Medieval Borneo: The Great Java, 1290

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Author kaawai Category

Written by Arimi Sidek

Ever wonder what Borneo, the heartland of Kadayans, was called in western medieval records? Prior to it famous name, Borneo, was known as Java. It is Java Magna [Big Java Island] to be precise, while Java island known as Java minor [Small Java Island]. I used to have several softcopy references in the matter. Unfortunately, they were lost when my hard disk damaged recently. This is the only reference left, and I publish it here, so it will be well preserved in the Internet.

Catalan Atlas

Catalan Atlas


Borneo was referred to as Java the Great while today's Java was referred to as Java the Less by Mediaeval Europe cartographists.

In Ptolemy's map, the land east of the Golden Chersonese, the Malay Peninsula, is called Iavadiou, described as a land rich in gold and silver.

Hereford c. 1290 AD, in another medieval European map gives an interesting description of an island marked as Tile. The inscription about the island reads, "Insula omnibus bonis focunda - An island abounding in all good things." In the island a great mountain is marked as Mount Caucasus. However, many researchers believe that the island marked as Tile is indeed Borneo Island, and thus, Mount Caucasus referred to could actually be Mount Kinabalu.

Marco Polo and Odoric of Pordenone referred to Java the Great with description of the greatness of Brunei, which was at the height of its power in about 1300 AD. In late 1530 Portuguese maps such as the one published by Laurent Fries show Borneo as Java Major and today's Java as Java Minor.

Abraham Cresques of Majorca in the Catalans Atlas, a magnificent world map drawn for King Charles V of France in 1375, a reference is made to an island that could most probably be Borneo.

Details of the north west coast from Tanjong Sirik to the Klias peninsula are very well incorporated. The name given is Illa Iana with the inscription which reads "In this island of Iana are found many kinds of aloes, camphor and sandal, the galingale, nutmeg, trees of cinnamon, which is the most precious spice of the Indies, and there are found even mace and its leaves". This description matches the account of. Java the Great, and also because "Fana", "Iana" and "Iava" are all variants of Java. Interestingly, on the north west coast of the island is marked a city called Malao, the Malano of later English: referring to a race inhabiting the island, which is most probably Melanau of today. The production of camphor and reference to Java the Great identify ma Iana with Borneo.

The Fra Mauro map c. 1459 AD cites several important places in Borneo, particularly north west Borneo. Fra Mauro, a Benedictine monk who lived on the island of Murano at Venice, working as a cartographer produced many excellent maps. His masterpiece, the great world map measuring about 2 metres in diameter was a supreme achievement of mediaeval cartography. With regard to Giava Major, some important inscriptions are included such as "The port of the island is called Randan", which could possibly be today's Landak in Sarawak, once a thriving port.

Accompanying description states that "Throughout the whole of this island the bodies of the dead are cremated", which could possibly be referring to the Bidayuh who inhabit the First Division of Sarawak and practise cremation. Further north of Randan is a city named Giava, and the island Giava Major.

In the map of Albertin De Virga c. 1413 AD a large island is marked as "Caparu Sive lava magna" meaning "Caparu or Java the Great".

Source: Early names of Borneo. Headline. Tourism News Detail. Date Posted: 5/24/2004. Source: Daily Express, 23 May 2004. Accessed on 30 May 2004. http://www.sabahtourism.com/news/details.asp?newsid=1695

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