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The Discovery of South-East Asia

South-East Asia was "discovered" three times. South-East Asia was first discovered millenia ago by successive waves of pre-historic immigrants. South-East Asia a second time by the Hindus and Muhammadans who in their turns converted many, if not most, of the natives of the countries south-east of India. South-East Asia was discovered a third time by Europeans, who for the first millenium of the Christian Era were essentially innocent of knowledge of Asia east of the Gangese and Bay of Bengal. It was "discovored" a fourth time in the second half of the Twentieth Century, as it slowly emerged as a fixed geo-political region.

But of all the nations and countries of Asia there is not one which took longer in becoming known to the European peoples, and which was more completely left undescribed. Right up to the middle of the nineteenth century only the coasts were known to Europe. Far away, even in the centuries before Christ, vague rumors of a land beyond India which was yet not China grew and spread, but no certain knowledge was attained; and so late as Pomponius Mela, in 43 AD, the earliest definite mention occurs of two headlands beyond the mouths of the Ganges; but he seems to have thought that the continent of Asia ended here, and that there was nothing beyond these Capes. In AD 130. Ptolemy describes, and enters in his map, a large peninsula, jutting out south from the continent of Asia, and situated east of the mouths of the Ganges; but he is quite wrong as to the shape of it.

After this the Muhammadan traders and adventurers appear on the scene, and in 850 and 920 AD there are books describing the sea-route to China by Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, Cambodia, and Canton. The establishment of important commercial colonies in China by the Arabs and the Persians, presupposes that the passage to the Celestial Empire via the Straits of Malacca and the China Sea was now made by these people with great frequency. In spite of a wider and surer knowledge of Malaya and Indo-China than any which at this time was possessed by Europeans, the notions entertained concerning these regions by the Arabian geographers were still very vague and imperfect.

Masudi, who wrote during the first half of the tenth century, had not only travelled extensively, but was also well versed in the literature of his subject and had had access to older Arabic works which have since been lost to us. His book therefore represented the widest and soundest geographical knowledge of his time, yet a glance at his chart suffices to demonstrate how radical were many of his misconceptions and how great was his confusion in matters of detail. For him Indo-China and Malaya consisted of one lozenge-shaped peninsula to the south of which lay Sumatra in the same latitude as Ceylon, while Java was situated further to the eastward almost on the same parallel. Idrisi's chart is even more confusing, although its author completed his work in 1153-54. When he passes to the eastward of Al Rami, or Sumatra, he becomes involved in inextricable confusion.

World Map AD 943 al-Masudi World Map AD 1154 al-Idrisi

For the most part, the lands beyond the Ganges were not well known until a thousand years later when the brothers Polo first acquainted western Europe with the existence of a number of large islands in that part of the world. And there were no good maps of the East Indian Archipelago until after the Portuguese voyages to the Indies.

In 1595 the first Dutch expedition to the Indies, led by one Cornelius Houtman, who had sailed in Portuguese galleons, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian domain. The objective point was Java, where an alliance was formed with the native princes and a cargo of pepper secured. Two things were shown by the safe return of this fleet, the great wealth and profit of the Indian trade, and the inability of Spain and Portugal to maintain their monopoly. In 1598 the merchants of Amsterdam defeated a combined Spanish and Portuguese fleet in the East, and trading settlements were secured in Java and Johore. In 1605 they carried their factories to Amboina and Tidor.

The first recognizably modern depiction of South East Asia was the India quae orientalis dicitur, et insulae adiacentes of Willem (Guilielmus) Janszoon Blaeu (1571-1638), maps of previous decades and centuries having depicted the area is little more than a geographic expression. The map of south and southeast Asia includes the northern coast line of New Guinea, the southern coast line of Japan and tip of northern Australia. Relief is shown pictorially, and boundaries between China and South-East Asia are depicted, but not within South-East Asia. Blaeu, the progenitor of the famous Blaeu cartographic firm of Amsterdam, studied astronomy and sciences with Tycho Brahe, and in 1599 established a globe and instrument making business which soon expanded to include cartographic and geographic publishing. This firm was to go on to become the largest and most important cartographic publishing firms in the world, run by his sons Cornelis (until his death in 1642) and Joan. The maps issued by the Blaeu firm are known for their fine craftsmanship and design, and have been called the highest expression of Dutch cartographical art.

It is only since the Second World War that the term South-east Asia has been generally accepted as a collective name for the series of peninsulas and islands which lie to the east of India. During these first centuries after Christ it was called Chryse the Golden or Chersonesos Aurea, and was believed to be the land from which Solomon obtained his gold. In the 16th and 17th Century reference was made to India Orientalis or the East Indies, and by the early 18th Century the Insulae Indicae [Islands of the Indies] were at times treated separately from the mainland, though by the end of the century the entire region was also referred to as the Archipel De L'Inde. In the early 19th Century for some cartographers the East Indies still encompassed India, while for others the East India Isles referenced the Indian Archipelago, the East Indian Archipelago or the Arcipel D'Asie.

At the beginning of the 20th Century it was more common to distinguish between the states of mainland Indo-China [aka Further India or rarely Ultrindia], as against the Malay Archipelego or Malayan Archipelego. But the term East Indies could still be used to reference an area as small as the Dutch East Indies and the Malay possessions of the United Kingdom. And the term Southeast Asia could encompass the Chinese Republic, the Japanese Empire (including Korea and Formosa or Taiwan), the extent of British India (including Baluchistan and Burma) and French IndoChina (including Tonkin, Laos, Annam, and Cambodia).

The Malay Archipelago, though invariably spoken of as a geographical whole, is far from being homogeneous, being divided by a boundary line known as Wallace's Line (after the distinguished naturalist who first indicated its existence). Wallace's Line lies close to the east of Borneo, and may be prolonged through the outer margin of the Philippines and Formosa to the Asiatic mainland. In all the islands to the west of Wallace's Line, the forms of life are the same as, or closely related to, those of the Asiatic continent, while on most of the islands to the east they as unmistakably point to Australia as the center whence they have spread. Recently, the term "Sundaland" has been used with reference to this western half of the Indo-Malayan archipelago west of the Wallace Line, while the term "Wallacea' has been applied to the territory to the east of Wallaces Line.

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