The Indian Ocean Littoral: Cartography and Port Cities

Charting the Indian Ocean from Zanzibar to Sumatra


The time span of this study is from the second century of the Common Era to 1600 C.E.  Beginning with Claudius Ptolemy’s work because of its later influence on cartographers in Europe and the Middle East, it closes with the advent of the seventeenth century when the outline of the Indian Ocean, as well as the rest of the world, except for Australia, had been established. The task of later map-makers was to fill in the continents and islands, certainly challenging, but arguably less momentous than the initial discoveries.

The oldest writing about the lands around the Indian Ocean comes from the periplus or “coast pilot” of Niarchus, an admiral in the fleet of Alexander the Great ( 356-323 B.C.E.). He sailed from the Indus River along the coast of Persia during Alexander’s excursion to India in the fourth century before the Common Era. A later periplus, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (the Indian Ocean), probably written in the first century of the Common Era by an unknown Greek, gives information, in some detail, about the Indo-Roman trade by sea at that time. It includes the northern end of the Red Sea, the coasts of Arabia and Persia, the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and Africa’s east coast as far as Zanzibar. It speculates correctly that south of Zanzibar the coast turns west so that the Indian and the Atlantic oceans meet. The author described the entire coastal region of India, from the Indus in the west to the Ganges delta in the east, but much of that material probably came from second-hand sources.

What follows is a brief overview of major cartographic efforts to map the world, including the Indian Ocean or, as in the case of Jan Huygen van Linschoten, to portray thesea routes that lay between Europe and Asia.  The examples were selected, from among hundreds of possibilities, because they marked significant advances in conceptualization of the world or in their incorporation of significant new information gathered by seafarers.

Introduction | Ptolemy | Maps | Linschoten | Arabic | Chinese | Glossary | Libraries | Readings | Links

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© 2002 Penelope Campbell. All rights reserved.