Gazing at the 1550 Munster map of Asia naturally draws us to the right side, to the eastern edge, to what looks like scattered shapeless pebbles strewn about. There is etched in between these pebbles the letters and numbers “Archipelago of 7448 islands.“ They are all scattered about in a familiar place to our eyes, off the southern coast of China. We see in this very rare and early map the prefiguring of the Philippine archipelago.
This map was two pages in a hefty book, the Cosmographia, totaling 659 pages and 520 woodcuts. The Cosmografia was the geographical Britannica of its day, successful enough that it went through 24 editions in 100 years. The map maker, theologian and humanist, Sebastian Munster (1488 – 1552), broke new ground in medieval cartography by publishing four separate maps of various parts of the world including that of Asia. This was a departure from the clerically enforced one-world map with Jerusalem at the center.
Munster was an assiduous researcher, seeking explorers and reading accounts of world travels, citing his sources. Many of the sources for the Asia map came from Portuguese explorers like Vasco de Gama and others, having rounded the Cape of Good Hope in the late 15th century, entering the Indian Ocean, exploring Madagascar and Ceylon and eventually reaching India. The Munster map of Asia would be one of the first to name parts of Southeast Asia like the kingdoms of Champa, Pegu (Burma) and Malacca. The burgeoning spice trade which the Portuguese engaged in managed to identify the island names of Sumatra, Java, and the Moluccas.
Aside from Portuguese accounts, Munster turned to the 13th century book Travels of Marco Polo, adding names and accounts of Southeast Asia, the southern and northern parts of Cathay (China) reaching all the way to Zipangu (Japan). There are critics to the Marco Polo account as being fanciful but there are enough credible observations made by Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) proving he was in that part of the world. At one point in his travels after leaving Zipangu, he cites reports from pilots and mariners that in the south China Sea, there were “…no fewer than seven thousand four hundred and forty islands, mostly inhabited.”
It goes on that in these islands, all their trees “…yield a fragrant smell…” referring to agarwood, prized by the Chinese for its use as incense. Spices and peppers abound with much gold present. In addition, records indicate that the Chinese had traded with parts of Luzon and the Visayas since the 10th century AD. A few Chinese maps include a crude Philippine Archipelago with Luzon and Visayas named Ma-I and San-hsu respectively.
The most spectacular of the Chinese presence was the eunuch Admiral Cheng Ho (1371 – 1433 thereabouts) with a fleet of more than 60 vessels and 27,000 men visiting Lingayen, Manila Bay, Mindoro and Sulu around 1405 to 1410.
A book translator and editor to Travels of Marco Polo Thomas Wright believed Polo, as envoy to the Emperor Kublai Khan (1215 – 1294), traveled south to neighboring islands such as the yet unnamed Philippine archipelago on his way to Champa, Cambodia, Malacca and Java.
The Travels of Marco Polo (first manuscript 1302) was later a popular best-selling book for the period, giving readers a wide grasp of the world with maps divided into four continents: Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. This disassembling of God’s physical creation, previously presented only as one world, was a radical stroke for Munster, a converted Protestant. In addition, there were numerous illustrations and detailed city views from 120 collaborators, many of them famous woodcut artists.
The Munster map depicting Asia, circa 1550 with inscriptions in Latin, starts from the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Arctic Ocean to the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese outposts of Goa and Calicut on the Indian subcontinent are labeled and, though undersized, is closer to form. Zaylon (Sri Lanka) is cited as well as the Portuguese trading post of Malaqua (Malacca) and Java split in two.
Sumatra, Porne (Borneo), Taranata (Ternate), Timos (Timor), Gilolo (Halmahera) in the Moluca (Moluccas)are named. The latter is where the Spanish explorer Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, failing to catch the sail winds back to Mexico from the islands he just “baptized” Filipina, heads despondently south and dies in a Portuguese prison.
Curiously, on the map there is an island north of Porne inscribed as Puloan which is most likely Palawan but lacking the shape. There is also to the lower right of the map the islands Insulae Pdonu, referring to Guam and Rota. This is a corruption of the term “Island of Thieves”, a pejorative uttered by the explorer Magellan after having accused the natives of stealing from his ship. Unfortunately, the native reaction to the accusation were not recorded and instead, Magellan sent a raiding party to burn houses on the shore and kill seven men. “Island of Thieves” stuck for a long time in the island’s historical recall.
There are two sea creatures in this map, one a long fish, barracuda-like, and the other a siren, a mermaid with curling fish tails. They seem benign compared to the more ferocious Munster sea monsters in his other maps. These creatures often bare frightening teeth, huge eyes and harass ships. Big whales when rising to the surface may at times equal the length of ships and with embellishments, later became fascinating sea yarns. The same with sirens whose apparitions at sea to lonely and deprived sailors were added to many maps. By the 17th century, sea monsters and sirens, once viewing delights, had disappeared, replaced by more staid and scientific maps.
At the back of the Munster map is an announcement, listing the major Asian outposts and with the notice that there are “…an unlimited number of islands in the sea…” a reference to the yet unnamed Philippine and Indonesian Archipelagos.
The Munster map of Asia was the first ever printed map of Asia. It was daring for allowing a viewer to study parts of the world purely for geographical reasons. Its scattering of isles, mostly nameless, containing spices and gold excited explorers and in a few years, another map appears by the Venetian Giovanni Batista Ramusio bestowing one island the name Filipina after a Spanish prince.
The Munster map of Asia is a valuable visual study of a set of islands transitioning to colonial possession and eventually, nationhood.
The Munster Map of Asia is included in the upcoming Asian Cultural Council Auction to be held on February 2021.
[Check the website https://leon-gallery.com/auctions/The-Asian-Cultural-Council-Auction-2021 for further information.]