Malaysian Island as Gulliver’s Lilliput

Was Lilliput, the fictitious island from the 1726 novel “Gulliver’s travels” by Jonathon Swift, based on the geographical location of Christmas Island? Dr Victor Purcell (1896 – 1965) seemed to think so.

MALAYSIAN ISLAND AS GULLIVER’S LILLIPUT

A curious fact about Christmas Island was mentioned by Dr. Victor Purcell M.C.S. in an address in Kuala Lumpur.

“Some years ago I happened to be looking at the first edition of “Gulliver’s Travels” which was first published in 1726″, he said.

“There was a map as a frontispiece. This map showed Lilliput and Blefuscu in precisely the same relation to Java, Sumatra, and the Straits of Sunda as Christmas Island bears in actuality. Australia too was in its right relative position.

“The latitude was indeed considerably out, but I don’t think they knew much about the latitude of these parts before the voyages of Captain Cook in the seventeen seventies.

“I thought this was a strange coincidence and tried to find out more. I then discovered that Swift based the geographical part of “Gulliver’s Travels” on Dampier’s ‘Voyages’ which were published earlier in the century. Dampier, as I knew, had visited Christmas Island (or Moni) in 1688.

There being no other island within hundreds of miles it seems certain that Swift placed Lilliput where Christmas Island is”.

“Source: The Straits Times 9 August 1940, page 10 © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reprinted with permission”.

Lilliput Map

The frontispiece map from the 1st Edition of Gulliver’s Travels

I did a little investigating of my own about the two islands shown on the map. Interestingly, in some early maps two islands were shown together in the vicinity of Christmas Island. It was speculated that either there was a mapping mistake (meaning one of them was in fact a phantom island and that two islands shown were in fact just the one) or that there was a geological event and one of the islands disappeared. A friend did suggest that there was a coral atoll near Christmas Island. To read more about the early mapping and naming of Christmas Island read the article on this page.

At the bottom right hand corner of the map you will see a V shape labelled “Dimens Land”. At the time of writing Gulliver’s Travels, the east coast of Australia had not yet been mapped but the south east portion of Tasmania (Van Dieman’s Land) had been. It was not known either at that time that Tasmania was in fact an island. It wouldn’t be mapped fully until circumnavigated by Flinders and Bass in 1798/99. The fact that “Dimens Land” is a part of Australia, although not in the right position, doesn’t really matter as we know that Swift mentioned real geographic locations to give authenticity to his illusionary places.