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Mapping Cambodia’s distant past

A map of Kampot Bay dating to 1860 being presented to the Phnom Penh National Archives
A map of Kampot Bay dating to 1860 being presented to the Phnom Penh National Archives. Photo Supplied

Mapping Cambodia’s distant past

Dear Editor,

I was intrigued and surprised by Emily Wight’s article “Oldest known map of nation handed over to the archives” (Phnom Penh Post, December 31).

For starters, the lead sentence “The earliest known map of the country . . .” seems to have been written by a graduate of the Elasticity School of Journalism, especially since the map in question is described as only a “drawing of Kampot Bay”.

While Cambodia had geographically shrunk considerably by 1857 from the height of its territorial expansion during the Angkor era, certainly the Kingdom was much more than just Kampot back in the mid-1900s.

Never mind. Using Ms Wight’s definition, let me point out that the Dutch made maps of (parts) of Cambodia as early as 1644. An historic map of Phnom Penh is included as a fold-out, four-page spread in a recently-published monograph titled Murder and Mayhem in Seventeenth-Century Cambodia: Anthony van Diemen vs. King Ramadhipati I, written by Alfons van Der Kraan.

Van Der Kraan, using documents unearthed from Dutch archives, describes an extended conflict between the Dutch East India Company and Cambodia in the 1630s and 1640s, a confrontation which the book’s back cover notes “ . . . has the dubious distinction of being history’s first between a mainland Southeast Asian state and a European power”.

The Dutch, who controlled Indonesia from Batavia (present day Jakarta), were concerned about Portuguese encroachment on trade with Japan such that they set up a trading post and then an embassy in Cambodia near Oudong, the Kingdom’s capital at the time.

Relations were never easy as Portuguese traders and mercenaries were already on the ground.

In short, skullduggery was rampant on all sides, relations soured, Dutchmen were killed and on November 27, 1643, the entire Dutch mission – some 20 to 25 people – were massacred by the Cambodian king’s troops near Oudong Market.

A Dutch map of Lovek, just north of Oudong, from 1747
A Dutch map of Lovek, just north of Oudong, from 1747. Michael Hayes

The Dutch wanted revenge and sent a five-ship flotilla from Batavia in March, 1644. They sailed up to Phnom Penh and were encouraged by an emissary of the King to sail further up the Tonle Sap to Oudong to “negotiate”, but once there realised they had been tricked as the Cambodians were hastily preparing for all out war.

By the time they made it back to Phnom Penh, the Cambodians had constructed two pontoon-type bridges across the Tonle Sap to try and trap the Dutch.

According to the map of the ensuing battle, one barricade was somewhere near where the Chrouy Changvar Bridge is now; the second looks like it spanned the river from the park at the new Sokha Hotel to Hurley’s Cantina.

In the event, the Dutch eventually broke through both barriers, with casualties on both sides, and high-tailed it back to Java.

The original map, made on Japanese rice paper, is in the Dutch National Archives, The Hague. Perhaps the Dutch embassy in Bangkok would be willing to facilitate making a copy for donation to the Cambodian National Archives?

There is at least one more Dutch-made map of Cambodia which pre-dates the British map of 1860. It is a map of Lovek, another former Cambodian capital just north of Oudong, and was made in 1747.
I know the map exists because one of the remaining prints is hanging in my living room.

Since I bought it at the River City mall in Bangkok, I’m guessing the generous Dutch could treat Cambodia to one of those too.

Michael Hayes
former Senior Advisor,
Finnmap Cambodia
currently charting new career path
Phnom Penh

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