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Maps and Plans of Dutch Ceylon: a Representative Collection of Cartography from the Dutch Period.

Maps and Plans of Dutch Ceylon: A Representative Collection of Cartography from the Dutch Period by K.D. Paranavitana & R.K. de Silva.

Colombo, Central Cultural Fund & Sri Lanka-Netherlands Association, 2002. Limited edition of 500, viii, 187pp, 28x31cm. ISBN 955-613-137X.

Available from: a) Dutch Burgher Union, 114 Reid Avenue, Colombo 04, Sri Lanka. Tel +94-1-584511, Price: 4000 Sri Lankan Rupees (A$65 approx.) plus postage. b) Viator Publications (Pvt) Ltd, Blue Lagoon, Talahena, Negombo, Sri Lanka (includes scan of book cover) Tel +94-74-873520, Fax +94-74-873521, Email Price: 63 [euro] + 8 [euro] courier delivery (A$120 approx.)

Although Sri Lanka ('Ceylon') occupies a small place in the world map, in the history of cartography it has been a country of considerable significance for over two thousand years. Known as Taprobana Insula to the Greeks and Romans, Ptolemy gave it a prominent place (exaggerating its size 14 times!) in his maps of the 'known world' in the eight volume Geographia. Subsequently, Sri Lanka (under various names) was drawn on maps of the 'known world' and of Asia with varying degrees of accuracy. Located on the main sea trade route between Europe and Asia, it was regularly visited by travellers, sailors, and traders, who passed on their knowledge of the island and its location to mapmakers. But it was only from the mid-17th century, with the Dutch occupation of the maritime regions of Sri Lanka, that mapping of the island progressed rapidly. This book, with maps and plans produced in country or in the Netherlands during the 17th and 18th centuries, and accompanying text, was published recently to mark four hundred years of bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and the Netherlands (1602-2002).

It is a large format book, beautifully printed with numerous maps, plans, and sketches that document how pioneering Dutch cartographers applied new cartographic tools and techniques to produce increasingly accurate and detailed maps, culminating in the first modern maps of the island. This is the first time that a comprehensive collection of these colourful and attractive maps and plans, many of which have been hidden away in archives, collections and libraries--mostly in the Netherlands--have been made available in print. The authors were given access to collections of rare maps and plans in the Dutch national archives in The Hague, and other institutions in the Netherlands, UK, India and Sri Lanka. The maps and plans collected in this volume provide a remarkable insight into the fine art of Dutch mapmaking during this golden era of Dutch cartography. They illustrate how the medieval maps of the island--based on Ptolemy's original maps--which were still the most widely used maps until the 16th century, evolved into modern day maps with high levels of accuracy and detail in a relatively short period of time. Helped by new techniques in surveying, measurement and cartography, and the stimulus provided by the Dutch military, trade and administrative needs, Dutch cartographers produced a continual stream of improved maps from the mid-17th century onwards. As one turns the pages and sees the changes in the maps, it is clear that the leap in accuracy, detail and sophistication of the maps between mid-17th century and the end of the 18th century has not been equalled since.

The book begins with an introductory chapter that traces the historical evolution of maps of the island--with changes in not only the shape and size but also the name--from the second century Ptolemaic map of Taprobana onwards. Onesicritus, a pilot in Alexander's fleet, made the earliest topographical reference to Taprobana, and in the first century Pliny the Elder referred to the island in his writings. Though the location of the island was correctly marked in charts used by Arab and Maldivian pilots during the 8th to 11th centuries, until the arrival of the Portuguese in the early 16th century only two other maps were produced: Gezira Sarandib (Serendib), in al-Idrisi's world map of 1154--which repeated the errors of Ptolemy's map--and L' Isola de Saylam by Fra Mauro, a monk and cartographer, published in 1459, which drew on information from Venetian traders who regularly visited Asia, as well as Marco Polo and others. Both these maps are reproduced in the book as well as a quite detailed map prepared by the Spanish (or, according to some sources, Portuguese) cartographer Cypriano Sanchez in the 16th century, which became the most widely used map of the island in the early 17th century.

The section entitled Atlas and Geographical Maps, presents over thirty maps of the entire island in chronological order, starting from Admiral Spilbergen's 1605 map--the first important Dutch map of the island--and ending with Burnat and Altendorff's 1794 map of Ceylon, which is very much a modern day map in many respects. These maps, some of which show the South Indian coastline, are of both cartographical and historical interest and are wonderful examples of cartographic technique and artistry. Each map is accompanied by an informative and scholarly text, pointing out the main features of the maps, as well as their historical context and significance, and English translations of the legends, cartouches and keys are also provided. They illustrate how different maps highlighted those features that were most important to their clients. Some maps intended for use in coastal navigation give detailed descriptions of the coastal regions, including sea depths along the coast while the interior is almost empty. Others provide a great deal of detail about regional boundaries, topographical features, and the flora and fauna.

This section is followed by maps and plans of regions, towns and forts, again with excellent accompanying text. Once the Dutch had driven the Portuguese out of the country in the mid-17th century, occupied the coastal regions and obtained a monopoly on the cinnamon trade, maps and plans for military purposes became increasingly important. From then on the Dutch were busy measuring and mapping the coastline, bays and waterways, drawing detailed plans of towns and forts as well as parts of the interior. Portuguese tombos (land registers) gave the Dutch a useful basis for their own surveys. The Dutch Governors employed land surveyors and military engineers to produce beautifully coloured maps, plans and pictorial sketches of the forts and towns and their environs under Dutch control. In contrast to the maps of the entire island, which provide more detailed geographical features, maps and plans of the towns were motivated by military and administrative objectives. Further, the Dutch encouraged agriculture in the lowlands in order to reduce expenditure on rice imports. They undertook new works of irrigation, restored tanks (man-made lakes) constructed by the ancient Sinhala kings, and also constructed canals to drain the excess water and to transport commercial produce. These too required detailed maps and plans. In addition, they also produced maps and plans of the interior (including the capital, Kandy), which was ruled by the Sri Lankan kings. A large number of these are included in the book; again, most of them are also beautifully drawn and hand coloured. The book also includes several sketches of landscapes, people and important events dating from this period.

This is a book that provides fascinating reading and much visual pleasure. It is highly recommended, not only to those with a special interest in Sri Lanka or an interest in the history of cartography, but to all those who appreciate fine antiquarian maps and drawings.

Editors' note:

The co-author, Rajpal Kumar de Silva, has written three similar volumes, also available from Viator:

Early Prints of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) 1800-1900, Serendib Publications, London, 1985.

Illustrations and Views of Dutch Ceylon, 1602- 1796, Serendib Publications, London, 1988 (with Willemina G M Beumer).

19th Century Newspaper Engravings of Ceylon-Sri Lanka, Serendib Publications, London, 1998.

Chandra Jayasuriya

School of Anthropology, Geography and

Environmental Studies

University of Melbourne
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Author:Jayasuriya, Chandra
Publication:The Globe
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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