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From the archives

Our Violent National Game

The great hockey debate continues

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Glimmer of Globalization

Tracking a merchant map becomes a voyage of tantalizing digression

Stephen R. Bown

Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer

Timothy Brook

House of Anansi

211 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9781770893535

But we have got there, to the origin of the map—well, more or less. With an unsigned and undated document such as ours, this is not a bad showing,” Timothy Brook concludes with great understatement near the end of his intriguing new book, Mr. Selden’s Map of China: Decoding the Secrets of a Vanished Cartographer. Not a bad showing indeed, and a marvellously meandering and illuminating journey through the seemingly disparate worlds of 17th-century Europe and East Asia, through the politics, economics and history of these regions, the history of cartography, and the foundations of international law and the law of the sea, complete with a gallery of unusual characters. This is my favourite sort of book, one that begins with the specific and progresses to the general and universal, transcending merely technical information to become something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

We do eventually get to the promised solution of the cartographer’s likely identity and some of the map’s secrets, but that is not really the main point here. The journey upon which we embark is the true treasure, not the destination. If you are the sort of reader who wants a clear dissection of the facts and a definitive conclusion, the point proven, this book may be a disappointment. On the other hand, if you enjoy being led on a tour full of digressions and tangentially related stops along the way, the voyage itself will be the reward.

The mystery begins with the 2009 discovery of a highly unusual map in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The map, unused for generations, seemed to blend Chinese and European cartographic traditions and to have an uncannily accurate depiction of the coastline around the South China Sea. There is no more accurate map before it, nor one for about four decades afterward. The Selden map, as it is now called, is so accurate that it could nearly be modern, and yet it is not a forgery. The Selden map was seemingly unique in an era when maps were always, at least in part, copies of previous maps. Where did it originate, this map with neither progenitors nor progeny?

Brook leads us through a series of clues to unlock the map’s secrets. A professor of history at the University of British Columbia and the author of the delightfully eccentric and wide-ranging Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, Brook has a lifetime of experience to draw upon in decoding the map. With a specialist’s understanding of Chinese history, culture and language in this period, he is well positioned to tease information from the slimmest clues, clues that would entirely be lost on someone without his knowledge. But Brook has something else equally valuable in his favour: an imagination and a storyteller’s instinct for finding a “door” or entry into the lost world of his expertise, something unfortunately in short supply among most academic writers.

The map first found its way to Oxford in 1659, donated as part of the estate of John Selden. Selden is not widely known today, except perhaps among students of legal history, but in his era he was a superstar in a London where “Shakespeare was premiering The Tempest, Ben Jonson inventing the musical to amuse King James I, and John Donne being pressured by that same monarch to give up love poetry for sermon-writing.” Brook explains: “New vistas were opening, old horizons faltering, accepted truths giving way to controversial new ideas. Ordinary people in their hundreds of thousands were on the move in search of work, survival and adventure. Ships in their tens of thousands were sailing from every port in Europe and Asia. Commodities produced on one continent were reshaping economies on another.”

Selden was a London business lawyer, political activist and one-time convict because of his academic transgressions against the entrenched powers of the English court. He was also known for the radical idea that, as Brook puts it, “the purpose of law was to ensure not the power of the rulers but the liberty of the people.” In the early 17th century these were just philosophical ideas. (Sometimes we are still wrestling this concept, it seems.) Selden was also England’s first Orientalist. One of his portraits is inscribed with Chinese characters; although he understood them poorly, there was no one more proficient in England at the time, therefore no one to challenge him. Knowledge of the “East,” one of the most precious cargoes of the neophyte English East India Company, was only slowly trickling into England.

Selden’s famous contribution to international law and history is his classic philosophical and legal tract Mare Clausum, the Closed Sea, a direct rebuttal to Mare Liberum, the Free Sea, written by the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius. Both men were arguing over the nature of sovereign powers on the open water and their tracts have formed the basis of modern international law and the law of the sea.

“That the Sea, by the Law of Nature or Nations, is not common to all men, but capable of private Dominion or property as well as the Land … That the King of Great Britain is Lord of the Sea flowing about, as an inseparable and perpetual Appendant of the British Empire.” With such morally superior language and reasoning, it is ironic that Selden’s impulse was not philosophical but mercantile: King James felt that the Dutch were plundering English and Scottish fish stocks without paying local taxes. “It is incredible,” Selden claimed in a letter, “what a vast sum of monie the Hollanders make by this Fishing upon our coast.”

But back to the map. It formed part of Selden’s estate because of his intense interest in the expanding commercial world in the early 17th century. In 1488, when Iberian mariner Bartolomeu Dias succeeded in rounding Africa and entering the Indian Ocean, he laid the foundations of the Portuguese Empire by discovering a sea route from Europe to the spices, one that bypassed Islamic intermediaries. A voyager could take years to return and would have to contend with many dangers along the way, from mighty storms, shipboard disease such as scurvy, jealous and violent middlemen, pirates and, as the rumours held, ferocious sea monsters. Spices were exceedingly valuable in Europe, for their reputed medicinal properties, their exotic flavour and the social status they bequeathed for their rarity. The source of spices such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg was a well-kept mystery for generations of Spanish and Portuguese mariners, a state commercial secret ensuring their value remained high. The challenge to this monopoly came in the wake of the Protestant Reformation in the late 16th century, primarily from the Dutch and English. The early 17th century was the era when England and the Netherlands, through their respective national exploring and trading monopolies, the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company, were challenging the commercial empires that Portugal and Spain had built through their early monopoly. England and the Dutch Republic wanted commercial access to the spice trade of the eastern seas. Gaining part of this lucrative market could mean enormous wealth or, in the case of the Dutch Republic, the funds to secure political independence from Spain. Any knowledge that could help in controlling this trade network—for European nations were not willing to share the wealth because of political and religious conflict—could be worth a fortune. It is in this era of intriguing political and commercial change that the Selden map was acquired and shipped back to England from the “Indies.”

Maps were national secrets, and sharing the information on them was sometimes punishable by death, particularly if they contained commercial secret information. Maps can depict different things; a map is a mindscape showing what is important and what is considered inviolable. The Selden map, Brook shows, was a map of the sea, a map of sea routes and trade routes, rather than a political map of national boundaries. It is not a sovereign’s map, but a merchant’s map, from that era when new markets were linked to new geographical discoveries in a world that was just opening up. “Where great wealth once had consisted in owning vast tracts of land,” Brook writes, “now it involved owning vast cargoes of ships … An entirely new structure of law was required to hold up the new order.”

Brook follows the different strands of the map’s story to their convergence, just as a cartographer might draw all the tributaries of a river funnelling into the main channel. Brook pieces together the map’s clues, from the style of cartography and the placement of the compass rose and cartouches, to the type of Chinese characters used in the writing and the size of the map’s scale and orientation. This is all fascinating detail, particularly if one is familiar with at least the rudiments of cartographic history and the history of the spice trade. There is a fair bit of technical detail about European and Chinese cartographic traditions, but it is an interesting example of the process by which an investigator, historical or otherwise, begins to unravel the threads of a mystery, to reveal the answers to questions, and how the answers often lead to more questions.

Brook’s story is sprinkled with passages and general insights that are a delight to someone who appreciates language, and that serve to elevate the book from being overly technical and narrow. The story is peppered with amusing observations on human nature that bring it alive and also show how people have not changed much over the centuries. A few examples: “when the [Chinese] court found itself unable to control piracy and smuggling, it preferred simply to shut down all private trade. This usually had the effect of only increasing piracy and smuggling.” One of Selden’s London companions “was a shrewd man, instinctual in his ability to manipulate others, but he was also vain about his own judgements and thus easily gulled by his own certainties.” And this, which brought a smile to my face: “Perhaps I am being unfair. Who of us can look into the future and guess with any confidence what will become common knowledge and what will sink into obscurity?”

Mr. Selden’s Map of China will transport the reader back four centuries to the beginning of globalization and the birth of the current world order, when trade and empire were flip sides of the same coin, more blatantly than they are today. It will confirm suspicions about the fickle nature of consumer demand—what was worth its weight in gold back then is cheap and common now. Sometimes scarcity and the whims of fashion influence world events more than we would like to admit. In this book Brook does a rare thing, perhaps the most valuable thing any historian can do but few achieve: he reveals the continuity between our world and the murky past. “Our ancestors,” he observes in one aside, “traded and travelled, migrated and thieved, aided and intimidated, playing along with whoever held all the cards so that a very few could become pointlessly rich and the rest of us might just survive until morning. The world has changed much in the intervening four centuries, but we have changed less.”

Stephen R. Bown is the author of ten books on the history of science, ideas and exploration, including the early spice trade.