This fine sea chart is, importantly, the first broadly accurate British chart of the southwestern coast of Sumatra, which was then an important centre for British trade, being home to the East India Company (EIC) base of Bencoolen-Fort Marlborough (modern Bengkulu, Indonesia), then the only permanent British settlement in Southeast Asia. The chart was first published by William Herbert, within the first edition of his important sea atlas of oriental navigation, A New Directory of the East Indies (London, 1758). The chart is quite detailed, providing copious navigational information, including bathymetric soundings and the locations of hazards, as well as fine renderings of the coastlines, labeling major inlets, headlands and towns, as well as key landmarks that could be used to orient mariners.
The chart captures the coasts of Sumatra from a point just to the north of Padang, and then all the way southeastwards to the mouth of the Straits of Sunda, which divided Sumatra from Java, being one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, as one of only two maritime gateways from the Indian Ocean to the Far East (the other being the Straits of Malacca).
The focal point of the chart, located about two-thirds of the way down the coast, is Benccolen and Fort Marlborough (the citadel of which is shown here in outline). In 1758, Bencoolen-Fort Marlborough had the distinction of being the British East India Company’s only permanent base in Southeast Asia. Bencoolen was taken over by the EIC in 1685, ostensibly as an entrepôt for the pepper trade. It survived for 140 years as a lone British base in a region dominated by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and powerful local sultanates. In 1714, to shore up its position in Bencoolen, the EIC constructed Fort Marlborough, a strong stone citadel that still survives to this day. While the EIC failed to gain a significant share of the VOC-dominate pepper market, Bencoolen nevertheless remained and important centre for British trade.
In 1760, during the Seven Years’ War, and just after the present chart was published, Bencoolen came to the fore, when it was captured and ransomed by the French admiral, Charles Hector, Comte d’Estaing. The base was soon retuned to the EIC, and remained a British possession until 1825, when it was surrendered to the Netherlands, in exchange for the EIC gaining possession of Malacca (Malaysia).
The large inset that dominates the upper right corner of the chart, within an elegant rococo-style border, depicts Ratt Island, an atoll that functioned to guard the sea road to Bencoolen, but could also prove a deadly hazard to those unaware of its location.
Historical Context: Britain’s Rise in Southeast Asia & the Far East
The present chart is a manifestation of the rise of British power in Southeast Asia and the Far East during the second-half of the 18th Century. It would have been especially important to the EIC’s mariners, as it was, in its time, by far and away the best navigational guide for sailing to and from Bencoolen and from there, through the Sunda Straits, to the Far East.
While Britain came to dominate trade in much of Southeast Asia and the Far East during the 19th Century, until the 1750s, the Britain was generally only an ‘occasional visitor’ to the region. During the 16th Century, East Indies was dominated by Portugal. However, upon the VOC’s foundation of Batavia, Java (Jakarta), in 1619, and its conquest of the Portuguese base of Malacca, in 1641, the Dutch and their regional allies, dominated Southeast Asia, even if its waters were still traversed by vessels of many nations.
The English (later British) East India Company (founded 1600), which had a monopoly on all British trade with Asia beyond the Levant, briefly contested Dutch hegemony in the Spice Islands during the 1610s and 1620s, but for generations thereafter, it was prevented from maintaining any permanent bases in Southeast Asia and the Far East, save for Bencoolen-Fort Marlborough. British trading voyages through the South China Sea were relatively few and far between and, thus, there were scarcely any serious British efforts to chart the straits and related waters. Moreover, the EIC did not have any organised system for preserving and dissemination of the hydrographical intelligence that their mariners may have acquired, such that much valuable charting was lost to enduring practical use.
The period of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) marked a turning point for British fortunes in Asia. Britain supplanted France as the dominant maritime power in the Indian Ocean, leaving her free to expand her influence eastwards. The Netherlands was by this time a declining power, and was in no position to directly confront the Royal Navy. The British were now free to navigate (and presumably chart) the Straits of Malacca and Sunda Straits with little fear of repercussions.
Moreover, the British came to have new cause to open trading routes through the Sunda and Malacca straits. In 1757, after decades of foreign pressure, China finally agreed to implement what became called the ‘Canton System’, by which European powers could maintain permanent factories near the port of Canton, from which they could access the massive Chinese market via the Cohong (a special Chinese monopoly of merchants). The EIC quickly became by far and away the greatest beneficiary of this arrangement and shipping between India and Canton, through the Malacca and Sunda Straits, sky-rocketed. Additionally, from 1762 to 1764, the British occupied Manila, Philippines (which they had seized from Spain), which further increased British shipping through the South China Sea.
The present chart was considered to be an authoritative guide for navigation of the roads to and from Bencoolen, and into the Sunda Straits for the vessels of the EIC and the Royal Navy during the critical period from 1758 until the 1790s. This period saw the saw the ascendency of British trade and power in the Southeast Asia and the Far East. Even though the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) had been a disaster for Britain in North America, during the same period, she actually gained the upper hand over her French and Dutch antagonists in Asia. The EIC’s founding of George Town (Penang) in 1786, gave Britain here fist enduring permanent base of significance in Southeast Asia. During the era of the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815), Britain’s Royal Navy supplanted Dutch maritime power in the East Indies and, in particular, gained control over the much the navigation of the South China Sea. This was consolidated during the British occupation of Malacca between 1811 and 1815.
Following the war, the British founded Singapore in 1819, which eventually became Southeast Asia’s busiest commercial port. In 1825, the Netherlands ceded all of her territories in Malaya to Britain (in exchange for Bencoolen-Fort Marlborough), leaving the EIC with suzerainty over what is today mainland Malaysia and Singapore; and the Netherlands over much of coastal Sumatra. From this time onwards, Britain had military control and commercial dominance over the South China Sea, while the Netherlands consolidated here regional control over the Indonesian Archipelago.
William Herbert & The New Directory of the East Indies
During most of the first half of the 18th Century, the East India Company had no organised system for compiling and disseminating, let alone publishing sea charts and sailing directions. Since the death of John Thornton, their energetic official hydrographer, in 1708, hydrographic intelligence gathering had become chaotic, as good manuscript charts made by captains in Asia were often used only episodically before being lost or consigned to some archive, potentially never to be seen again. Very few decent charts of Asian waters were published in Britain, and EIC captains often had to sail to India and beyond with faulty and, in some cases, dangerously inaccurate maps. By the 1750s, the toll of ships lost due to navigational errors was driving up insurance premiums, let alone the cost in blood and treasure.
In 1754, the EIC supported William Herbert in a grand endeavour to gather the best available hydrographic intelligence towards publishing charts of unprecedented accuracy of Asian and African navigation. This represented a great leap forward in the preservation and dissemination of maritime cartography by the EIC.
William Herbert (1718–95) was an English bookseller who had spent the years 1738 to 1745 in India in the employ of the British East India Company (EIC). While there, he gained an impressive knowledge of the geography and hydrography of the Indian Ocean and South and Southeast Asia. Following his return to London, he established a print and map-selling business at ‘the Globe under the Piazzas, London Bridge’. Herbert was well aware that the established authoritative English sea atlas of the African and Asian navigation, John Thornton’s The English Pilot. The Third Book (London, first issued in 1703, and since in various editions, latterly by the firm of Mount & Page) was, by his time, dangerously out of date. The EIC and the Royal Navy had a desperate need for a more progressive, reliable atlas of these waters.
Herbert resolved to create a new, improved atlas, carefully selecting the best sources from unpublished manuscript charts in British archives, as well as the most progressive foreign printed sources, such charts from the first edition of Jean-Baptiste d’Après de Mannevillette’s Le Neptune Oriental (1745). Herbert issued the first edition of his atlas, A New Directory of the East Indies (London, 1758), which featured 30 charts.
Herbert’s present chart of the Southwestern Sumatra first appeared in this first edition of his atlas and was directly based upon Mannevillette’s Carte de la Cote occidentale de l'Isle de Sumatra (1745), although the inset chart of Ratt Island is new addition. The chart then appeared in all of the subsequent five editions of A New Directory, produced up to 1787.
A second edition of A New Directory, expanded to include 48 maps, was issued in 1759. However, later that same year, Herbert suffered a setback when his shop burned down, so delaying the issue of the subsequent editions of the atlas.
The forced hiatus turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Herbert, freed of the daily grind of managing a publishing shop, was able to dedicate more time to his sources. He discovered new caches of charts and worked closely with the rising star of the EIC, Alexander Dalrymple, who would subsequently go to print many great charts of the Asian waters, eventually becoming the official hydrographer to the EIC. In 1764, Herbert entered into a fruitful collaboration with William Nichelson, a mariner and excellent cartographer who had returned from six years’ service in India and Africa with his own magnificent manuscript charts, notably including the 18th Century’s finest chart of Bombay Harbour.
In 1776, a fourth edition of the New Directory was issued, which was expanded to include 136 charts. Herbert retired later that year, and his work was continued by his successors, Henry Gregory I & Henry Gregory II and the latter’s partners, who issued follow up editions of A New Directory in 1780 (as dated, but actually issued in 1781) and 1787.
The New Directory was highly regarded during its time and played an important role in both commercial and military navigation during a critical period of British expansion in Asia. That being said, is seems that the atlas was reserved for the use of professional mariners and pilots, and was never issued in mass production. As the atlases were thus heavily used at sea, very few examples of any of the editions have survived, accounting for the great rarity of charts today. A New Directory heavily influenced the atlas published by Robert Sayer & John Bennett, The East India Pilot, or Oriental Navigator (London, 1777-82), as well those issued by their successors, Robert Laurie & James Whittle.
Importantly, Herbert’s New Directory represented the first step towards the EIC’s formal organization of institutions to collect, manage and disseminate hydrographic intelligence. It laid the foundation for Alexander Dalrymple’s endeavours, which included the publication of over 400 excellent charts of Asian and African waters, and the development of an active and organised EIC Hydrographic Office. In turn, the success of the Company’s hydrographic enterprise was one of the leading factors that convinced Britain’s Admiralty to found their own Hydrographic Office, in 1795, an organization that would revolutionize maritime cartography throughout the world.
A Note on Rarity
The present chart is very rare. There are only a handful of institutional examples (within atlases or otherwise), and we are ware of only a single appearance of another example on the market during the last generation.
References: Shirley, Maps in the Atlases of the British Library, vol. 2, M.Herb-1a, no. 19.