Buginese nautical chart

The Malay Archipelago from an indigenous perspective

This 19th-century sea chart of the Malay Archipelago is a fine example of 'indigenous' cartography, influenced by European map makers. The chart is in Buginese, (Basa Ugi). This is an Austronesian language, spoken on the southern part of the Indonesian island of Celebes. The Buginese sea chart gives an overview of the Malay Archipelago, the trade area of the Makassar and Buginese peoples, traditionally the sea carriers of this archipelago.

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Boeginese zeekaart, 1816

Five Buginese sea charts of the Malay Archipelago are known in the world. One of these five was in Batavia in 1935, but up till now, there has been no trace of this copy. The same goes for two copies mentioned in earlier literature in the London library of William Marsden (1764-1838) and in the collection of the Dutch Bible Society. The other two can be traced. One is in Madrid, in the Museo Naval, and one in Utrecht University's Special Collections. The Utrecht copy is the largest (76x105 cm) and is in the best condition. The chart is made of parchment. This is animal skin, so solid and well protected against weather conditions and frequent use. Many sea charts, including the VOC ones, have a parchment ground. The hand drawn map contains a wealth of Buginese toponyms. Also many depth figures are included which are however represented in Western style in Arab figures. Western maps usually contain Arab figures which we also see in the Buginese sea chart.

Detail Boeginese zeekaart met Arabische dieptecijfers, 1816

A pirates' chart?

The provenance of two of the three charts mentioned above is of exceptional importance. The Madrid copy comes from a Philippine pirate ship that was taken by force, whereas the ‘Batavia’ copy is known to have been found in a pirates' nest on Sumatra. Unfortunately, the provenance of the Utrecht copy is shrouded in mist, but it may well be assumed that this chart was also seized from Buginese fishermen and traders and used by indigenous pirates.

The geographical charted area stretches from the Nicobar and Andaman Islands in the west to Ceram island in the east. The Philippines and a large area of mainland Southeast Asia are depicted in the north and a small part of Australia is included in the south.

Front-view profiles of the coast

Almost all information on the chart is related to sea navigation.  For instance, a large area of the coastal strips include front-view profiles of the coast, with mountains as they appear from the sea. Shallows, sand banks and depth figures are also included in detail. Estuaries and bays are exaggerated and depicted on a larger scale.

Detail Boeginese zeekaart, 1816

Colour is used systematically. Most islands of the archipelago have borders in green, but some are outlined in red. To these 'red' islands belong all traditional pirates' nests... In several places, flags indicate the presence of various European rulers. Strangely enough, Manilla has a Dutch flag, although the Netherlands never held power there. A mistake by the cartographer.

The manuscript map contains a wealth of Buginese toponyms. Also many depth figures are included which are however represented in Western style in Arab figures. Originally Buginese (Basa Usi) is an Austronesian language which was mainly spoken on the southern part of the Indonesian island of Celebes. The Dutch colonisation led to a proportion of the Buginese population fleeing to other parts of Indonesia. The chart shows a date which refers to the Islamic Hijra year numbering system: A.H. 1231, which corresponds to the year 1816.

Islamic year numbering system

The chart shows a date which refers to the Islamic Hijra year numbering system: A.H. 1231, which corresponds to the year 1816. This year tells us something about the initial completion, but nothing directly about the content of the map. It can be based on knowledge of an earlier date or on the other hand be updated at a later stage. However, we may safely assume that the chart dates back to around 1820.

Through European eyes

When you live in Europe, you look at the world from an European perspective, both in a geographical and historical sense. Before the great European voyages of discovery, there were other peoples that went exploring. From these discoveries, cultures bloomed with a long history. Also the discipline of the history of geography looked at history through European eyes. In the nineties this perspective changed by the publication of titles about indigenous and non-European cartography (Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies (1992), Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies (1994) and Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian, and Pacific Societies (1998)) in the Anglo-American standard series The History of Cartography.

Mutual influence

For the first time an attempt was made to outline systematically and coherently the complete development of non-European cartography. One of the major conclusions was that many peoples outside Europe had their own centuries-old cartographic culture. It also turned out that not only European cartography influenced indigenous map makers, but that,  although to a lesser extent, it was also the other way around.

Detail Boeginese zeekaart, 1816

This Buginese sea chart is influenced by Western source material. For instance, this chart shows a system of compass lines. Probably the Buginese map maker copied this from mainly Western sources, probably the large 18th-century sea atlas of the Amsterdam firm Van Keulen  Die nieuwe groote lichtende Zee-Fakkel . Also Gerrit de Haan’s manuscript atlas Ligtende zee fakkel off de geheele Oost Indische waterweereldt  and various works by François Valentijn are regarded as  basis material. Recent research also points in the direction of the French hydrography, in particular the Carte reduite de l’Archipel des Indes Orientales by Jean-Baptiste d’Après de Mannevillette (1707-1780).

In short, Buginese map makers had access to various European maps, knew how to interpret these maps and succeeded in making their own compilations. Handed down witness accounts show the Buginese enthusiasm for maps produced in Europe. That this sea chart, based on Western sources, was in the end used by indigenous pirates to bother European rulers may properly called a striking detail...


Author: Marco van Egmond

Detail Boeginese zeekaart, 1816