Copper engraving (Good, strong engraving impression and full blank margins; a clean 10 cm tear entering image, but without loss and scarcely any effect upon the chart’s appearance, now closed from verso; a few small tears in blank margins, now closed from verso), sheet: 63.5 x 45.5 cm (25 x 18 inches); platemark: 59.5 x 37.5 cm (23.5 x 15 inches).
This very rare and fine sea chart depicts a track of the South China Sea, located between Sumatra and Borneo, focusing on the Karimata Islands. It is based on an original manuscript by John Powell, the Chief Mate of the HMS Osterly, a Royal Nay vessel that traversed these waters in 1758-9, during the Seven Years’ War. The chart was first published by William Herbert within the third edition of his very rare sea atlas, A New Directory of the East Indies (London, 1767).
While these waters lay near one of the world’s great shipping routes, which ran through the Strait of Sunda up through the South China Sea, connecting Europe with the Far East, the area was, until this time, not well charted. While the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had a fine knowledge of the seas between Sumatra and Borneo, its policies of cartographic secrecy ensured that their knowledge was generally omitted from printed maps. Indeed, during the era of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), when there was a spike in British maritime traffic in the region, the British found they possessed a very poor knowledge of this section of the South China Sea, let alone any useful charts.
The HMS Osterly, travelling to and from Canton, China in 1758-9 had occasion to traverse these waters, the tracks of which are delineated on the present chart. The vessel’s Chief Master, John Powell, drafted the first detailed British chart of the region. Fortunately, the Osterly’s voyage is well recorded, as Powell’s original log, running from December 30, 1757 to February 26, 1760, is today preserved in the National Archives U.K. (ADM 55/145).
The present chart represents a dramatic improvement upon all previous British knowledge of the area depicted, although it still shows that some confusion remained as to the location and naming of key features. The maps focuses on the island of ‘Tirematra, Billiton or Carimata’, which today we know to be Indonesia’s Karimata Islands, located just to the west of Borneo. The Karimatas are a volcanic group, heavily forested and surrounded by mangroves, with a high point reaching 3,281 feet. While Powell accurately charted the location of the islands, he was unsure as to their identity, possibly confusing them with another island, Billiton (Belitung), which is actually located well to the east-southeast of the Karimatas’ location, an immediately to the east of Banka Island.
Powell was apparently aware of his confusion, for to the southeast of the Karimatas, he notes the appearance of ‘Billiton or the Islands that surround it’. This ‘other’ Billition is actually well the to the east of the true location of Belitung. In spite of these misperceptions, his chart still represents a great leap forward in the British knowledge of this stretch of sea.
The top of the chart id graced with ten fine profile views of the islands, as observed by Powell.
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, and its increasing presence in the South China Sea, in particular.
The South China Sea lay along Asia’s busiest shipping lanes for centuries, being the main gateway from the West to the Far East. While Britain came to dominate these waters during the 19th Century, until the 1750s, Britannia was merely an ‘occasional visitor’ to the region. During the 16th and early 17th Centuries, the straits were dominated by Portugal. However, upon the Dutch East India Company’s conquest of the Portuguese base of Malacca, in 1641, the Dutch and their regional allies dominated the straits, even if the 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. 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 Singapore with little fear of repercussions.
Moreover, the British came to have new cause to traverse the South China with much greater frequency. 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 Singapore 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.
As already noted the present chart is predicated on the frontline mapping conducted by John Powell of the HMS Osterly during its tour in the South China Sea. William Herbert, who maintained privileged connections to many such mariners who had returned to London from Southeast Asia, drafted the present chart, first issued in 1767.
The present chart was considered to be an authoritative guide for navigation of the passage shown by the EIC and the Royal Navy for the critical period between 1767 and the 1790s, which 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, leaving the EIC with suzerainty over what is today mainland Malaysia and Singapore. From this time onwards, Britain had military control and commercial dominance over the South China Sea.
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. A second edition, 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 1767, Herbert published a greatly augmented and improved (third) edition of the New Directory, which included the first appearance of the present chart of the Karimata Islands.
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-1b, no. 14; M.HERB-1c, no. 14; M.HERB-1d, no. 47.