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MALAYSIA / SINGAPORE: A Map of the Malay Peninsula compiled by and published for the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Singapore 1898.




A colossal, very rare map of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, created at a critical juncture just as Britain was consolidating its suzerainty over the region; specially commissioned by the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Southeast Asia’s premier intellectual institute, it was drafted in Singapore by the government cartographer John van Cuylenburg; predicated upon dozens of recent surveys, it features a vast wealth of information on topography, infrastructure and settlement patterns that had never before been consolidated into a single map; published in London by Edward Stanford. 


Lithograph in colour with additional original outline hand colour, dissected into 56 sections and mounted upon original linen, folding into a contemporary plain black cloth slipcase (Very Good, overall clean, crisp and bright, just some very small, light stains), 161.5 x 121.5 cm (63.5 x 48 inches).


This is a great monument in the cartography of what is today Malaysia and Singapore, being a colossal map of the Malay Peninsula measuring 161.5 x 121.5 cm (51/4 x 4 feet), executed to grand scale of 1:506,880 (8 English Statute mile to One Inch).  The work was sponsored by the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Southeast Asia’s premier intellectual institute, and was printed after a manuscript drafted by the prominent Singapore-based crown cartographer John van Cuylenburg.  Predicated upon a composite of a vast number of recent surveys, the map captures the region at critical juncture just as Britain was consolidating its suzerainty over the peninsula in the wake of the foundation of the Federated Malay States (FMS), a united series of protectorates that gave Whitehall control over Central Malaya, in addition to its established holdings of the Straits Settlements.  The map showcases many important and fascinating details that appear together on single work for the very first time, including groundbreaking frontier surveys of the interior, the charting of new railways and roads, as well as the development of the key tin and gold mining industries.  The map was printed in London by the world-leading house of Edward Stanford, as a case/wall map, an expensive medium reserved for the limited production of ‘master plans’ of colonies.

The ‘Reference’, located below the scale, gives the symbols used throughout the map to identify British Territory (shaded Pink); Federated Malay States under British Protection (Pink outlined in Dark Pink); Siamese States (Yellow); Boundaries defined by Survey; Boundaries Undefined; Cart Roads; Bridle Roads and Paths; Railways; Proposed Railways; Gold mines (yellow dots); and Tin Mines (blue dots).

The map shows that the entire coastlines of the Malay Peninsula to be precisely charted, having long been surveyed to a high standard by the Royal Navy.  Likewise, the British sovereign possessions of the Straits Settlements, consisting of the coastal territories of Singapore, Malacca, Penang, and Dindings, are extremely well mapped, predicated upon systematic trigonometrical surveys.  By constrast, the mapping of the rest of the peninsula is patchy.  Areas along the more populated and developed west coast, especially near centres frequented by Westerners, and along major rivers and key roads are relatively well charted, with numerous villages and topographic details precisely placed and labelled.  However, many parts are still shown to be entirely unmapped, with even an area immediately to the southwest of Kuala Lumpur labelled as ‘unexplored’.  Pahang state, covering a good part of the deep interior and east coast, is largely unmapped beyond the littoral and the course of the Pahang River, with vast regions left entirely blank.  Likewise, the independent state of Johor is largely mapped only in skeletal detail, with areas even within a close proximity to Singapore remaining enigmatic to Europeans.  The northern third of the peninsula (notably Kedah, Perlis, Terengganu and Kelantan states, plus others further north), which were still controlled by Siam, are only mapped along the coasts and along the course of the major corridors.  In sum, while much impressive surveying had recently been accomplished across the Malaya, much more needed to be done.

Notably, the map captures the scene at an early, critical period in the development of Malaya’s railway system.  Up to 1898, a limited series of short lines, still disjoint from each other, had been built between certain key points along the west coast, although far more ambitious railway construction projects were envisaged, as indicated by the ‘proposed routes’ on the map.  Here is shown the first railway line in the region, the route connecting Taiping and Port Weld (Kuala Sepetang), completed in 1885.  This was followed by the line connecting Kuala Lumpur and the port of Kuala Klang, which opened in 1886.  In 1891, the route between Seremban and Port Dickson was inaugurated, while in 1893 the line between Telok Anson and Tapoh Road was opened.  In 1896, following the establishment of British suzerainty over central Malaya, the various railways were placed under the umbrella of the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR).  The FMSR would later complete the West Coast Railway from Perai (opposite Penang) to Johor Bahru in 1909.  Singapore would be integrated into the network upon the completion of the Johor-Singapore Causeway in 1923.

Special attention also needs to be given to the tin mining industry, which had become one of Malaya’s greatest concerns and a major contributor to the British Empire’s industrial economy and military production leading into World War I.  The tin deposits, which dot the western interior, were first commercially exploited in 1870s and by the time the present map was made had experienced a great rise in production.

To the left of the Reference is a chart, ‘Synopsis of Native Terms’, which translates major words for topographical features from English into Malay and Siamese (Thai).

In the upper right corner are two inset maps, the first being of ‘Singapore Town’ / ‘Scale 2 Inches to the Mile’, an excellent plan that details the city’s street grid and labels many key sites, including the Raffles Hotel (founded 1887), Collyer Quay, the Council Chambers, Town Hall, Fort Canning, St. Andrew’s Cathedral the Library & Museum (where the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society was based), Emerald Hills, Alexandra Road, Botanical Gardens, Sultan of Johor’s Singapore residence, Government House, and the port at Tanjong Pagar, amongst many others.

To the right side is the inset, ‘Juncture with the Main Map / Scale Half the Size’, which details the Siamese controlled Isthmus of Kra, including ‘Junk Ceylon’ (Phuket) and the southern tip of Tenesserim, in British Burma.

Edward Stanford’s Case/Wall Maps

Edwards Stanford’s Geographic Establishment, founded in 1853, by Edward Stanford (1827 – 1904), was by the time that the present map was made the world’s leading cartographic publisher.  It owned this status to its unrivalled connections to governments, surveyors and explorers throughout the British Empire.  Maintaining a very high standard of lithographic production, Stanford’s maps were remarkable for their signature style, employing clear, carefully placed text, clean lines and resplendent colours, as brilliantly exemplified by the present work.  For a colonial surveyor, having one’s map published by Stanford was considered to be the ‘gold standard’, and the firm had a stellar distribution system that ensured that maps always found their way into the right hands.  The firm still exists to the present day, although it is more focused upon travel publications.

While Stanford produced all kinds of maps, including for illustrations in books, as well as various atlases, the firm was primarily known for its separately issued maps.  These tended to be produced in two forms: case/wall maps and ‘library maps’.

The case maps (when dissected and mounted upon linen, folding) or wall maps (when issued in large sheets) tended to be the first printings of important general maps of colonies or countries, usually predicated upon manuscripts by the leading government surveyor working in theatre.  These maps tended to be ‘Master Plans’ incorporated all of the best geographic knowledge of the lands in question and were usually of a large scale and size (often being over 1.5 metres in length).  Stanford’s workshop, while remaining faithful to the antecedent manuscripts, adapted the mapping to their house style.  The resultant publications were often viewed as the authoritative maps of the colonies or countries in question for some years.  The case/wall maps were very expensive productions and were issued on only small print runs.   They were reserved for senior government functionaries (the maps often hung on the walls of governors’ offices), military officers, commercial (railway and mining) barons, and academic institutions.  The Stanford case/wall maps were often actively used for planning infrastructure projects and military operations, and were in many cases the only existent maps fit for those purposes.

The present map is an archetype examples of the Stanford case/wall map genre, being the largest, most accurate and most detailed map of the Malay Peninsula produced during its era.  As will be discussed below, it was issued in five editions, in 1879, 1887, 1891, 1898 (the present) and 1911, each of which were dramatically updated from the previous issues, rendering them each as distinct maps.

Stanford made case/wall maps of many different colonies/countries, with the titles being too numerous to list, although all issues tend to be quite rare today.  A couple of remarkable examples are Thomas Harrison’s Map of Jamaica prepared from the best authorities under the direction of Major-General J. R. Mann, R.E. Director of Roads and Surveyor General (1873), measuring 165 x 68.5 cm, and Abraham De Smidt’s Map of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope and neighbouring territories (1876), measuring 99 x 187 cm.
Stanford’s case/wall maps are of great value today, as they are by far and away the best records of geographical knowledge, land use and infrastructure development of many parts of the world during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, featuring critical information available nowhere else.
Stanford’s case/wall maps should not be confused with the firm’s ‘library maps’, which were folio sized productions (approximately 55 x 65 cm), often mounted upon lined and folding into card covers.  Stanford made library maps of all parts of the world (including the Malay Peninsula), often in innumerable editions.  While some of the issues are rare and feature valuable thematic information, the library maps were of a much smaller scale than the case/wall maps, omitting many critical details.  The library maps were often produced in relatively large print runs and geared to be affordable to members of the general public.  While various editions of the library maps of Malaya appear from time to time on the market, issues of the case/wall maps are virtually ghosts.

A Note on Rarity

All of the editions of the Stanford-Asiatic Society jumbo case maps of the Malay Peninsula are today very to extremely rare.  They were very expensive items in their day and made in small quantities for a select clientele.  They were issued in two different physical formats, dissected, mounted on linen and folding (as here) or as six separate sheets which could be joined.  Both formats were often mounted upon walls (the present example has tack marks in the corners), where they would have been exposed to wear, leading to a low survival rate.

There are only handful of examples of each edition of the Map of the Malay Peninsula case/walls maps in libraries worldwide.

We can trace 9 examples, in 8 different institutions, of the present 1898 edition, held by the National Archives of Singapore; British Library; National Archives U.K. (2 examples); Cambridge University Library; Bibliothèque nationale de France; Universitätsbibliothek Leiden; Nationaal Archief (Netherlands); National Library of Australia; and Harvard University Library.  These institutions tend to be the custodians of venerable old libraries and archives that in most cases would have acquired their examples shortly after the maps were published.

We can trace only a single instance of another example of the map appearing on the market.

The Rise of British Power in Malaya

Since ancient times, the Malay Peninsula was considered valuable real estate, due to its strategic location guarding the Malacca and Singapore Straits, the main nexus between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as for its vast natural resources.

In the late 18th Century, Malaya was home the major Dutch trading base of Malacca, while the rest of the peninsula was controlled by various sultanates.  Johor, in the south was a powerful autonomous state, while the northern states were tributaries of Siam.  While Europeans long had a presence all along the coasts, the interior of the peninsula was largely unknown to Westerners.

In 1786, the British, out of India, founded a trading base on Penang Island, which became Georgetown, and in 1800 took control of the adjacent mainland strip of coast, which they called Province Wellesley (Seberang Perai).  In 1795, during the French Revolutionary-Napoleonic Wars, Britain conquered Malacca from the Dutch, becoming the dominant European power in the region.

In what would later be revealed to be a transformative development in the history of Asia, Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore as a British base in 1819.  Shortly thereafter, Britain and the Netherlands decided to divide and consolidate their zones of colonial influence in Southeast Asia.  Britain ceded its holdings in Indonesia to the Netherlands (mainly Fort Marlborough / Bengkulu, Sumatra) and the Netherlands ceded Malacca to Britain, an accord ratified as the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

Britain continued to press its advantage on the Malay Peninsula, as Singapore and Georgetown boomed, becoming globally significant ports.  Meanwhile, the native sultanates found themselves squeezed by the competing interests of Britain and Siam.  Siam aggressively asserted its sovereignty over Kedah, Perlis, Terengganu and Kelantan states, while Britain gained commercial concessions in the southern states.  Meanwhile, Britain and Siam where careful not to come into direct conflict, as such a war would be costly to both sides (Siam was a powerful and sophisticated state that had the distinction of being one of the only countries in the world never to come under European control).

In 1867, Britain consolidated its sovereign holdings in Malaya into the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Malacca and Penang), and in 1874, assumed possession of an additional territory, Dindings (today the Manjung District of Perak).

In the generation that followed, Britain came to exploit Malaya’s vast wealth of natural resources, including tin, gold, prime grade hardwood timber and rubber – commodities that were of great value to Industrial Revolution Britain.  In the central and southern Malay states, the sultans permitted Britain to build mines, plantations and railroads, utterly transforming the region’s economy.

In 1895, Britain gained suzerainty over the states of Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, forming the Federated Malay States (FMS), whereupon Britain assumed full economic and nearly total political control over these jurisdictions, with the local sultans only maintaining authority over Malay cultural customs and crown estates.  It was in this context that the present edition of the colossal map was made.

However, as shown here, a vast expanse of the peninsula was still ruled by Siam, a country which had an uneasy relationship with both Britain and the Malay population.  After years of tension, Britain managed to pressure Siam to relinquish its control of Kedah, Perlis, Terengganu and Kelantan, which became British protectorates, in exchange for Britain recognizing Siam’s permanent control of the remaining states to the north, an agreement ratified by the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909.

British Malaya was a major contributor to the political and economic life of the British Empire until the Federation of Malaysia declared its independence in 1957.  Singapore succeeded from the Federation in 1965 to form its own city state, and today both Singapore and Malaysia are amongst Asia’s most dynamic counties.

The Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and the First ‘Mega Map’ of the Malay Peninsula

In the mid-1870s, European geographic knowledge of the Malay Peninsula was at a crossroads.  The coastlines had all long been mapped to a very high degree of precision by the Royal Navy, and the areas in and immediately around the British colonial beachheads, such as Singapore, Malacca, Dindings and Penang were well mapped.  Some areas around major towns and transport corridors within the lands ruled by the native sultans along the west coast were also reasonably well known and charted.  However, the vast majority of the interior of the peninsula was still an enigma, never having been visited by Westerners, let alone mapped.  These lands were often mountainous and covered in dense malarial jungle; exploring and surveying these parts was simply not a priority for British authorities, whose stretched resources were best applied to cadastral and infrastructure mapping concerning their colonial enclaves and infrastructure works.  Moreover, the existent surveys, which were often executed for episodic purposes, were not well disseminated or integrated with other maps, so leading to great inefficiencies in the management of geographical intelligence.  The severe lack of knowledge of the Malay Peninsula was a source of frustration to intellectual curious figures who wished to discover the region’s extraordinary natural and human resources.  Any endeavour to create an accurate and detailed general map of the peninsula would have to be initiated by a well-funded and -connected private concern, yet for a long time no such entity existed.

A great advance in the geographical knowledge of Malaya occurred in the wake of the foundation of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, which was inaugurated in November 1877 at Singapore’s Raffles Library, its official mandate to “promote the collection and record of information relating to the Straits Settlements and the neighbouring countries”, as well as to produce an annual journal and assemble a library of seminal and rare works.  It was a formally an overseas division of the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) in London (founded in 1824), while being closely affiliated and influenced by the Asiatic Society of Bengal (founded in 1781).  It rapidly established itself as Southeast Asia’s premier ‘learned society’, and its membership included many of the big names of Singapore’s political, business and academic elite, who could well afford to sponsor important scientific projects in a variety of fields.

Shortly after its inception, the Society decided that one of its key objectives would be to produce an authoritative, general map of the Malay Peninsula, predicated upon the most recent surveys.  The map was envisaged to far exceed any existing map in is accuracy and comprehensiveness and was to be large in scale and colossal in size, with no expense spared with upon its draftsmanship and publication.  The considerable political influence of the Society’s membership would allow government resources to be allocated to the task, while complete access to colonial map archives was assured.

The Society charged Emile J. D‘Souza of the Surveyor General‘s Office in Singapore with drafting the gargantuan manuscript, which upon its completion was sent to London to be lithographed by Edward Stanford Ltd. (while folio-sized maps could be published locally, such ultra-large publications were well beyond the capabilities of the presses in Singapore).

The resulting Map of the Malay Peninsula (1879), executed to scale of 1:484,000 (just under 8 miles to an inch, a shade larger than the present issued), was the largest printed topographical map of the region to date.  Interestingly, the coverage of the territories of the Straits Settlements was well assured; however, the mapping of the areas beyond could best be described as skeletal, while the interior of Eastern Malaya is almost a complete enigma.  Please see a link to the example held by the State Library of New South Wales:


Yet, numerous new surveys and geographic intelligence flowed fast and furious into the Surveyor General’s Office in Singapore, such that the Society realized that the mega-map needed to be continuously updated if it was to retain role as the ‘master plan’ of the region.

New editions, to the very slightly reduced scale of 1:506,880, were issued in 1887 and 1891.  Please see a link to an example of the 1891 edition, held by the National Library of Australia (note the major advances in cartographic knowledge gained in only the 12 years since the first edition):


The present edition of the Society’s map, of 1898, was the only issued credited to John van Cuylenburg, arguably Malaya’s finest cartographic draughtsman of the day, and critically depicts the peninsula in the immediate wake of the creation of the Federated Malay Straits.

A subsequent edition of the Society’s giant map was issued in 1911, showcasing the vast leaps in geographic knowledge and economic development experienced over the previous 13 years.

As for the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, through its projects and papers, it continued to play a leading role in the arts, sciences and culture of Singapore and the Malay states.  In 1964, the organization was renamed the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and its headquarters was moved to Kuala Lumpur, where it remains to the present day.

John van Cuylenburg: Important Cartographer in Singapore and Malaya

John van Cuylenburg (1862 – 1940) was one of the central figures in the mapping of Singapore and the Malay Peninsula during the fin de siècle era.  Born in Colombo to a one of the oldest Dutch families of Ceylon, cartography was in his blood; his John E. van Cuylenburg was professional surveyor who notably created an important map of the interior of the island, Map of the Central Province of Ceylon exhibiting the situation of Coffee Estates (London: John Day & Son, 1873).

Cuylenburg was educated at the Colombo Academy (later the Royal College), where he showed phenomenal aptitude for mathematics and drawing.  In 1881, the Ceylon Government recommended him to become a “Plotter and Computer” (draughtman) at the Surveyor General’s Office in Singapore.  However, shortly after arriving in Singapore, Cuylenburg was seconded to serve in the same role in Malacca, where he gained valuable knowledge of Malay Peninsula.

In 1885, Cuylenburg returned to Singapore where he drafted a very important map of the colony, published as the Map of the Island of Singapore and its Dependencies (Singapore: Surveyor General’s Office, 1885; revised and reissued in 1898).  In 1888, he was appointed District Surveyor of Singapore, and oversaw many important cadastral and infrastructure surveys in and around the rapidly growing city.  He was also heavily involved in scientific endeavours beyond cartography, being instrumental in correcting the Singapore ‘time ball’ at Fort Canning, which governed the setting of clocks in the colony.  Highly engaged in the activities of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, the organization commissioned him to make the present editions of the colossal Map of the Malay Peninsula, which was in many ways his grandest achievement.

In 1901, Cuylenburg mapped Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, and for some years thereafter oversaw many of the seminal mapping projects in Singapore.  His son, John Bertram van Cuylenburg, was one of Singapore’s leading physicians, known for his fascinating memoirs of life in the colony during the early 20th Century and the World War II-era, Singapore through Sunshine and Shadow (Singapore, 1982).  (For information on Cuylenburg, see Arnold Wright, Twentieth Century impressions of British Malaya: its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources (London, 1908), p. 323).

References: National Archives of Singapore: TM000405_5; British Library: Cartographic Items Maps 59800.(4.); National Archives U.K. (2 examples): CO 700/STRAITS SETTLEMENTS31 and WO 78/5509; Cambridge University Library: Maps.b.18.K.9(1-2); Bibliothèque nationale de France, GE C-2635; Universitätsbibliothek Leiden: KITLV (maps)   D A 27,1; Nationaal Archief Holland: Miko_1578 LO; National Library of Australia: 687067; Harvard University Library: MAP-LC   G8030 1898 .V3 ultrasize; OCLC: 556504695, 494474029, 776640908, 223542398 and 1034783160; Bulletin des récentes publications françaises (Paris: Librairie H. Champion, 1900), p. 373.

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