July 2010


Antique Maps of Sri Lanka
July 2010




Gerardus Mercaror’s coloured map of Ceilan

Original maps of Sri Lanka are a charming gift of the past to the present, writes Richard Tresillian.

Like all antiques, old maps were intended for every day use; today their value is decorative and as a memento of centuries ago that can conveniently be fitted into modern surroundings.

While collectors buy old maps of Sri Lanka as an investment that is bound to appreciate in value because genuine ones are hard to find, others buy them as works of art to lend character to a bungalow or a hotel. However, a lot of maps of ancient Sri Lanka are actually modern reproductions. To tell a genuine one from a fake, look for old paper with signs of age toning and dated handwriting, or medieval text on the reverse.

Maps date back to prehistoric times where they were scratched as plans on clay tablets, carved on stone and metal, on mosaic floors, as wall frescoes and on papyrus, vellum, linen, silk and paper. In ancient times, the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Egyptians all collected maps.
It was after printing was invented in the 15th century and multiple copies of a single map could be produced, that maps became within the reach of the ordinary citizen. However, in Sri Lanka, because of the Dutch East India Company's fear that its defence positions guarding the approaches to Galle Fort would become public knowledge, until 1753 the Company worked with manuscript maps only. Maps of Galle Fort and its harbour were hand drawn on a printed grid and are among the rarest of maps of ancient Sri Lanka.

"Old maps," according to R V Tooley writing in 1976 in the Stanley Gibbons guide to Collecting Antique Maps, "have a double charm, visual and historical." He explains that they are pictorial history presented with the greatest economy of space.

"A good map is a work of considerable ingenuity. It is in part fact part fantasy. Distances and areas have to be exact and in proportion, but detials in the map itself such as towns and mountains, cannot be shown in proportion and so are presented by symbols."

Most early maps of Sri Lanka (from the 15th and 16th Centuries) were printed from woodblocks, the background being cut away leaving the design and lettering standing out in relief. These are the most attractive maps of the island, as can be seen from maps by S Munster, although they are understandably not very accurate.

From the 19th Century maps were printed from etched steel plates. As a rule they were professionally very exact and thus not particularly attractive. Maps produced from the 16th to the 19th Century, printed from a design and lettering cut into copper plates, were aesthetically more interesting as they show graduations of light and shade. Maps of old Sri Lanka from that period are the most popular with collectors.

Maps were originally issued in the form of books and printed on one side of almost imperishable handmade paper, enabling them to be extracted from the book with ease. Incidentally, the word Atlas to describe a book of maps was not introduced until the mid 16th Century when Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) produced a collection of maps with a figure of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders as the frontispiece. Mercator's prettily coloured map of Ceilan published in 1619 by Jodicus Hondius was for sale on eBay recently at US$1,250.

Only a very few printed maps were coloured before publication and some collectors insist that only maps that are uncoloured as originally published. However, colouring was always hand done (often in the 19th Century by artists specialising in map colouring) and no two coloured maps are the same, so each one has additional value as a unique work of art.

The good news for collectors of antique maps of Sri Lanka is that they are not much in demand internationally and so the price is less than one would pay for a map of Europe or America by the same cartographer. While maps are occasionally to be found at antique shops in Colombo, the best source is specialist map dealers in London, Paris and Amsterdam. Maps of Sri Lanka are also occasionally available from dealers who sell through the Internet. Genuine antique maps of Sri Lanka from the 19th Century can still be found for about US$100 although 15th and 16th Century maps could cost US$1,000 and more.

The classic 16th Century map of Asia by the German cartographer Sebastian Munster (1488-1552) is the earliest printed map of the continent. It first appeared in the 1540 edition of Ptolemy's Geography and the information incorporated on it is derived from reports of his 24 years of travelling in Asia by Marco Polo (1254-1324). The map shown in detail here was printed in 1550 in Basle.

This map is especially curious as it has Sri Lanka (as Zaylon) correctly positioned at the eastern tip of India, but Taprobana (the usual medieval cartographer's name for Sri Lanka) appears where today's Sumatra lies. Other confusions abound, for instance Zanzibar is placed where Mauritius is today, and part of India is by the Philippines.

In 1572 in Venice, Tomaso Poracchi (1530-1585) published a book containing maps of the world's islands. His depiction of a triangular island called Taprobana is one of the earliest copper engraved maps. While it has several islands (including Bassas, today's Great Basses) around it, Taprobana appears to be placed to the west of India and has features (including the Equator running through it) that suggest it is Sumatra. However, Anurogramum (today's Anuradhapura) is correctly shown and the map's shape was adapted by subsequent map makers as representing Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's depiction in ancient maps off the west, instead of east coast of India stems from the earliest maps. The French cartographer Charles Delemarche (1740-1817) produced a pastiche of ancient maps, including one based on Claudius Ptolemy (90-168) in which Taprobane is west of the southern tip of India. In one map the island is also called Salice, and has the Equator running through where Colombo is today.

The Italians were the first to develop and popularise the copper plate map, which is why many maps of Sri Lanka published in the 16th century originated in Italy. The Netherlands dominated the map trade in the next century and produced accurate and exotic maps of Sri Lanka. A map of "Mare Arabicum et Indicum" by H F Langren in 1670 correctly positions "Ceylon" with that name and shows great detail.

The dominance of the Dutch was broken by French map makers, such as Nicholas Sanson (1600-1667), called the father of French cartography, whose 1652 map of Ceylon has been widely reproduced. One edition, published by the Sri Lanka Survey Department in 1978, was being offered for sale at an antique shop in Sri Lanka, with the date removed and masquerading as the genuine item, at US$1,000. (The original was available through an Internet dealer last month for US$485.)
One of the most accurate maps for the time was produced by copying details from other maps by Henri Abraham Chatelain (1684-1743). Published in 1719 with manuscript notes in French surrounding it and entitled "Nouvelle Carte d'Ile de Ceylon," it shows the island on its side, with west at the top instead of north.

Although the Portuguese were involved in Sri Lanka from 1505 to 1658, Portuguese maps are known mostly through Italian copies. It was left to a Frenchman who was a foot soldier in the Portuguese army, Alain Manessan Mallet (1630-1706) to produce some much sought-after maps of the region.

Some were published in Frankfurt in 1719, including one showing "Ceylan" in the correct location and with "Pico Adam" and "Punto Galle" prominently displayed. Another from the same atlas is a detailed description of Colombo as a fort and also of Galle Fort with a causeway, ships and people.
Examples of maps of Sri Lanka by British cartographers in the 17th Century are rare. One of the earliest obtainable maps of the region is by Robert Morden (1650-1703), whose small map printed in London in 1687 of the Maldives includes Ceylon, with "Candea" (Kandy) and "Columbo" clearly shown.

Dr Brendon Gooneratne, who collects antique maps of Sri Lanka and is a student of the island's cartography, has pointed out that the shape of the island shown in maps changed with the accumulation of knowledge.

"It went from the triangular shape Ptolemy ascribed to it in the 2nd Century to the pentagonal and rectilinear shape of the 16th Century, and finally to the tear-drop shape of the 19th and 20th Century."

A good representative collection of antique maps of Sri Lanka would include samples of them all, from 16th to 20th Centuries. Even one old map hanging on the wall at home would make a memorable - and different - souvenir of a holiday in Sri Lanka.

 

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    16th Century map of Asia by Sebastian Munster

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    Tomaso Poracchi’s depiction of Taprobana

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    “Mare Arabicum et Indicum” by H F Langren

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    Original of Nicholas Sanson’s Map of Ceylan

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    Henri Abraham Chatelain’s map entitles “Nouvelle Carte d’lle de Ceylon”

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    Alain Manessan Mallet’s map showing Maldives

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    Mallet’s map of India and Ceylon

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    Descriptive map of Colombo as a fort and of Galle Fort

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    Map by Morden with “Candea” (Kandy) and “Columbo”

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