Friday, April 11, 2014

Mr. Selden's Map of China by Timothy Brook

John Selden lived in England in the 1600's. Born in 1584 he died in 1654 leaving his considerable collection of books and papers to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. There were approximately 8,000 items including a map of China drawn by a Chinese cartographer. Selden was an orientalist and legal scholar specializing in the laws of the high seas. He was born the son of a fiddler and rose to join the House of Commons in 1621. He was also imprisoned in the Tower of London twice.

The map (now known as the "Selden Map") was filed away with his other papers and not looked at for years until 2008 until it was found in a storage room. Timothy Brook, the author,was asked to take a look at the map which had been deemed "just too perfect." At 63 inches long and 38 inches wide the map was made up of sections that were glued together because paper that large was not possible to make at that time.

Brook found some anomalies in the map. It covered more space that similar maps from the Ming Dynasty, so it was not a copy of any previously known map. China is not at the center of the map and all map making traditions from that time didn't allow for this. It also shows lands other than China. It has a compass rose and only European maps had those. Plus it is astoundingly accurate - it is very similar to what a map of the China coast would look like today. The Selden map is at least 500 years old, so these differences from the "normal" maps of the time are not insignificant.

This book is Brook's attempt to explain a map that doesn't fit in with the mapmaking standards of the time it was crafted. Brook's starts with a history of Europe at the time. The spice trade was in full swing by this time and the East India Company was trying to get more trade partners, especially in China. There were an estimated 10,000 trade ships circling the globe in the 1600's. Since Selden's international law expertise involved the  laws of the seas, it is not unusual that he would have acquired a map like this. There are gaps in the history of the map, but references to it surface throughout history. 

The map is truly unexplained. Although Brooks takes  the reader through an examination of the map, its history, the world history of the time and Selden's life, the bottom line is that this map is a mystery. A fascinating one as this book so carefully explains.

I love old maps. They show the world at a time unbelievably different than current times. The history of the Selden map gives the reader insight into a time and place that we can only imagine.

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