Tracing S'pore history in rare, old maps

Tracing S'pore history in rare, old maps

In search of gold and spices several centuries ago, sea-weary travellers passed by a waterway and island referred to by a myriad of names.

They ranged from Long Island (Pulau Panjang) to the Cape of Singapura (Cinca Pula), and had been bestowed by European cartographers in rare, old maps of the region.

Those maps, dating back to the 16th century, indicated to those on board that they had reached the straits connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

They form part of a collection of 140 rare maps in the National Library Board's (NLB) first festival on maps and mapping.

The maps are on display at levels 10 and 11 of the library's Victoria Street building.

Called GeoGraphic: Celebrating Maps and Their Stories, the festival was launched yesterday by Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim and will run till July 19.

The bulk of the maps come from the library's collection.

Some were bought in London, while others are on loan from institutions such as the British Library and the Netherlands' Leiden University.

The NLB declined to reveal the cost of the exhibition, which is the first major one it has put together.

The exhibition also includes other fringe showcases, such as contemporary art installations in the building.

Dr Yaacob said the maps offer a glimpse into Singapore's history through the centuries.

"As Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence, the GeoGraphic festival is a unique and timely opportunity for all generations to explore and gain a better understanding of our nation's past," he said.

Many of these maps were hand-drawn, painted or printed by the Dutch and Portuguese, who traversed South-east Asia by ship in search of spices such as cloves, pepper and cinnamon.

Other exhibition highlights include the earliest-known drawings of Singapore from Feb 7, 1819 - a day after Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore.

Pencilled neatly, the sketches detail the coastline of the island.

St John's Island and Ryat village in Kampong Glam are also indicated in these drawings, which were by an unnamed Briton who was part of a hydrographic survey team.

There is also a 1579 map dotted with mythological creatures such as mermaids and sea monsters.

In this instance, "Singapura" appears at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula.

Cartographers used these embellishments to capture the imagination of the public, who had little idea of the world around them, said NLB's head of exhibitions and curation Tan Huism.

Describing the exhibition as her pet project, Ms Tan said it has been a year in the making.

Among other things, visitors can learn how Europeans understood South-east Asia and how cartographers used hills and mountains as landmarks.

Said Ms Tan: "They will also get to appreciate how complex maritime trade used to be.

"Maps aren't just about history... there are a lot of beautiful artefacts on display as well, and many varied perspectives of maps and mapping."

Heritage blogger and naval architect Jerome Lim, 50, who was at the launch, encouraged the public to visit the exhibition.

"It's interesting to see how map-making started out with mythological and superstitious influences before becoming more technical in nature," he said.

"Wandering about the place, you will get a real understanding of how map-making has evolved."

This article was first published on January 16, 2015.
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