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  • Dalur Júlíuson

Running Amok in Java, and some Malay words on sea charts in the Árni Magnússon Collection

When the manuscript collector Árni Magnússon (1663–1730) returned to Copenhagen with a consignment of precious manuscripts gathered from farms around Iceland, he had many of them rebound in smart parchment bindings. Cheaper, though, than commissioning book covers made from costly new sheets of parchment was to reuse old ones. Disused sea charts, pasted map-side down onto boards, made for elegant and durable covers for the manuscripts in his collection. Over time these bindings stiffened, and when conservators replaced them in the 20th century they uncovered fabulous sea charts that had been unseen for centuries.

Since joining the Árni Magnússon Institute this summer, I've been doing research into these forgotten charts. Often they're older than the Icelandic manuscripts bound inside them. They were drawn in the middle decades of the 17th century, in the cartographical workshops of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie, VOC) for use aboard Company ships and in maritime offices. Before coming to hide darkly among the stacks of Árni Magnússon's library, they had travelled the world. They would once have assisted Dutch navigators in sailing the seas they depict, on the long voyage between the Netherlands and the islands of South East Asia.

A ship in the Dutch East India Company would have been supplied with more than 30 charts, drawn on vellum, and rolled and stored inside metal tubes. They're still brightly coloured; criss-crossed with rhumb lines (bearings along which a canny navigator could plot a course), and marked with soundings indicating the depth of the water. Dutch ships made for Batavia, the centre of the VOC's operations in East Asia, and from there would have sailed the Indonesian archipelago, trading for, among other things, cotton and silks, dyes, sugar and spices, saltpeter (for the making of gunpowder), tea, and opium.

These voyages didn't, however, convey merely things. Words also travelled aboard these ships. Sea charts brim with words in languages used at sea; Dutch, of course, but also many words of Malay origin. Crews setting forth from Texel may have brought their own experienced linguists with them, or else picked up speakers of Malay in Batavia. Malay predominates in words for landscape features (place-name 'generics') like river, estuary, island and sand. On a chart of Java (1660s) used to bind the 17th-century Icelandic chartulary Vilkinsmáldagi (AM 260 fol.) are shown Sonee Louban and Sonee Nanoor, tributaries of the Sambas River that runs through Borneo, ‘Sonee’ deriving from the Malay sungai ('river'). The inscription Moria Landa attaches to the mouth of the River Landa, ‘moria’ deriving from Malay muara ('river mouth'), while the long sandy stretch on Borneo's south coast is called ‘passirpanjangh’, from Malay pasir panjang ('long sand').

A chart formerly used to bind an Icelandic manuscript of Maríu saga (AM 633 4to), depicts, off the coast of the island of Sumbawa (and near Komodo and its so-called dragons), Gounong apÿ. This volcano, also called Sangeang Api, is among the most active of those among the Sunda islands, and takes its name on the 17th-century chart from the Malay gunung api, fire mountain. These words were widespread in varieties of Malay and Indonesian, their presence on Dutch charts evidence of the work of the Malay pilots on whose expertise early European seafarers relied.

Malay words on some sea charts in the Árni Magnússon Collection.

Name on chart Malay origin Translation

Sonee sungai River

Moria muara River mouth / estuary

Quala kuala A place where two rivers meet

Gounong apÿ gunung api Fire mountain (volcano)

Poolo pulau Island

Passirpanjangh pasir panjang long sand

Captain Daniel Beeckman's A Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo in the East Indies, published in 1718, shows vividly how far European traders relied on the assistance of local 'linguists'. One encounter with the Malay language related by the English captain involves opium, and the fondness for it among the Banjar people of the Malay Peninsula. On trying it himself, he describes its effect as producing ‘a more than ordinary Livelineſs, Delight, and ſuch a merry Diſposition, that I think humane Nature cannot long bear the Practice of it’. He warns, however, that excess produces ‘heaviness, sleep, and stupidity’, and, in exceptional cases, a remarkable ‘Fit of Madneſs’. Some users, he says, become ‘diſtracted; running in a deſperate manner thro the Streets, with their Criece or Dagger drawn, and killing all they meet. This they call running Ammook.’

This, naturally, is the origin of the English expression ‘to run amok’, 'to behave uncontrollably and disruptively', which, in its historical usage, may have denoted a syndrome endemic to Malaysian and Indonesian cultures; violent outbursts in crowded public areas that usually ended in the person’s death.

Ships carried, in among their expensive wares, words as well as things. The old sea charts we keep in the Árni Magnússon Collection brim with words in thalassic languages, and tell us a lot about the distant shores by which they sailed.

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