n a cold, wet day in January 2008, Robert Batchelor decided to take a peek at a map in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, an old and venerable collection founded in 1602 and filled with arcane treasures. Anyone who has ever used the library may recall the oath that all readers are required to take (formerly in Latin, but nowadays in English, I think) not to remove, deface, or injure any of the library’s books, let alone bring in any fire or kindle one—a great temptation in a library originally devoid of any artificial heating source, especially for a generation that had just discovered the lure of Virginia tobacco. Batchelor, a historian of Britain and Asia, was about to fly back to the United States, where he teaches at Georgia Southern University, but this unusual item—“A very odd mapp of China. Very large, & taken from Mr. Selden’s”—beckoned. With the help of the Bodleian’s curator of Chinese collections, David Helliwell, he retrieved it from the bowels of the library. The map was in a fragile, indeed ruinous state, disintegrating on the stiff linen backing that had deformed it during a botched preservation job a century earlier. Helliwell would later recall that he had seen the map before, but without recognizing its full import. Batchelor was enchanted and enthralled. Here was a hand-painted map of East Asia and parts of Southeast Asia and India that raised a myriad of interesting questions. O
Housed in the Bodleian since 1659, the map had previously belonged to an English lawyer named John Selden (1584–1654), who, in a codicil to his 1653 will, singled it out as a prized possession: “a Mapp of China made there fairly and done in colloure together with a Sea Compasse of their making and Devisione taken both by an englishe commander.” The 2008 rediscovery inspired a great deal of speculation about how the map had arrived at the Bodleian, and who had made it.