The Ming Selden Map, the oldest merchant map still in existence, has a fascinating Selden map secrets that have recently been uncovered by new research. The map, which measures about 60 inches long by 40 inches broad, was hand-painted using watercolors between 1607 and 1619. It maps out 18 trade routes in a region of East Asia bordered by southern India and Burma to the west, southern India and the Spice Islands to the east, and Siberia to the north.
A compass labeled in Chinese characters at the top of a map indicates the map’s orientation. At the time this map was created in the late Ming Dynasty, Quanzhou in China’s southern Fujian province, was a significant shipping hub for trade between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. All of the routes leave from Quanzhou.
By an unknown means, the map ended itself in the hands of English barrister, collector, and ardent Orientalist John Selden in the 17th century (1584–1654). The map was so highly prized by the inventor that it was given its own line in his testament from 1653: “a Mapp of China created there fairly and done in colour combined with a Sea Compasse of their workmanship and Devisione taken both by an Englishe commander.” It was donated by Selden to the Bodleian and added to the collection in 1659. It was described as “A very strange mapp of China” in the inventory note from the Bodleian. Huge and taken from Mr. Selden’s.
Unfortunately to its damage, the “extremely weird” map was frequently displayed. However, in the 18th century, it lost favor as renowned astronomer Edmond Halley deemed it to be cartographically incorrect. The Selden Map was given a linen backing in 1919 so it could be displayed on a wall. There would be terrible repercussions from this. The paper’s brittle state was made worse by being kept coiled up as the fabric backing solidified over time, bending and shattering the delicate paper. Conservators first noticed the map’s poor condition in the 1970s, but it would be decades before the difficulties with conservation were resolved.
The Selden Map was sought after in 2008 by Robert Batchelor, a Georgia Southern University professor of British and Asian history. He recognized two characteristics in the map that set it apart from all other known historic Chinese maps: It is not a map of China, and it also does not show the shipping lanes from Quanzhou. China was positioned in the middle of prior maps, but on this one it is merely one of many nations trading with one another in the South China Sea. It was the first instance of Chinese commercial cartography, commissioned by traders rather than the imperial palace, as indicated by the shipping routes.
Additionally, it goes against the conventional understanding that China was cut off from the rest of the world at this time. There was still a thriving economy for its merchants.
Selden Map Conservation
A new conservation and restoration strategy was inspired by Batchelor’s research. This time, the conservators took their time, investigating previous interventions to identify the original components of the map and which, if any, subsequent revisions should be preserved. A border was put to the map in the late 17th century, and because of the historically relevant Latin annotations, they opted to maintain it. The previous repair attempts and linen backing were taken off. The rebuilt map has been digitally published online.
Researchers had the chance to learn more about this enigmatic cartographical peculiarity thanks to the restoration. Remote multispectral imaging technology was used to study it, revealing areas of the map that were hidden from view. The researchers discovered that the map’s binding ingredient was gum Arabic, a gum derived from acacia tree sap that is normally used by Europeans, South Asians, and West Asians, as opposed to animal glue, which was almost invariably utilized in Chinese artworks at the period.
Indigo was combined with orpiment, a yellow mineral, rather than gamboge, a yellow dye, to get the green color, which is also extremely unique for a painting in China during this time period. Additionally, the discovery of a basic copper chloride in the green sections points to a south and west Asian influence because it was frequently used in manuscripts there. Chinese paintings on paper did not frequently employ this green hue.
According to the researchers, the binders and pigments employed are more comparable to those found in manuscripts from a Persian or Indo-Persian tradition as well as the Islamic world than European or Chinese.
A thorough analysis even uncovered occasions where the cartographer changed something—some stylistically, others accidentally, and others as their understanding of a particular region grew. The trading channels were established before the country was hemmed in, according to the experts.
They contend that the cartographer did not initially plot the entire map, which is why some of the routes had to be redrew numerous times, and why they ran out of room at the map’s southern and westernmost extremities, forcing the trade routes to veer off-course from the compass directions. The map appeared incomplete because two trade routes were shown without their corresponding compass directions.
The research team suggests that the map was really drawn in Aceh, on the island of Sumatra, rather than in China, in light of this new evidence.
It has the longest history of Islamic presence in South East Asia and a lengthy history of Chinese contact. It is also the port in South East Asia that is highlighted on the map as being the furthest westerly.
It is also the only port marked on the map with a magnetic declination in the early 17th Century that is closest to that indicated by the tilt of the map’s compass rose. It is also one of only six ports on the map marked with a red circle, possibly indicating the main trading network of the map’s owner.
You can read the new study in its entirety for free here. It was published in the journal Heritage Science.