A pirate’s chart of the East Indian Archipelago?

This 19th-century nautical chart of the East Indian Archipelago written in Buginese is an excellent example of indigenous cartography with European influences. Buginese (Basa Ugi) is an Austronesian language spoken in the southern part of the Indonesian island Celebes. The Dutch colonisation led to a proportion of the Buginese population fleeing to other parts of Indonesia.

Eurocentrism and indigenous cartography

Eurocentrics are inclined to view the world from a European perspective, both geographically and historically, often not recognising that flourishing cultures with long histories existed before the European ‘discoveries’ and explorations of areas outside of Europe.

The western discipline of the history of cartography was Eurocentric for a long time. However, this changed in the 1990s with the publication of volumes on indigenous and non-European cartography, such as Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies (1992), Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies (1994) and Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian and Pacific Societies (1998) in the Anglo-American standard reference series The History of Cartography.


For the first time, the full history of non-European cartography was systematically and coherently recorded. One of the key conclusions was that many non-European peoples had had their own cartographic culture for centuries. Furthermore, it was shown that not only had European cartography influenced indigenous cartography, but that the opposite – to a lesser extent – was also true.

Overview of the East Indian Archipelago

Worldwide, there are five known Buginese nautical charts of the East Indian Archipelago. One of these charts was last seen in – what was then – Batavia in 1935, but there has been no trace of it since, nor has there to this day been any sign of two charts cited in old literature: one in the library of Willem Marsden (1764-1838) in London and one in the collection of the Dutch Bible Society. Fortunately, the other two charts are still traceable. They are in Madrid (Museo Naval) and Utrecht (University Library).

The Utrecht chart is the largest (76 x 105cm), and is in the best condition. The Buginese nautical charts provide an overview of the East Indian Archipelago, the trade area of the Buginese and Makassar people, who have been known of old as the sailors of the archipelago.

A pirate chart?

The history of two of the five charts mentioned above is particularly interesting. The chart in Madrid came from a captured Philippine pirate ship and the lost ‘Batavian’ copy is known to have been found in a pirate compound on Sumatra.

Unfortunately, the history of the Utrecht chart is still shrouded in mystery, but it is not inconceivable that it was seized from Buginese fishermen and tradesmen and used by indigenous pirates.

Ink on vellum

The nautical chart shown here is from the University Library collection and was drawn on vellum with ink. Created from animal skin, vellum is strong and withstands weather and frequent use well. For this reason, many nautical charts, including those of the Dutch East India Company, have a vellum base.

This manuscript map includes a wealth of Buginese toponyms, as well as many depth figures, in Western style Arabic numbers.

Charted area

The geographical charted area stretches from the Nicobar and Andaman Islands in the west to Ceram island in the east. The Philippines and a large area of mainland Southeast Asia are depicted in the north and a small part of Australia is included in the south.

Sea navigation

Not surprisingly for a nautical chart, almost all of the information relates to sea navigation. A large area of the coastal strips include front-view profiles of the coast, with mountains and volcanoes as they appear from the sea. Shallows, sand banks, shoals, reefs, and depth figures are also included in detail. Estuaries and bays are exaggerated and depicted on a larger scale.

Colour is used quite systematically. Most of the islands in the archipelago have green borders, but some have red borders. Among these red rimmed islands all traditional pirate’s nests appear ... In several places, flags indicate the presence of various European rulers. Curiously enough, the island of Luzon on the Philippines has a Dutch flag, although the Netherlands never held power there.

Islamic calendar

The nautical chart is dated A.H. 1231, according to the Hijri year numbering system of the Islamic calendar, which corresponds to 1816. The date refers only to when it was first completed. It does not correspond to the contents of the chart, which could be historical or have been brought up to date later. We can, however, ascertain that the chart is from around 1820.

Western sources

This Buginese chart was influenced by Western sources. For example, it depicts a system based on the points of the compass, which the Buginese mapmaker probably copied from the western chart sources.

The sources used may have been the large 18th-century nautical chart Die nieuwe groote lichtende Zee-Fakkel by the Van Keulen firm of Amsterdam. Gerrit de Haan’s manuscript atlas Ligtende zee fakkel off de geheele Oost Indische waterweereldt and various works by François Valentijn are also mentioned in the literature as key sources. It is also highly likely that access was available to charts patented in the name of the Dutch East India Company. Recent investigations also seem to lead to French hydrograpical sources, especially the Carte reduite de l’Archipel des Indes Orientales by Jean-Baptiste d’Après de Mannevillette (1707-1780).

So, Buginese mapmakers had access to a range of European charts, were able to interpret the charts and succeeded in using them to produce their own compilation. Eye-witness reports passed down through the ages also demonstrate the passion of the Buginese for European charts.

It's rather salient that this nautical chart based on Western sources was ultimately used by indigenous pirates to thwart European powers…

Further reading

[ca. 1820]
MvE, 2011
[Bugi nautical chart East Indian Archipelago], anonymous, [ca. 1820]
[Bugi nautical chart East Indian Archipelago], anonymous, [ca. 1820] (detail)
[Bugi nautical chart East Indian Archipelago], anonymous, [ca. 1820] (detail)
[Bugi nautical chart East Indian Archipelago], anonymous, [ca. 1820] (detail)
[Bugi nautical chart East Indian Archipelago], anonymous, [ca. 1820] (detail)

[Bugi nautical chart of the East Indian Archipelago] (Kaart: VIII.C.a.2); Anonymous, 1816