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De L’Isle’s Detailed Map of Eastern Asia

Updated example this noteworthy map of East Asia and the Indian subcontinent published by France’s foremost eighteenth-century cartographer, Guillaume De L’Isle.

The map was foundational; it was studied and adopted by other mapmakers for a half-century after its publication.

The map covers much of Asia, from China and Japan, south to New Guinea and the Moluccas, west through Malaysia and Indonesia to what is today Vietnam and Thailand, and India. Dotted lines mark political boundaries. There is a simple title cartouche in the top center, with a quadruple scale bar in the upper right corner.

The map is thickly detailed with settlements, geographic features, and ethnographic notes. For example, on the island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, a note reads, “Pays de Mahometans,” or country of Muslims. Islam arrived on the island in the tenth century via Muslim traders; it quickly spread around the island, especially under the sultanates of Brunei and Sulu.

While most of the outlines of the continent appear familiar to the modern eye, the landmass north of Japan is curious. Here, it is called “Terre de Yeco ou d’Eso.” Yeco is a reference to Jesso, a feature included on many seventeenth and eighteenth-century maps. Historically, Eso (Jesso, Yedso, Yesso) refers to the island of Hokkaido. It varies on maps from a small island to a near-continent sized mass that stretches from Asia to Alaska. Ever cautious, De L’Isle has left the southernmost tip of the land open, as is the northernmost tip of Japan, as contemporary geographers thought they might be connected.

The thoroughness of the information included here, and its density, is characteristic of De L’Isle style. However, the information available to De L’Isle in the early eighteenth-century was very different from the geographic information we have now.

Arakan

Many of the political units shown on this map, like Japan and China, are still active and similarly named today. Others, like Arakan, Siam and the Mughal Empire, are less recognizable. The kingdom of Arakan, or Aracan as De L’Isle has written it, was an Indianized kingdom nestled between the Indian subcontinent, the Bay of Bengal, and what was historically known as Burma.

At a significant crossroads in trade routes to India, China, and Southeast Asia, Arakan was diverse religiously and ethnically. Islam came to the region in the eighth century. The Rakhine people migrated to the area around the ninth century; today, the area is Rakhine State in Myanmar. The area was also a site of conflict, with the Burmese and Bengal Sultanate just some of those who sought to control the strategic and economically-important region. Arakan was able to survive and had a formidable navy by the seventeenth century.

The Dutch and the Portuguese were also drawn to the trade center. The Dutch arrived in 1623; thirty years later, they completed a treaty that gave the Dutch East India Company duty-free trade rights. This is why De L’Isle has written that Arakan is a “Loge de Hollandois”, or trading house/lodge of the Dutch. However, in 1665 the Mughals smashed the Arakan fleet, forcing the area into decline.

Siam

What is modern Thailand is labeled as Siam. Siam comes from the Sanskrit word “syam,” which the Portuguese adopted as a name for the region.

The extent of their territory varied over time, as shown here with Siam and Haut-Siam. During the eighteenth-century, the polity was on the rise and expanding. By the 1780s, the Chakri dynasty ruled all of Siam from Bangkok, their capital, in addition to parts of the Malay peninsula, Laos, and Cambodia.

However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Siam lost land to the French, who colonized much of Cochinchina. In 1932, the monarchy was toppled in a coup; it survived, but no longer ran the country. The new leader, Phibun, changed the country’s name to Thailand in 1938.

The Mughal Empire

Another political entity that is unfamiliar to the modern eye is the Mughal Empire, in the north of the Indian subcontinent. By two years after this map was published, the Mughals controlled not only the area shown here, but much of the southern peninsula as well.

The Mughal Empire began when Babur (r. 1526-1530), originally from Central Asia, established himself in Kabul, Afghanistan and marched south into India via the Khyber Pass. His descendants consolidated power and fought off rivals. Particularly under the rule of Akbar (r. 1556-1605), the Mughal Empire developed an imperial structure characterized by tolerance of religious differences and a competent administrative elite.

Later in the seventeenth century, the Mughal Empire developed not only as a center of arts and culture—the Taj Mahal was built during this time—but as a political and economic power house. By 1707, under the controversial ruler Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), the Mughal Empire reached its largest extent, encompassing much of the Indian subcontinent.

A decade after this map was published, the empire was entering into decline. Many of the areas that had been added by Aurangzeb were in open revolt and the dynastic line was in chaos. In 1719, four separate emperors ruled. The Mughal Empire began to lose land and influence, particularly in the face of Maratha opposition and the arrival of the British East India Company.  

This map is a useful reference to Asia’s past and was skillfully executed by France’s foremost geographer. It is an important work, which would be copied by other mapmakers for more than fifty years.

Reference
Donald F. Lach and Edwin J. Van Kley, Asia in the Making of Europe: Volume III, A Century of Advance, Book Three: Southeast Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Edward Brooke-Hitching, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps (London: Simon and Schuster, 2016). KAP.
Guillaume De L'Isle Biography

Guillaume De L'Isle (1675-1726) is probably the greatest figure in French cartography. Having learned geography from his father Claude, by the age of eight or nine he could draw maps to demonstrate ancient history.  He studied mathematics and astronomy under Cassini, from whom he received a superb grounding in scientific cartography—the hallmark of his work. His first atlas was published in ca. 1700. In 1702 he was elected a member of the Academie Royale des Sciences and in 1718 he became Premier Geographe du Roi

De L'Isle's work was important as marking a transition from the maps of the Dutch school, which were highly decorative and artistically-orientated, to a more scientific approach. He reduced the importance given to the decorative elements in maps, and emphasized the scientific base on which they were constructed. His maps of the newly explored parts of the world reflect the most up-to-date information available and did not contain fanciful detail in the absence of solid information. It can be fairly said that he was truly the father of the modern school of cartography at the commercial level. 

De L’Isle also played a prominent part in the recalculation of latitude and longitude, based on the most recent celestial observations. His major contribution was in collating and incorporating this latitudinal and longitudinal information in his maps, setting a new standard of accuracy, quickly followed by many of his contemporaries. Guillaume De L’Isle’s work was widely copied by other mapmakers of the period, including Chatelain, Covens & Mortier, and Albrizzi.