The Selden Map and Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

There is a lot of furor about the rediscovered Selden map. Academicians are discussing it with gusto and laboring on the minute aspects, innumerable news articles introduce it and two great books have been written about the map and its story. The map itself is all about the South China seas or what we know today as parts of South East Asia and the land borders as seen from it. It is quite important for many people studying such aspects as territorial waters, the Spratly islands issues, the Fujian of Fukian trade networks and so on, but what connection could it have with Calicut?

Well this relatively big and somewhat nontraditional multicolor map, now restored to its full beauty, is available for study at the Oxford - Bodleian library in England, to whom it was bequeathed by a relatively staid lawyer named John Selden in 1659. Dating from the late Ming period, it shows shipping routes with compass bearings from the port of Quanzhou to nearby lands we know today as Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. As the experts put it, this is the earliest Chinese map not only to show shipping routes, but also to depict China as part of a greater East and Southeast Asia, and not as the center of the known world, was largely unseen and forgotten since the eighteenth century, but rediscovered in 2008 by the historian Robert Batchelor. Since then there has been numerous theories and discussions about how John Selden who never sailed got the map, about who the cartographer could have been, for whom it was perhaps made, why and when it was made and so on. Those interested may peruse the fine books of the two academics involved, Batchelor and Brook.

My interest is the left extremity of the map where a peculiar aspect can be noticed, just like it was by these eminent people. What you will see is a small panel of text with a location listed as ‘Gu Li’ or Calicut, and the box provides in three bullets directions of the routes to Aden, Oman, and the Strait of Hormuz. I will get to the specifics shortly. However the location of Calicut in an otherwise well-constructed map at least as far as geography is concerned, is a total anomaly. It somewhat corresponds to Rangoon as shown and has no relation to the Calicut or Gu li of the Chinese. At the same time, the distances to the other locations are correct considering Calicut as the sailing origin. Why so? Was it just shown is the extremity of the Chinese and Fujian trade networks and a window to the Indian Ocean world with Calicut continuing to be the key trading partner from the West? Let’s take a look.

For that you need a little perspective. The map itself was constructed towards the end of the Ming period, i.e. early 1600’s. Calicut though still important had slipped out of the early prominence and the Arabian seas were mostly in the control of first the Portuguese and later the Dutch. The English were waiting to slip in at an opportune time. The Moplah, Marakkar and Arab sailors still plied the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Western powers i.e. Dutch, English and Portuguese ran their own shipping vessels through these waters carrying tons of spices and other goods back and forth to red sea ports. The Ming Chinese voyages had ceased in the 15th century, a full 100 years or more before the Selden map was created. The junk trade was mostly restricted to the SE Asian areas (the area depicted in the map). So why place Gu Li at the corner or even mention it? It is not possible to discuss this topic without covering the Chinese trade with Malabar through the ages, albeit briefly.

The winds of trade were the monsoon winds which blows south in the winter and north in the
summer and the ships went where the winds took them to start with. Sailing techniques then took them where they wanted to go and as we know, the ports of Malabar and Quilon became important and friendly stopover points for the Chinese and Arab sailors plying the routes. The consumption centers were the two extremities, them being China and Europe. The Suez Canal being nonexistent meant that goods landed on red sea or gulf ports and were transported over land and then again by sea to, multiplying the costs of goods many times by the time it reached the European customer. The route to China was initially controlled by royalty and so the prices were fully regulated by a single party, with of course costs coming in by way of a complex sailing route and large costs to fend off piracy while sailing from Malabar to various Chinese ports, most importantly Quanzhou or Canton. If you look the timing, Chinese merchants would leave southern China in Jan or Feb for Southeast Asia and make the return journey no later than late July.

Most ships crossing the Gulf ports left the east coast of Arabia during the second half of November and the first half of December. Ships leaving the Red Sea would start out the middle of October, as they could then catch the winds directly to the Malabar cost, reaching the Malabar ports during December. If they were journeying to China they would have to lie low so that the cyclones of the Azyab died down in the Bay of Bengal and they could continue on in January, crossing southern tip of India and head to the Kalah Bar in the Malay Peninsula.

Arab ships usually did not venture farther than this as they had to venture back to their shores laden with stuff to trade, as soon as the kaws winds started to blow the other way. In any case, the Chinese junks brought their trade goods to the Malay Peninsula and sometimes as far as Calicut itself. Calicut or Gu Li went onto become the stop over point where either the same ship continued on or the ships exchanged wares at Calicut. In this way trade continued unabated for centuries between the traders and as an ancillary, Calicut not only supplied the spices, but also strong wood for ships, repair facilities and even dhow building facilities, while at the same time remaining a secure port with just trade facilities and local markets. We dealt with all this in the Pragati article. As we mentioned previously, Calicut was on the way to anywhere (remember the Abu Hasan fart story?) in those days, west or east!

The Catalan Atlas is the most important Catalan map of the medieval period (drawn and written in 1375. It was produced by the Majorcan cartographic school and is attributed to Cresques Abraham, a Jewish book illuminator who was self-described as being a master of the maps of the world as well as compasses. You can for example see a Chinese ship on the Indian west coast near Calicut signifying the importance of the port with respect to Chinese trade. The connections between China and Malabar were thus strong even before the arrival of Zheng He and his entourage and a vibrant junk trade was witnessed and recorded by travelers such as Ibn Batuta.

In previous articles covering Chinese trade withMalabar, we traversed the 12th through 15th centuries. In the Chu Fan Chi article we covered the early days, in the Shamiti and Zheng he articles we covered the 15th century trade and then as we saw, it all ended abruptly as testified by Joseph.

Joseph the Indian was in Lisbon around 1501, having gone there with Cabral. I had written about all that earlier, so those interested in his story may refer that. At 40, he was of sound mind and considered a very honest person by his interlocutors. His accounts (though modified here and there by his interlocutors) were published around 1510-1520. He is clear in stating that there are many types of traders in Calicut amongst the countless moors, and makes it amply clear that the trade had declined somewhat from the times when the White Chinese with long hair, fez and head ornaments were present in Calicut. He also mentions that around 1410-1420 AD the Chinese had a factory at Calicut. He states – having been outraged by the King of Calicut, they rebelled and gathering a large army came to the city of Calicut and destroyed it. From that time and upto the present day they have never come to trade in the said place and they go to a city of a King Naisindo which is called Mailapet. We discussed this and the aftermath in the Chinese settlement article,where it is clear that the Chinese descendants and remnants moved to the South sea ports, Madras and Coromandel ports. So was there some kind of Chinese trade with Malabar after Joseph’s oft stated Chinese skirmish with the Zamorin? It was not since the pepper trade and much more continued to remain at Calicut and the Indian as well as Portuguese and Dutch ships brought in their wares to these ports initially. The Casado traders were ensconced in Cochin and Goa by then.  And we see these junks back in the Arabian seas, for there is a comment in history books that the Kunjali Maraikkar (KM III) captured a Chinese treasure Junk laden with goods somewhere near Goa in 1592. Is that why Gu Li is still mentioned in the 17th century Selden map? Let’s take a look at the Chinese trade during the Portuguese and Dutch periods. But in general the reader must also note that the largish Junks were not really suitable for shallow waters to the south of India and the winds that lashed ports frequently in those months. Furthermore they generally avoided the pirates that abounded the region as well as the western ships with guns.

While the Indian embassies wound down by mid 15thcentury, we find that some other Asian embassies such as those of Homruz and Ceylon maintained connections with Ming China even as late as 1459. Malacca, Java and Champa dispatched envoys upto the beginning of the 16th century, so the connections remained. But the important thing to note is that while China was a large producer of Silk and Porcelain much wonted in the west, they hardly needed to import anything from the west. The question then asked is did they continue to get spices and if so from where? Well, the answer to that is that the coastal towns in the SE Asia by then had established networks with the Indian especially Malabar spice traders and the Portuguese, Dutch and English operating out of Goa, Cochin, Malacca and Java. With austerity setting in, the consumption perhaps reduced and with the trade outflow vastly exceeding imports presented no real problem for China.

Blusse in his fine paper provides great detail of the Fukien trade with Batavia- The Fukienese were without doubt the greatest Chinese seafarers. Living on a string of rather infertile coast plains, and cut off from the hinterland by high mountains and swift rivers, the Fukienese have been forced from early times to import rice from the neighbouring provinces and to export industrial products like crude porcelain, iron ware and textiles. During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, coastal and overseas trade suffered from the raids of Japanese and Chinese pirates, and private overseas trade which could hardly be distinguished from piracy was strictly forbidden. Only tributary trade was allowed to continue. The gradual suppression of the pirate raids and mounting pressure from Fukienese merchants who wanted to resume legal private trade to Southeast Asia led to a new orientation in the government policy. Beginning in 1567, 50 licenses per year were handed out to private traders for overseas trade with Southeast Asia. In his informative article on Chinese overseas trade in the late Ming period Ts'ao Yung-ho speaks of a hundred licenses being issued in 1575, a number which was restricted to 88 by 1589.

That the many problems with the Portuguese embargo resulted in privateering outside the reach of Goa is discussed briefly by scholars such as Roderich Ptak. Initial power holders were the rich local chieftains in Malabar such as the Zamorin who was assisted at sea by the Marakkars forming a network with bases in Ceylon and Malacca. But in general it must be kept in mind that the 15th and 16th century Chinese materialistic trader was officially illegal considering that China had closed its borders to shipping whereas Portugal encouraged it in its own terms, both with state owned ships and through private Casado traders. As time went by, the ‘illegal’ Fukien trade in the South Seas strengthened. The later parts of the 15th century led to the rise of Ryukyu merchants as there was a good amount of emigration from mainland Fukien areas to various SE Asian ports resulting in Chinese merchant communities. But these were not those the Chinese termed Wo-k’ou or pirates. The Fukien trade thus included Portuguese Casados and the Ming government collaborated with the Portuguese or vice versa (even though mainland Chinese referred to the Portuguese sometimes as Fo-lang-chi or Portuguese robber merchants). Even after the Portuguese decided to take Macao, they could not obtain an upper hand. The Red barbarians or red hairs, the covetous and cunning Dutch who came later with their double planked ships with spider web sails, also attacked the Fukien ships often. But by then, the Chinese had created their own community stronghold at Batavia and intermingled well with Indonesian women. Nevertheless, these Chinese as we saw before were not well regarded in China for abandoning their homeland and when they were massacred by the Dutch in 1740 at Batavia, Canton raised no eyebrows.

And then of course were various mafia organizations, as well as the Chinese Muslim network. The Chinese expat living in Philippines or other places such as Indonesia or Malaya was very much like an Indian today in the Middle East, nurturing ways and dreams of going back to settle down and retire with some money. At the same time, they were not welcomed back in the homeland and they had left their homes and left without taking care of their ancestral tombs. Lost in limbo, they stuck to their little coastal communities and made small forays upto the borders of SE Asia, perhaps as far as Coromandel ports. Sometimes a stray junk run was commissioned at the behest of a wealthy Gujarati trader to Cambay or Malabar, but in general they did not stray too many times into the western seas.

So even though large Chinese armadas were no longer sailing by the early 17th century, the trade had become distributed and though irregular, attained a sort of permanency. The Dutch were of course the masters of the sea by then but less radical compared to the Portuguese. And so we come to the early parts of the 17th century, to Fukian Guanzhou and SE Asia, where the Selden map was made by somebody for somebody from whom it went to Selden (Parts of that tale can be pieced together reading Brook’s book).

An early 1607 Ming encyclopedia map also came upto Burma but did not include Calicut in their map, though the Zheng ho maps on which these were based had many details of all the places along the route. Why was Calicut taken out? Was it because China broke off its links after the fallout with the Zamorin? Or was it because of the potential problems the Chinese faced from the Portuguese?

My contention therefore is that the Selden map depict the Eastern seas of the Chinese while the Calicut cartouche was just a box providing the next set of coordinates to yet another planned map of the Western seas (perhaps it was not even planned, as the network did not go beyond Burma) with other locales like Ormus, Dhofar and Aden. The placement of Calicut on this map does not signify a location.

The person who sanctioned the making of the map is discussed in detail by both Batchelor and Brook who believes it to be Li Dan or Andrea Dittis, the Captain China of the Formosa trade. Li operated out of Manila for a time before moving to Hirado, in Japan and becoming a part of the Shuinsen trade, with a formal vermillion seal license from the Tokugawa shogunate. He served as the head of the Chinese community in Hirado, and maintained a residence in the English sector of the city to run the red seal ships. As Richard Cocks said – ‘This Andrea Dittis is now chosen capten and cheefe comander of all the Chinas in Japon, both at Nangasaque, Firando and else wheare.’

Let us look at Brook and his analysis around Calicut. One of the first things he hovers on is the role played by Thomas Hayden an oriental scholar in annotating the map together with a Chinese associate Michael Shun Fo Chung. Hayden over time, also had his portrait made and in the portrait, he holds a scroll with some Chinese characters. These Chinese characters are Gu Li or Calicut. Why did this orientalist who otherwise did no research on India choose to mention Calicut on the scroll held by him, that too in a portrait left behind for posterity? Interestingly it is also conjectured that Hayden who did not know Chinese, laboriously painted these characters himself into the scroll. Why of all the other places, did he pick on Gu Li? Brook leaves that tantalizing question for readers to answer. I would venture to state that by 1700 Calicut was of course very important for the English and they were trying hard to find a foothold there. The English Captain William Keeling, as we know had reached Calicut in 1615 and concluded a treaty with Zamorin under which, among others, the English were to assist Calicut in expelling the Portuguese from Cochin and Cranganore. Later on, around 1664, Zamorin gave the English permission to build a "factory" in Calicut but did not extend any other favors. Was Hayden by virtue of this bluff trying to get a commission to Calicut from the EIC?

Well, let’s get back to Calicut on the Selden map. The westward exit on the left near Johor on the Malay Peninsula and suddenly shows Calicut on the map as a destination. But as we said before Calicut is much more to the left and to get there, another sea the Bay of Bengal has to be crossed, the southern tip has to be circumnavigated and the ship has to sail upwards to get to the port town of Calicut, a lot of sailing still to do (as though a panel of the map has been cut off). Well the map in my opinion provides commentary on the next friendly (?) port of call and what other possibilities are possible for ships choosing to take that venture. Strangely the important  port of Cambay and Surat is missing, but the gulf ports are mentioned clearly with Aden 185 watches NW, Djofar (Oman) 150 watches NW, and with more detail the directions to Hormuz. But these were no longer important ports at that time, much like Calicut. So why mention these Zheng He period ports complete with compass bearings? Brooks assumes that the cartographer used a Ming map as a source and transcribed what was in there with no special purpose other than to show Calicut as a boundary before the Eastern mysteries.

That a current sailing map shows a bit of irrelevant information across the borders is still a bit of a surprise. But then I remembered an interesting article by Calicut Heritage forum. It concludes thus - In 2007, Liu Yinghua had, while working with the manuscript section of Calicut University under the guidance of Dr. C. Rajendran, Professor of Sanskrit, discovered 15 Chinese coins being used to tie together the palm leaves manuscripts. These coins belonged to much later period.  Liu identified these as belonging to the periods of Emperors Qianlong (1736-1795), Jiaqing (1796-1820) and Daoguang (1821-1850). This probably showed that trade relations between Calicut and China continued well into the second half of the 19th Century when the Opium Wars soured the Sino-British relations.

So is there is more to this story??

Mr Seldens map of China – Timothy Brook
The Selden Map Rediscovered: A Chinese Map of East Asian Shipping Routes, c.1619 - Robert Batchelor
Chinese Trade to Batavia during the days of the VOC- Leonard BLUSSÉ
Merchants and maximization – Roderich Ptak
Piracy along the coasts of Southern India and Ming China – Roderich Ptak
China and Portugal at Sea The early Ming trading system and the Estado Da India Compared – Roderich Ptak
The Dutch seaborne empire 1600-1800 Charles Boxer

with due acknowledgements and thanks to all image owners and providers

Some other day, I will tell you the story of the VOC- Chinese Junk trade, the tale of Li Dan or Andrea Dittis and another person called Tenjiku Tokubei, a famous Japanese adventurer a.k.a. the Marco Polo of Japan as well as of the Red seal ships.


  1. Ramu Ramakesavan

    Maddy, Another excellent post. So much information of interest to someone with connections to Kerala. I can hardly wait for your next blog. When you get a chance, could you write a blog about kings and queens of Kerala and surrounding areas like Madras, Ceylon, Goa around the arrival of the Portuguese or refer me to a blog you might have already written on it. Keep up the good work. Ramu

  1. Maddy

    thanks ramu..
    this blog has many notes on the kings of malabar and travancore. Quilon and kolathunad have not been covered so far but will be ASAP. Just scroll thorugh the categories to get to your topic of interest.

    i do not stray beyond malabar often..there are some topics on goa will also find a few at maddys ramblings