This fine sea chart depicts a large stretch of the western coasts of Madagascar, from St. Augustin’s Bay, in the south, all the way up to Cap Saint-André, a key point where the coastline abruptly turns northeastwards. The chart is highly detailed, featuring copious nautical information, including bathymetric soundings, the locations of ideal anchorages, and, importantly, the marking of the numerous deadly far offshore reefs and rocks. Curiously, in spite of the great detail provided in most areas, some stretches of the coast are shown to be completely unknown to Europeans, marked with tentative intermittent lines. A note below the title reads: ‘NB In Sailing along this shore one must be very Cautious as there are many Shoals whose Situation is unknown, even at a great distance from the coast.’
The western coast of Madagascar flanks the Mozambique Channel, which since the passage was traversed by Europeans for the first time by Vasco da Gama, in 1498, during the first European sea voyage to India around Africa, it has been one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. While sheltered from the open Indian Ocean, it was a very dangerous passage, as it featured difficult winds and currents, along with numerous especially tricky nautical hazards (many of which are noted on the present chart). Beyond that, it also left ships vulnerable to attacks by pirates or vessels of enemy nations; such that a lack of knowledge of the navigation ensured that one would become easy prey.
In particular, the chart labels several key anchorages favoured by European vessels, including St. Augustin’s Bay (Malagasy: Anantson̈o, widely considered to the most convenient natural harbour), Tullea Bay (modern Toliara), and Morondava, further to the north, which is detailed in a large inset chart that dominates the upper left corner of the sheet, ‘Plan of the Road and River of Moroundava, on the Western Coast of Madagascar’.
The present chart was issued during the 1790s, when Britain was engaged in an epic struggle against France for dominance over the Indian Ocean. Britain conquered the Seychelles from France in 1794, and, in 1810, captured both Mauritius and Réunion (although the latter of which would be retuned to France in 1814). At the same time, Britain worked to consolidate her dominance over the Indian Subcontinent, while expanding her presence in Southeast Asia from its bases at Georgetown (Penang, Malaysia) and Bencoolen (Bengkulu, Sumatra). Thus, the present chart, which provides vital information on the navigation along a major sailing route into the Indian Ocean, would have been invaluable.
Importantly, the present chart would still have been the authoritative chart of record of the bays during the period from 1816 to 1828, when Britain made an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to gain political suzerainty over Madagascar by backing the Merina ruler King Radama I in his bid to unite the entire island under his rule (which was largely successful). The Laurie & Whittle chart would not be superseded until the publication of Captain William Fitzwilliam Owen’s Chart of the South West Coast of Madagascar showing the Star Bank by the officers of HMS Leven and Barracouta under the direction of Captain W.F.W. Owen 1825 (London, 1827).
The present edition of the chart was issued by the leading chart-making firm of Robert Laurie & James Whittle, as part of their The East-India Pilot, or Oriental Navigator (London, 1797), the most influential atlas of African and Asian navigation of its generation. It is the second edition of the chart, the first having been issued by their predecessors in the business, Sayer & Bennett, in 1778.
Sayer & Bennett, in turn, derived the chart from Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Denis d’Après de Mannevillette’s Carte plate de la côte occidentale de l'isle de Madagascar depuis la baye de St. Augustin jusqu'au cap andré (Paris, 1775).
References: Cf. [Re: 1778 Sayer & Bennett ed.:] OCLC: 733624357.