Digitized Historical Maps of Southeast Asia

Not all that long ago, if you were an academic and you wanted a map, then you pretty much had to ask a professional cartographer to help you. These days that’s no longer the case.

With open source tools like Quantum GIS (QGIS), and with the help of training manuals, you can start making your own maps in a matter of hours.


That said, in doing so, you will quickly figure out that it is a lot easier to take maps or GIS files that have already been made by someone else, and to adapt them, such as by using an existing map as a base map, and then creating layers of new information that relate to whatever project you are doing on top of the base map.

This is where life can get frustrating, because not all digitized maps are the same. People digitize maps in different ways and this creates incompatibilities between some files and some GIS programs.

The US military made very nice topographic maps of Vietnam, for instance, and they have been digitized, but they are in GeoPDF which QGIS doesn’t accept, and which is a pain to convert to another format.


So this being the case, it’s always nice to come across digitized maps that are “user friendly.” I found this blog a while ago. It has some nice historical maps of Cambodia.

Then today I found some that the Library of Congress (LOC) has digitized.

Today I was reading a 1903 issue of the British North Borneo Herald about a guy who was prospecting for coal in the Serudong Valley. I wanted to see where that was, and I found that the LOC has digitized a map of British North Borneo in 1903 where I was easily able to locate the place I was looking for.


What is even better, is that you can download files of the maps from the LOC web page, and I was easily able to add the JP2 and TIFF files that they have there into QGIS as a raster layer. I could therefore use these maps as base maps and create layers of my own information on top of them. For history projects, that is fantastic.


In looking around a bit more on the LOC site, I came across this beautiful map of Vietnam in 1890.

Also, the LOC site allows you to view the map in full screen mode and to pan and zoom in. All of that is wonderful too.

Oh, and the first picture above is of a Russian topographic map of Bangkok. During the Cold War, the Russians and the Americans both “mapped the world.” Those maps are all more or less “out there,” but again, finding them and finding them in file formats that you can work with is not always easy.

Visualizing the Telephone Network in French Indochina (or The Beauty of Boring Books for the Digital Humanities)

When historians engage in historical scholarship, I think it is safe to say that they want to “visualize” or “see” the past in one way or another, and there are various techniques that they use to do this.

First, knowledge helps one see the past. The more one knows about the past, the more visible it becomes.

Second, knowing languages also helps one visualize the past. The greater one’s ability to read historical sources in their original form the more one is able to see.

Third, theory can also help. Looking at information from a different theoretical perspective can help one see the past more clearly as well.

Finally, these days the emerging field known as the Digital Humanities (DH) is providing various ways to visualize the past, one of which is by mapping.


These days there are numerous open source (meaning “free”) GIS programs (such as Quantum GIS and uDig) that can enable one to relatively easily make complex maps that one can then analyze and “query.”

I will write more specifically about those tools later, but here I want to point out that we now also have fabulous sources that we can use to build interesting maps with.

In particular, thanks to the digitization of texts by Google and various libraries around the world we can now easily access numerous (formerly obscure) books that are filled with valuable data that can be mapped.

All that is required is some imagination and effort.


In writing about Alexander Grossman (here), the inventor of the “Manhood Creator,” I came across an obscure book that Google has digitized called the International Chinese Business Directory of the World For the Year 1913.

This book lists the names of Chinese businesses and what they sold from around the world in 1913. Further, in many cases (but not all), it even names the street where each business was located.

For people who study the history of the Chinese in Southeast Asia, a source like this is fantastic, because with a little work (with historical maps and Quantum GIS), one could easily “map out” where the Chinese businesses were in a place like Batavia (or for all of Southeast Asia!!).

What is more, one could create a GIS map with different layers of information. The opium sellers could be on one layer, and the grocers on another, and one could examine relationships between different types of merchants and different communities, etc.

This would be fascinating to “see,” and with DH tools and techniques this is now possible.


Similarly, I was looking at some of the materials that the French National Library has digitized. There are many books there that are filled with fascinating data.

I was looking at one book called Indochine adresses, 1ère année 1933-1934: Annuaire complet (européen et indigène) de toute l’Indochine, commerce, industrie, plantations, mines, adresses particulières.

It contains information like a list of telephone numbers in the various cities of French Indochina. That is fascinating because one could use that information to “map out” the telephone network in the 1930s, and then think about where communication could “move” and where it couldn’t.

It would then be interesting to think about how historical events (like the First Indochina War) related to something like the telephone network. If we mapped the events of that war against a map of the telephone network, what would we see?

the telephone

Ten years ago, if I had come across either of these books in a library I would have probably laughed at how “obscure” and “boring” they were.

With the ways in which DH techniques are enabling historians to visualize the past, however, such “boring books” now have great potential.

Southeast Asia in (Digital) Watercolor

There are various digital tools that have been created that can enable one to engage in scholarship in new ways.

Then there are other tools that. . . are just cool.


The fine folks at Stamen Design have taken the OpenStreetMap platform and painted it in watercolor.

Go take a look. Zoom in on your favorite places and see what they look like in watercolor. That’s Jakarta above.

Kuala Lumpur looks nice:


And the colonial-era development of Phnom Penh looks good in watercolor too:


Oh, and Singapore looks very colorful:


Again, I’m not exactly sure what we can do with this (other than to create some funky images like the ones here), but. . . it is cool to see places in watercolor.

Examining Travel Writing about Southeast Asia with AntConc

One of the first papers I ever researched and wrote as a graduate student was about European perceptions of mainland Southeast Asia in the early nineteenth century. How did I research it? I went to the library and got whatever books I could find and read through them.

At that time, Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation had recently been published, and Edward Said’s Orientalism was still very popular. Having read and been influenced by these two books, I examined some travel accounts of mainland Southeast Asia by Western writers and sought to determine to what degree (if any) I could detect an “imperial desire” on the part of these authors to characterize the people of the region as inferior “Others” in need of “uplifting” through colonization.

imperial eyes

Today if I was a graduate student and was going to research a paper like this I would do it somewhat differently. I would still read Imperial Eyes and whatever studies about travel writing have been written since that work was published. And I would still base my work on travel accounts written by Westerners. However, for some of my research I would look at those works in a different manner.

In particular, I would use a tool like AntConc, which I discussed in the post below and in this post on my other blog.

SEA Visions

Several years ago some wonderful people at the Cornell University Library digitized many Western travel accounts of Southeast Asia and created a web page called “Southeast Asia Visions” where one can search, browse and read these texts.

In the time since that site was developed, many (if not all) of the texts there have been digitized by other people, and can now be found in places like archive.org. Indeed, I now prefer the archive.org versions of these titles as they are offered in various formats (read online, full text, etc.).


What is still nice about the “Southeast Asia Visions” site, however, is that it is a convenient place to see what travel accounts exist. One can, for instance, browse by time period and see which texts were published at a given time.

So if I was going to research a topic that employed travel writings, I would start at the “Southeast Asia Visions” site to determine what texts exist (they don’t claim to have digitized every travel account, but they have digitized a lot).


I would then go look for those texts on archive.org. Rather than viewing them online at this point, what I would do first is to click on the “full text” link, and to then copy and paste the text of the book in a notepad file which I would then save in ETF-8 encoding (that makes AntConc happy).

Having done that for all of the books that I want to examine (and that could be many more than I would ever have the time to actually read), I would then load them into AntConc and start searching for terms that might relate to whatever it is that I am interested in examining.

In actuality, there already is a search function at the “Southeast Asia Visions” site, however, I would still create my own corpus of texts and use AntConc to search through them as that tool is much faster and easier to use than the search function on the “Southeast Asia Visions” web site.


Finally, after having identified something interesting to examine, I would then read more deeply into the texts (yes, I think it is still important to read. . .). I could do this in AntConc (since the files I created contain the entire texts), or I could read scans of the original text online at archive.org or the “Southeast Asia Visions” site.

Examining the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư with AntConc

When it comes to things like databases, digitized texts and all of the various digital tools that scholars in many fields use today, the field of Vietnamese history is far behind, as very little has been done to move Vietnamese history (and particularly premodern Vietnamese history) into the digital age.

As frustrating as that is, there is only one solution to this problem and that is to “DIY” (“do it yourself”).

I spent much of the day today DIM (“doing it myself”) and have finally found a good way to use a free concordance tool to examine (much of) the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư (大越史記全書).


Laurence Anthony, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, has developed a concordance tool called AntConc that can be downloaded for free here (I’m using the 3.3.5w beta version).


It is very simple to use. You start the program, load text (.txt) files that have been saved in UTF-8 encoding, and then search the files for words – just input a word and click “start.”

Han search

What is wonderful about this piece of software is that it can handle Asian languages. However, for it to work with Chinese text you must click this box called “Regex” (and it took me hours today to figure that out. . .).

So, for instance, you can load text files of the Hán (i.e., classical Chinese) text of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư and do a search for a word like 殺 (sát, i.e., giết = “to kill”) – I think I’m in a violent mood after spending so much time trying to figure out how to get AntConc to work with Chinese text. . .


The screen then shows you each of the sentences in which that term appears (the search term appears in blue). When you click on any of those blue terms, AntConc will then take you to the passage in the text in which that particular sentence appears.

sat in context

In the “File” menu you can then click “Close All Files” and “Clear All Tools,” and then load the Vietnamese languages files for the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư. After doing that, you should un-click the “Regex” box and do a regular word search for a word like “giết” (still feeling kind of violent).


So by doing simple word searches like these one can start to examine the past in interesting ways. From the two searches above, for instance, I could easily imagine someone going on to research and write a paper on “Killing in Vietnamese History.” A paper like that would be easily possible to research and write with the aid of a tool like AntConc.


I prepared the files that I use here by copying and pasting the text from these two web sites (here and here). There are some problems to note. First, the Vietnamese language text is not “clean.” The footnote text is not included, but the footnote numbers are still in the main text, and this might make some searches inaccurate. So to really do this well, one would need to clean up the text.

As for the Hán text, there are some issues with it as well. First of all, it is incomplete, as the text is being gradually uploaded to that web page.

Second, the text that is being uploaded to that web page is Chen Jinghe’s collated version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư. That is a very good text, but Chen Jinghe did make some mistakes in compiling it. A more serious problem, however, is that the people who are OCR-ing and uploading Chen Jinghe’s version are making further mistakes. As a result, this text that is ending up on the Internet is “two steps away” from any (“original”) source text.

As such, the texts here are not substitutes for primary sources. They are tools that can help us engage in research in new ways. But in the end, one should always consult a primary/source text as well.

Finally, if anyone discovers something interesting in using AntConc with a text like the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, please leave a comment here and share what you find.

Have fun!!