The Golden Khersonese by Paul Wheatley is a thorough and scholarly attempt at reconstructing the historical geography of the Malay Peninsula from the beginning of our era to circa A.D. 1500. The nature of the sources makes it necessary to examine numerous bits of information in different languages and to combine them into a consistent picture. All these different kinds of evidence require their own methods of interpretation. Wheatley has divided his book into two major parts. In the first, comprising about two-thirds of his work, he analyses all the different sources; in the second, he arrives at a synthesis: after collecting all the evidence on Langkasuka, Takola and Kedah he traces the history of the Peninsula culminating in the description of fifteenth-century Malacca.
The title, the “Golden Khersonese”, is derived from Ptolemy’s Geography, and is in fact the name by which he and his contemporaries referred to the Malay peninsula south of the latitude of Cape Tavoy. Even the most superficial student of Asian affairs cannot fail to appreciate that a peninsula so focally placed as this must have been subjected to many historical vicissitudes but, as the author points out, any scholar who seeks to reconstruct its early historical geography is beset by many problems which are largely unfamiliar to those of his fellows whose work is concentrated in the temperate occidental lands of Europe or North America.
Thus, for example, much of the physical evidence of settlement is quickly obliterated from the landscape by the ravages of climate, and the documentary records, which must inevitably provide the main sources of information, are scattered and fragmentary, and the task of unravelling and tying the appropriate threads together is immensely complicated by the number and diversity of languages in which these records are written. And indeed, owing to the many and wide variations which this last fact entails in the mere transliteration of ordinary vernacular names, the key to the early historical geography of such an area as this lies, as the author says, in the identification of place-names
Many detailed discussions, which would disturb the systematic treatment, are referred to not less than eleven appendixes. The work ends with a very full bibliography and an excellent index giving all the necessary cross-references. The value of Wheatley’s work is further enhanced by the addition of more than fifty excellently drawn maps which briefly summarize the author’s conclusions on the different aspects of his sources. This book will long remain the standard work on the historical geography of the Malay Peninsula and will prove an indispensable guide for all students of the history of South-East Asia.
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