Extract from Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.1 "Map of the Maingnyaung region" ca. 1860

Mapping the Maps – a guest post from Natasha Pairaudeau

Imagine maps as big as bedsheets, and then imagine the sheets big enough for beds made wide enough to sleep extended families. Only such a double stretch of the imagination can provide the scale of the three Burmese maps in the University Library’s collection, which have recently been made available online in digital format.

From bedsheet to map is not a great leap: all three maps are inked or painted on to generous lengths of cloth. Yet they do not depict lines on a map as the eye in the 21st century is accustomed to seeing them. The most colourful of the three maps, the map of the Maingnyaung region [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.1 ; see also above for an extract from this map] is the one which forces the most abrupt lurch, down from that comfortable view on high of modern mapping convention.  Instead, the viewer is positioned near ground level, and invited here to view a stupa, there a crocodile down in the river, away in the distance a noble line of hills. Trees are no mere generic features. While the perspective is mostly from the ground, it co-exists with other even less familiar conventions. Pagodas and stupas either loom large or sit very small, their size and their sanctity apparently intermeshed. Towns and villages, rivers and streams are the sole features which come close to appearing from a bird’s eye view. Yet the neat tracings of brickwork, and of waves on the water’s surface, suggest they may be meant to convey not the lay of the land from the air but other rules of belonging, of enclosure or of flow.

The other two maps, the map of the Royal Lands [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.3] and map of Sa-lay township [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.2], are less colourful than the first, but in some respects even more intriguing. Like the Maingnyaung map, they take many of their bearings from ground level. Manmade landmarks use scales which vary, apparently,  according to their importance rather than their physical size. With vegetation, there is an insistence on specifics. Yet both maps feature grids traced carefully and evenly across the entire surface. These maps present two worlds at once. There are vistas to be contemplated and meaningful features to be explored in the landscape. But there is also a view from on high, where trees were counted and areas under crop were calculated, and probably, somewhere off the surface of the map, converted into tax exactions.

These maps have already received a share of attention. Allegra Giovine (a doctoral student in the History of Science who studies the production of economic knowledge in colonial Burma) helped to translate notes on the Maingnyaung map from Burmese. The Cambridge maps formed the core of a survey of indigenous Burmese maps in UK collections by Professor Tin Naing Win, the inaugural Charles Wallace Burma Trust Fellow (2015) at the Cambridge Centre of South Asian Studies. They sparked the interest of Marie de Rugy in her recent thesis (Paris 1 – Sorbonne) on Maps and the Making of Imperial Territories in the Northern Indochinese Peninsula. François Tainturier of the Inya Institute continues to study these maps and to re-assess their role in pre-colonial Upper Burma. Much remains nonetheless to be learned about these maps, by those equipped to read the Burmese script which annotates them, and to interpret the wider context of their production and the modes of representation they employ. Great credit goes to the Map Department of the UL, both in finding the will and securing the resources to have the maps conserved and digitised, and to the Cambridge Digital Library, for producing digital pages so effortlessly navigable that they take nothing away from the joy of poring over them. They make it easier, in fact, to hover over the details, whether you are contemplating the view from the ground or from on high.  What’s more, the speed of the internet has improved to such an extent in modern Myanmar, that these massive cloth maps can be viewed with ease in Yangon or Mandalay. Maps such as these are rare, non-existent even, in the location where they were originally made. No such maps produced on cloth are known to have survived within Myanmar today. This only adds to the hope and expectation that they will be pored over, enjoyed, and further studied and interpreted from quarters near and far.

The routes, landmarks and other features depicted on these massive cloths remain beautifully clear some 150 years after they were first painted.  This is particularly so in the case of the map of the Maingnyaung region. The route taken by the maps themselves though, in their journey from Burma to Britain, has been more rapidly obscured. All the cloths reveal, thanks to a discreet label at the corner of each one, is that they were donated by Louis Allan Goss in 1910.

Goss left nothing to explain how he acquired the maps when he presented them to the Cambridge University Library. From research elsewhere, we know he had been an inspector of schools in Rangoon from the late 1870s. Prior to that he spent a decade in business in Mandalay and Rangoon. He published a few books, both while in Burma and on his return to Britain. His translation of the Buddhist Wethandaya tale (1886), the Burmese Copy Book (1905), and Burmese Spelling Book (1907) all remain in the University Library’s holdings.  At the time he donated the maps, he was living in Cambridge and teaching Burmese at the university. The patent he registered in 1914, for a ‘new and useful Transposing Attachment for Pianofortes’ suggest that, by that time, he was enjoying the leisurely pursuits of semi-retirement.

Goss’ generosity extended, too, beyond the University Library. He had already, in 1907, given three other maps to the India Office Collections. These maps, one on paper and two on cloth, are similarly locally-made, depicting Burmese and Shan territory. They are now held at the British Library (access is currently restricted due to their fragile condition, but they are scheduled for digitisation). While they have not weathered the journey quite as well as the Cambridge maps, there is one among them that clearly follows the same conventions as the Maingnyaung map, and rivals it for colouring and artistry.

Deer frolicking on the map ‘Maung Tsait and Maung Pone’, British Library (pressmark IOR/X/12107)

The Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) holds further Goss material. In its collections are over 600 glass plates and albumen prints once belonging to Louis Allan Goss. These depict buildings and landscapes from across Burma, dating from the 1860s through the 1880s. Among the collection are some of the earliest photographic images of Upper Burma. Goss’ photographs at the MAA were included in a 2002 exhibition of the museum’s photographic collection, ‘Collected Sights’. Several of the biographical details of Goss’ life come from the efforts of curators at the MAA to inventory this collection. More recently, a further three maps have come to light, which were donated by Goss to the MAA in 1910. None of these are quite as finely detailed as the University Library maps, but all are again made of cloth, and are of similarly generous dimensions.  One of the MAA maps features particularly bold and unusual colouring. These maps are due to be digitised shortly and will be made available online (2017).

The unusual maps and exceptional collection of photographs which Goss donated reflect a somewhat more adventurous life than that of an inspector of schools.  But Goss’ donations only began to make sense with news from Canada of other gifts to a different museum, made by his descendants over a hundred years later. Ron Graham, Trustee of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, was eager to learn more about the items presented in 2014 to the museum from the estate of Louis Allan Goss. In contacting the Cambridge University Library, he brought together the very small club of people interested in finding out more about Goss.  And from the Cambridge side, the Canadian donations brought the knowledge that linked Goss to an even more intriguing character, his uncle Clement Williams.

The name Clement Williams comes up repeatedly in histories of Upper Burma from the mid-1800s.  In the last decades of the Konbaung dynasty, prior to the British annexation of 1885, he was undoubtedly one of the most engaging figures in a period when European merchants and adventurers had extraordinary access to an outward-looking, modernising monarchy. Williams was among the Italian engineers, French diplomats, and Greek and Armenian merchants who vied for the court’s favour, and the King’s ear. He arrived in Burma in 1858 as an Assistant Surgeon in the British Army, but an informal appointment to tend to British interests in Mandalay set him on a different path. Williams impressed the reigning monarch, King Mindon, with his Burmese language ability, if not his surgical skills. When the British sought to appoint officially their first Political Agent in Upper Burma, Williams secured the post. A troubled history saw him fired within the year and replaced by Edward Sladen – the two men would sustain a long and bitter personal rivalry.  After a brief absence he returned to Mandalay as the town’s first representative of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. By 1872 he was based in Rangoon, where he operated as a businessman and middleman to the European commercial affairs of the Court (and was assisted by his nephew, Louis Allan Goss). Williams continued to act as a commercial agent to the Ava Crown after Mindon’s death in 1878, when Thibaw succeeded to the throne. His relationship with the new king was short-lived, however, as Williams died of typhoid, in 1879, on a return journey to England.

The paper trail left by Clement Williams suggests it was he, more than Goss, who led a life conducive to accumulating outstanding maps and photographs. In his account of an 1863 expedition he bemoans the loss of glass plates in the leaking hull of the steamer carrying him upriver from Mandalay to Bhamo, suggesting a serious pursuit of photography. And an interest in mapping fits easily with the very purpose of the expedition, to investigate the possibility of navigation on the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy, and trade possibilities with China.

Williams’ life is remarkable too for the way it exemplifies the close interweaving of British private and state interests, and the force of individual personalities, in the years preceding formal colonial annexation. It raises the question of whether, just possibly, the continued relationship of men like Williams with the Burmese Court might have allowed the monarchy, and Burmese sovereignty, to be maintained. Thanks to the care of Goss’ descendants and their donations to the Royal Ontario Museum, and now a collaboration between the ROM and the Cambridge MAA, we can look forward to soon hearing more about Clement Williams’ life story, and seeing more of the photography collection amassed by both uncle and nephew.

The Burmese cloth maps held by the University Library were exhibited at the brilliant Cambridge Festival of Ideas in 2013. When I first saw them there, I was drawn to them merely through a broader interest in the small collections of archives at Cambridge which relate to Burmese history. My research, on Prince Myingoon, one of Mindon’s renegade sons, bore no obvious connection to three massive maps lying for over a century in the University Library, but I soon found Myingoon’s life and antics did not lie far beyond them. Prince Myingoon spent most of his life in exile, first in India and then in French Indochina. He would have left Mandalay not long after the maps were acquired, and it is his exit, rather than his time in Mandalay, that he is best known for. He mounted a rebellion at the Court in 1866 but fled once his bid for power failed. Yet he is someone whose life, like that of Williams, begs the question of whether things might have worked out differently. He might have accepted an offer of the crown under British tutelage, or succeeded in securing French support to regain Mandalay through the Shan States. Instead he died in Saigon in 1921, dejected and in debt. With the reunification of Vietnam his grave was removed (like that of many others) and his remains have lain long forgotten in an indifferent reburial pit.

The maps and Myingoon have little to do with one another, but Williams would have been in Mandalay while Myingoon was still there. Sure enough, the search for the Prince now leads just as often to Clement Williams. I went looking for Prince Myingoon in another of Cambridge’s remarkable Burma-related repositories, the Scott Collection. Sir James George Scott’s long career as an administrator and author included posts overseeing the Shan States from the late 1880s. He would most certainly have had Myingoon’s troublesome partisans in his sights. His private papers are marvellous. The beautifully rounded script of Burmese correspondence jostles with missives from Shan Chiefs elaborately signed in trailing swirls of red ink. Added to the mix are Scott’s own pencilled summaries, unguarded jottings-to-self, and his own fine collection of indigenous maps

Shan signature from correspondence in the Scott Collection

Prince Myingoon, unfortunately, remains buried deep within Scott’s papers, but Clement Williams is there in plain sight. Receipts and notes held by Scott from the early 1870s relate to payments made by ‘Clement Williams of Bristol England, The Agent to HM the King of Burma’. They document Williams’ wholesale purchases of machinery on King Mindon’s behalf, as well as the transactions in gems undertaken to obtain them. Williams was back in Bristol in 1871 buying equipment for sugar refining, a full iron smelting plant, and a further twenty thousand pounds’ worth (no small sum) of unspecified ‘Machinery’ and ‘fire bricks’.  Williams’ buying trip overlapped with the diplomatic mission of Mindon’s Foreign Minister to Europe. Both parties clearly arrived weighed down with rubies. When Williams met with the Kinwun Mingyi in Sheffield in 1872, he relayed to the touring Minister the disappointing news that only 16 000 ‘coins’ could be obtained in sterling for one consignment of rubies, giving them less cash to spend than they had hoped. Another receipt records 25 000 rupees paid direct in rubies to a Bristol merchant, with both Clement Williams and Louis Allan Goss named as the King’s intermediaries in the transaction.

Williams appears again in another set of Burma papers, the Sladen Collection at the British Library. Edward Sladen, Her Majesty’s Resident in Upper Burma once Williams left the post, and Williams’ long-standing rival, wrote a dramatic eye witness account of Myingoon’s 1866 ‘Revolution at Mandalay’. Right when the Prince’s rebel band attacked and killed his uncle (who was favoured by Mindon for the succession), Sladen was with Williams in the Palace, in an audience with the King.

Sladen’s account describes how a distraught senior Queen whisked Mindon away, leaving Sladen and Williams with a group of the King’s officials as rebels overran the Palace. A group of rebels, swords drawn, scaled a partition into the chamber where they stood. The Englishmen, following the King’s officials, scarpered over another partition, only to drop down into a vestibule where more rebels were swarming “stupefied and frenzied by drink and excitement”. One of them “carried in his left hand the gory head of the Crown Prince who had just been murdered”. Sladen and Williams managed to exit the Palace, and after some days they were steaming downriver for Rangoon, with much of the European population of Mandalay. The Prince by then was travelling in the same direction, and the British steamer passed Myingoon’s craft at Magway. Sladen continued downriver, still fearful for his passengers’ safety. But a small skiff was sent across with the message that the Prince’s intentions were friendly and that he too was seeking refuge in British-occupied Burma. Sladen does not record a face-to-face encounter between Myingoon and Williams. The distance separating the two men, though, could be measured in the width of a Palace partition, in one severed head of separation, or in a steamer’s length on the Irrawaddy.

With so little information about what they were and how they ended up there, and distributed into a least three archival collections, the maps Goss donated to Cambridge and London archives became cut loose from their bearings, a particularly rich irony for a set of giant maps. Not only were they far from home, they were severed from their circumstances, from the long relationships or brief associations which put the items in Goss’ hands or prompted him to pass them on. An educated guess would indicate that the maps and photos came down from Williams to Goss, and that Goss then parcelled them out to different institutions as a result of encounters with various people who showed an interest. Cambridge was conducive to this process. It was small with a high concentration of interested scholars and archivists, and small libraries able to provide homes for curious objects. That this process spilled over to London is equally understandable.

This process applies to other archival objects, of course, as much as it does to Goss’ donations, even if some donors are more assiduous at labelling than others. When objects find their way into archival collections, a fog falls over the pathways that once connected them, over the conventions within which they were once understood, and over the force of individual personalities or the push and pull of human relationships. Goss left little to describe or explain what he donated or why. For George Scott’s part too, though, it takes some puzzling to work out how Clement Williams’ invoices, written out long before Scott arrived in Burma, ended up in his possession.

To lift a little fog from some of these pathways relies as much on chance encounters as it does on the concerted effort of delving back into archives. While writing this piece, I returned to the internet to check some details about Goss. I was distracted instead by the proliferation of sites, with the centenary of World War One upon us, telling stories of the men named on war memorials. There is a detailed account of Goss’ son, Edouard, who was one of those men. It says he died in the first day of fighting at the Somme, and that his name appears on war memorials in Bristol, Sevenoaks, and Rangoon. It mentions too the Cambridge address where he lived with his parents just before the war. In some senses Cambridge has not grown any larger over the years. A friend, it turns out, currently lives in the same house. Her children are now tapping the walls and floorboards, listening for hollow places that might hide that mislaid bag of rubies. Watch this space.

The Map Department is very grateful to Natasha for her support of and enthusiasm for these maps, and for her generosity in writing this blog post.

Note added by the Library on the digitisation of the three maps of parts of Burma on cloth:

Photographing the Burmese maps was quite a challenge for the Library’s Digital Content Unit. The smallest map was made of 126 images, the largest of 420 and it had to be stitched into 9 parts first before being put into one piece. Some parts of the process took a few hours to complete for the computer with 64 GB RAM memory and 3Ghz 8 core computer. The biggest challenge was obviously handling. It was impossible to move the map without changing the arrangement. Hence the last map, the largest [Maps.Ms.Plans.R.c.3] took a long time to prepare as they had to experiment with different stitching methods.



  • What an exciting story, thank you for your patience and the research which uncovered it.

    And to the library for being able to digitise that wonderful maps.

  • Valory
    Thank you, and yes, they are wonderful objects.

  • Pingback: Mapping the Maps at Cambridge University Library | Southeast Asia Library Group (SEALG)

  • I am very pleased to see this site revealing so much research.I am a direct descendent of Clement Williams and am on journey of finding my great, great grandmother, partner of Clement. Williams and Goss have contributed so much to exploration and this is recognised in their publications.However, I seek information on the family.Can anyone help me please?

    • Pam, thank you for your interesting comment. We’ll contact you directly to follow up. Anne (Head of Map Department)

    • Dr Carol Boshier

      Dear Pam,

      My name is Dr Carol Boshier and I am a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies. I have long been interested in your descendent- your great, great grandmother’s partner, Dr Clement Williams. I am writing a chapter on his journey in Upper Burma in 1863 for a study I am working on related on how the colonial state managed knowledge acquiredeived by private adventurers like Clement Williams. I must say, in everything that I have read about him, there has been no mention of partner so that is quite a mystery. Was she by any chance Italian, as Williams died in Italy en route to England in 1879? My interest was first piqued by Clement Williams when I read that his family came from Williton in Somerset not far from where I live. If by any chance you receive this message maybe you would like to get in touch and we could exchange information. Best Wishes, Carol

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