The earliest known map of the country, a chart of the Cambodian coast produced by sailors in 1860, has been donated to the National Archives.
The drawing of Kampot Bay was intended to map a safe route for ships to transport goods to coastal ports. It was given to the Phnom Penh archives by the Cambodian Cyclo and Careers Association (CCCA) last week.
The officers and crew of the HMS Saracen, captained by one John Richards, master of the British Royal Navy, drew up the map based on a survey made in 1857.
Nearly a century and a half later, in the 1990s, historian and author Robert Philpotts discovered the chart while researching his book The Coast of Cambodia at the British Library in London.
Philpotts, who once volunteered as an English teacher at the old Phnom Penh Cyclo Centre, made a copy at the UK’s Hydrographic Office before bringing it earlier this month to what is now the CCCA in Cambodia.
The handover coincided with a rally held by the association at the Blue Sea, Green City festival in Kep earlier this month.
Historian David Chandler said he was “sure” it was the earliest known map of the country.
“There were certainly no maps drawn by Khmer before the French arrived,” he wrote in an email.
The chart outlines the “channels leading to Kamput” and was designed to improve safety for sailors by reducing the chance of shipwrecks.
Richards identifies one dangerous rock in particular, which he refers to as “Rosita Rock” after an English sailing vessel that had the misfortune to crash into it. The chart gives clear directions to sailors on how to avoid the barely visible rock.
According to Philpotts, before the chart was published there was nothing of scientific value for merchant ship captains on their way to Kampot.
“I don’t think there’s an earlier one than that – I mean, I don’t see anybody who would be interested to do one, because the French exploration started in the 1860s, but the Saracen chart pre-dates that.”
At the time, trade was increasing between Singapore and Cambodia. “Entry to the port was tricky, so a map that showed accurate soundings was invaluable,” Philpotts said.
Im Sambath, executive director at the CCCA, said the map would help teach increasing numbers of young Cambodians interested in learning about their country’s history.
“In the National Archives, it’s useful for university students who want to do historical research, because there are more and more students researching about Cambodian history now,” Sambath said.
Y Dari, deputy director at the National Archives, said the map would be displayed in the reading room for foreign and local researchers.
She added: “This document is very historically important for the National Archives, for keeping, preserving and conserving history.”