry about this map.

The other map in this half-room is a 18th century French maritime chart:

Name: Carte Réduite des Detroits de Malaca, Sincapour, et du gouverneur
Year: 1755
Map maker: Jacques-Nicolas Bellin

From the early 17th to early 19th century, Singapore island itself was not of much interest to the Europeans, judging from the inaccurate depiction of the geographical feature of the Singapore island on European maps and maritime charts of those times. Instead the main focus of the maps and maritime charts were the waters around Singapore island, which were important, as they connect the South China Sea to the Straits of Malacca, and onwards to the Indian Ocean. Then, as is now,  the waterways south of Singapore were of immense strategic value. 

This chart by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin is one example of such charts. Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (1703-1772) was a famous hydrographer and map-maker. At a tender age of 18, he was already appointed as the hydrographer for the newly created l’office hydrographique français et du Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine (French Office of Hydrography and depot for maps and maritime charts). 

This picture is captured from a similar map in the National Library of Singapore collection that was on display during a 2015 exhibition.
The depiction of Singapore was rather typical of the maps of this region from late 17th to late 18th century. Basically, they couldn't care less what the actual shape of Singapore island was. Many of them adopt a 'three island model', where the main island of Singapore, usually of a elongated shape is accompanied by two smaller islands to the north of it. The two smaller islands are likely to be corrupted depictions of the islands of present day Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. 

One interesting thing about this map is that, the island which ostensibly is Singapore is labelled Pulo ou Isle Panjang (Pulau or Long Island). Instead of labelling the island itself, the name Sincapour appears in the names of the waterways off Singapore Island. Off the south of the island, there is a Nouveau Detroit de Sincapour (New Strait of Singapore) while the channel between Isle Panjang  and Salat Buro is labelled as Vieux Detroit de Sincapour (Old Strait of Singapore). The mariners of those days, probably associate the toponym [Singapore] with the waterway rather than the island. 

Other Singapore off shore islands can also be identified, such as Isle St. Jean (St. John 's Island), Isle la Violle (Pulau Biola or Violin Island), and Pierre Blanche (Pedra Branca).

[1]  R. V. Tooley, Maps and Map-Makers (Dorset Press, New York, 1987). pp. 29-30
[2] T. Suarez, Early Mapping of Southeast Asia (Periplus, Singapore, 1999). p. 164


  1. If you are interested, you can see an aerial comparison of Singapore with other world cities: Singapore vs world Cities

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