Once upon a time, in the 15th and 16th centuries, there was a dragon. Or at least the tail of one. In world maps produced during the early era of the Age of Discovery, Southeast Asia was depicted as a long, peninsula dragon’s tail jutting southwest into the Indian Ocean toward Africa. As with most geographic inaccuracies of the time, it continued to be reproduced this way despite lack of actual evidence for such a shape or size, until navigators finally charted the area and realized that it did not resemble any appendage of a dragon.
Here is one example:
This map of the world was made by German cartographer Henricus Martellus Germanus, or Martellus for short, in 1489 or 1490, just before America was discovered by Europeans. The feature that stands out the most is the southern end of Africa, which had been circumnavigated by Portuguese explorers in the previous decades. Still figuring out exactly how to fit this revised shape of Africa into the map, Martellus chose to let the Cape of Good Hope actually cut into the border of the map itself. Now look across the sea, on the other side of the banner for the Indian Ocean, and there’s a long, crooked peninsula descending from China: The Dragon’s Tail.
Where did the Dragon’s Tail come from? Well, before the 15th century, many cartographers, going back to Ptolemy in the second century AD, guessed that Africa in fact curved all the way across the Indian Ocean to the Southeast tip of Asia, forming a vast inland sea. Below is one example of the supposed land bridge between Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, from a reproduction of Ptolemy’s world map in the 15th century.
Once explorers determined that Africa was in fact surrounded by ocean in the South and East, they cut off the land bridge but kept the part of it jutting off from Asia, like the vestigial tail of a dragon. It came to be known as the “dragon’s tail”, and it remained that way on maps for decades, until explorers finally found their way there and learned the true shape of the land.
Here is how Southeast Asia looks in real life, a bit far removed from the imagined dragon’s tail:
Rather than curving westerward like the dragon’s tail, the southernmost peninsula (where Thailand and Malaysia are) actually curves to the east. Meanwhile, the sizable islands of Java, Sumatra, and Borneo were missing completely from Martellus map, even though Marco Polo had mentioned some of the locations on these islands in his travelogue from the 13th century. In the early decades of the 16th century, though, this area of the map was more accurately charted thanks to expeditions by Magellan and others, and the fictitious dragon’s tail was finally laid to rest.
For more information on this, check out “Early Mapping of Southeast Asia: The Epic Story of Seafarers, Adventurers, and Cartographers Who First Mapped the Regions Between China and India”, by Thomas Suarez, published in 1999 by Tuttle Publishing.