The Two Javas

Medieval Indonesia
Aug 18, 2017 · 10 min read

This piece is a brief discussion of the ‘two Javas’ problem in medieval European geographical texts. Europeans routinely confused Sumatra and Java and gave them similar names; over time new names were added and some of the earlier ones switched places. Disentangling these names is an important step in using medieval European texts as sources for Indonesian history or ethnography.


The ‘two Javas’ problem is one of the great place name mix-ups of the Middle Ages, one that seems to have its origins in the Arabic geographic texts that formed the basis of European and West Asian knowledge of the Indian Ocean before the sixteenth century. In European texts the mix-up went through several stages:

  • First, in the early fourteenth century, Java was known as ‘big Java’ and Sumatra was referred to as ‘little Java’ (or something similar).
  • Second, later in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, new names were applied to Sumatra as it became clear that ‘Java’ was not a local name for the island; some of these names derived from those of local kingdoms, while others were taken from classical texts.
  • Third, post-medieval post-Columbian exploration gave a finer-grained view of Indonesian geography than that allowed by travelers’ second-hand accounts. Medieval names were revised and some (like ‘Taprobana’) discarded entirely, except in poetic works.

In this post I’m going to look at the first two stages as these have the greatest implications for the use of these European accounts as sources on medieval Indonesia. I’m not seeking to be exhaustive here; there are more sources than the limited selection I’ve opted for, although the texts here are the main European accounts of Indonesia to have survived from the medieval period.

Western Indonesia: Sumatra’s the big island in the west, Java the longish one to Sumatra’s southeast. Note especially how much bigger Sumatra is than Java. I’ve included Sri Lanka here because it is involved in the confusion to a certain extent.
<De la menour ille de iana> — ‘of the smaller island of iana’. This must be Sumatra. National Library of Sweden M.304, page 148. (Pages are numbered individually in this ms.) c.1350

Big and Small Javas in the Polo Manuscripts

In the original manuscripts of the Devisement du Monde, the Old French text that describes Marco Polo’s travels from Italy to China and back again in the late thirteenth century, the island we call Java is referred to as the grant ille de iaua ‘the big island of Java’, contrasting with the ‘smaller island of Java’, the one we know as Sumatra (see this previous post). Sumatra is actually three times bigger than Java and there isn’t any local Indo-Malaysian basis for calling it ‘Java’, so the choice of these names is a strange one. Earlier Arabic texts are probably responsible for the choice, but whether they influenced the Polo texts directly or whether they shared the same folkloric sources on the Indian Ocean trade routes is unknown.

The Devisement’s ‘smaller island of Java’ is identified as Sumatra on the basis of the other place names Polo/Rustichello uses in describing the island; Malaiur (= Malayu or Melayu, on the southeast coast), Fansur (the Arabic name for Barus, on the northwest coast), and so forth. All these place names vary in the manuscripts: <iana> commonly replaces <jaua> (‘Java’) and <fausur> is often found in place of <fansur> (‘Barus’), presumably because of the similarity of form between <u> and <n> in some early fourteenth-century scripts. But in spite of the thicket of spelling variants, it seems clear that Polo is referring specifically to the island we know as Sumatra.

ylle de iana — ‘island of Java’. The minims and connectors are essentially the same for <u> and <n> in this script, so <iaua> often appears as <iana>. This affected later interpretations as well; Java certainly wasn’t consistently referred to as ‘iaua’ in medieval Europe. Polo/Rustichello’s Devisement. British Library, Royal MS 19 DI, f.122r. AD 1331.

Samara/Sumoltra/Symolua/Samudra/Sumatra

However, the Devisement manuscripts also use the name samara for one of the eight kingdoms supposedly found on the ‘little island of Java’. This is believed to have been a garbled form of samudra, the Sanskrit word for ‘ocean’ and the name of a prominent medieval Islamic state on the north coast of Sumatra also known as Pasai. Samudra is the origin of the name of Sumatra in English, Malay, and other languages, and if you’re not prepared for it then this can add to the confusion.

<…lautre roiaume qui a non samara…> — KB M.304, page 149. Written c.1350.

Similar names occur in other nearly contemporary texts, including the account of the travels of Odoric of Pordenone, an Italian monk who travelled to eastern Asia shortly after Polo. In modern translations of Odoric’s Latin text the name for Sumatra is consistently rendered as Sumoltra, but in reality the manuscripts record considerable variation in form. No true critical edition exists of Odoric’s text, but some of the variation can be seen in the manuscripts that have been digitized thus far:

‘symolua’ = Sumoltra? From an early (1330’s) Old French translation of the account of the travels of Odoric of Pordenone in British Library Royal MS 19 DI, f.141r.

Medieval European texts do therefore record the modern name of Sumatra in some form from the early fourteenth century, but the ‘two Javas’ trope persisted in spite of this — perhaps because samudra was the name of a polity and not the entire island at this point.

<kngr i smdr> “ke negeri Samudra” — ‘to the country of Samudra’. Hikayat Raja Pasai, a probably fourteenth-century Malay historical text preserved in much later manuscripts. Jawi script. British Library, Or. 14350, f.52v (Written 1797)

Niccolò de’ Conti, Poggio Bracciolini, and Classical Influence

The confusion was compounded in the fifteenth century as classical Greek and Latin labels were applied to Sumatra and some other Indonesian islands by European humanists. The ‘two Javas’ remained, but the names were applied inconsistently and others were mixed in.

The problems begin with the travels of Niccolò de’ Conti, a Venetian who lived and traded in various parts of the Indian Ocean with his Egyptian wife and children in the 1430s. Like some other fifteenth-century travellers, he lived as a Muslim — whether sincerely or as a ruse — and when he returned to Italy in 1444 he was made to recount his travels to the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini by the Pope as penance. Bracciolini was one of the humanist scholars of the fifteenth century and the re-discoverer of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, so it probably shouldn’t be surprising that he added some information of his own to Conti’s account while twisting it into a moral fable of changing fortunes. Conti’s travels were thus preserved for posterity in book IV of Bracciolini’s De Varietate Fortunæ (original manuscript completed 1448).

<ambe Iaua nomine> — ‘both called Java’. From a 1460 manuscript of Bracciolini’s DVF Liber IV. Vatican Urb. lat. 224, f.46r.

The resulting account repeats the ‘two Javas’ confusion but adds a new layer of complexity.

First, even though Conti stayed in Indonesia for several months, the ‘big’ and ‘little’ Javas are barely distinguished in his account. It is not absolutely clear when Conti/Bracciolini is discussing ‘big Java’ and when the ‘little’ one. However, in contrast to the Polo texts, Conti/Bracciolini probably means Java when the account refers to little Java. Second, as we’ll see in a moment, the account in De Varietate Fortunæ uses a wholly different name for Sumatra; it is clear that Sumatra is a different island from the ‘two Iauas’.

So which island is meant by ‘big Java’ in Conti/Bracciolini’s account?

Nobody is quite sure. Iaua Maioris is distinguished from the little one in line 302 of the French medievalist Michèle Guéret-Laferté’s 2004 critical edition of the work. There it is claimed that a species of bird without feet lives on the island, one valued for its skin quibus pro ornamento capitis utuntur ‘which is used to ornament the head’. This is problematic: the bird in question must be a bird of paradise (of the family Paradisaeidae), as the feet of birds of paradise were removed before they were traded west from New Guinea and Aru. Birds of paradise don’t live in Java, Sumatra, or anywhere in western Indonesia, though.

A king bird of paradise — traded without feet but with its delicate feathers intact. Image credit: Natalie Lawrence.

Nineteenth-century scholars — Wilhelm Heyd and Ivar Hallberg, for example — thought Conti’s ‘big Java’ could have been Borneo. Perhaps it was; Borneo is certainly a much bigger island than Java. No other identifying characteristics (aside from the inaccurate dimensions of the island) can be found in the text, however, so it’s a mystery.

Taprobane/Tapobrane

Sumatra is identified unambiguously in the Conti account: Bracciolini called it tapobrane. It is hard to believe the term is Conti’s; it isn’t a native Indo-Malaysian name for Sumatra or any island thereabouts and it’s unlikely that Conti himself had come across it before the 1440s. Instead, tapobrane comes from classical Greek and Roman geography, specifically Ptolemy’s Geographia. Geographia was a popular text in Bracciolini’s day, the full text having been translated into Latin as recently as 1406. It’s hardly surprising that Bracciolini took some toponyms from it and imposed them on Conti’s account.

<…tapobranes quae sciamutera eorum lingua dicitur…> — ‘Tapobrane, which in their language is called Sciamutera’. Vatican Urb. lat. 224. f.44r

Tapobrane is actually Bracciolini’s invention. In Ptolemy’s text as preserved in Byzantium the word was actually Taprobana (Ταπροβανᾶ, or similar), and originally it probably referred to Sri Lanka (perhaps derived from the Sanskrit tāmraparṇī ‘copper leaved’ or ‘copper coloured’). Bracciolini actually uses the name taprobana/e with that spelling in the preface to book IV, indicating the he knew it and what it referred to, but he decided to use a different spelling, Tapobrane, for the island of Sumatra (aka sciamutera). Copyists appear to have attempted to emend this confusion, resulting in even more variants in later manuscripts of De Varietate Fortunæ. It’s a bit of a mess.

Indeed, Sri Lanka also appears as a named place in Bracciolini’s 1448 autograph, but not as Taprobana or Tapobrane or anything like that. Instead, Bracciolini opted for saillana (line 108 in Guéret-Laferté’s critical edition), related/ancestral to Ceylon (and with an interesting etymology all of its own).

To summarize the relevant toponyms in De Varietate Fortunæ, then:

  1. ‘Little Java’: probably Java.
  2. ‘Big Java’: possibly Borneo?
  3. Tapobrane: Sumatra.
  4. Sciamutera: another name for Tapobrane.
  5. Taprobana: possibly Sri Lanka?
  6. Saillana: certainly Sri Lanka.

Conti and the Fra Mauro Mappa Mundi

Niccolò de’ Conti was also an informant on another Italian geographical project: the Fra Mauro mappa mundi, a map of the world created in Venice around 1450. The map is annotated in vernacular Venetian/Italian instead of the Latin Bracciolini used, and for this reason the toponyms appear more accurate than those in De Varietate Fortunæ: e.g. instead of Iaua the map has GIAVA. I suspect this more accurately reflects Conti’s pronunciation of the word, and it may have helped that he was talking to a compatriot in a more familiar language.

<Jxola giana minō GIAVA> — ‘the small island of Giava’. From the compact disc version of the Fra Mauro map in Piero Falchetta’s 2006 critical edition.
<Jxola giaua maȝor… GIAVA> — ‘the big island of Giava’. Also from the CD version.

This Giava is the first attempted depiction of the island of Java on any European map — but, again, there are two Giavas, one big and one small. The map is oriented south-up, and Big Giava is located further north than Little Java; neither island can be conclusively identified from the map. The map explicitly says, in fact, that there were so many rich and interesting islands and so many conflicting names given for this part of the world that it wasn’t possible to include them all:

In fact the Indo-Malaysian archipelago as depicted on the map is a mess. Eastern Indonesian islands like Bandan (Banda) are presented as being further west than Java and Sumatra. Several names are given for seemingly non-existent islands like Sondai, apparently the source of some spices — nobody has been able to satisfactorily identify the place, and it may also have come in garbled form from Ptolemy. Sumatra is given as Taprobana or Siamotra, each similar (but not identical) to its counterpart in Bracciolini’s text.

This map wouldn’t have been very useful for navigators travelling in Indonesia at the time, but of course that isn’t what it was for. Travelers generally relied on local pilots. Nevertheless, the picture presented in the Fra Mauro map is wildly inaccurate in spite of Conti’s involvement.

Later Influence

The influence of the ‘two Javas’ can be seen in some rather late texts and atlases, as for example in Johne Rotz’s Boke of Idrography (c.1535–1542):

Lytil Jaua = ‘Little Java’. From Rotz’s Boke of Idrography (BL Royal MS 20 E IX, f.9v). ~1540. A late example of essentially medieval geographical understanding mixed in with some accurate geographical outlines.

In Rotz’s Boke Sumatra is clearly outlined and labelled — there is no ambiguity as to which island is being represented. It is, however, still called Taprobana. By the 1530s, Melaka had been in Portuguese hands for two decades and several expeditions had been sent east to the Moluccas and Timor. Moreover, the survivors of the Magellan expedition had arrived in Indonesia from the east, coming across the Pacific Ocean. The archipelago was becoming both more important to European interests and better known to European geographers. And yet medieval precedents were still being followed in presenting the region’s geography. There’s no question that Rotz’s maps were more accurate than Fra Mauro’s, but it seems to have taken some time for the toponyms to catch up to the cartography.


The geographical ambiguity present in early European texts means that they can’t be used to give firm conclusions about the specific circumstances of individual islands or polities in the period before the sixteenth century. It matters a great deal whether an account refers to Java, Sumatra, or Borneo, and in some important cases these places aren’t differentiated, or at least aren’t distinguished well enough for use as historical sources.

The European sources have two uses: 1) They can give some general information about food, religion, and mores in island Southeast Asia generally, as opposed to specific information about life and politics in individual islands and kingdoms. The accounts of Polo, Odoric, and Conti aren’t fine-grained enough for that. 2) They tell us roughly what educated Europeans might have known about island Southeast Asia when the texts were written, and tracking the variants in different manuscripts can help to understand how toponyms and geographical knowledge were transmitted across Europe in the Middle Ages. This isn’t particularly useful for the study of pre-colonial Indonesia, however (although it’s not uninteresting in itself).

I’ll have more to say about these sources in future — they’re significantly more interesting for their weird titbits of information about life and times than for their feeble geography — but it’s important to have a grounding in just where in the world the accounts are supposed to be about before attempting to grapple with the details.


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Medieval Indonesia

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Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.

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