Copper engraving, with contemporary pastedown overlaid manuscript title in pen and manuscript additions in pencil to the chart (Good, fine engraving impression, but with light stains throughout, traces of old purple mounting paper on verso where chart was seemingly once pasted into an album), 20.5 x 41.5 cm (8 x 16.5 inches).
This is a unique example of an extremely rare privately printed sea chart of South Africa, featuring manuscript alterations that give it an extraordinary Australian connection. The underlying (printed) chart depicts most of the southern coasts of South Africa in skeleton outline, labeling only the major headlands, from the Cape of Good Hope westward to the ‘Last Point of Natal’, while a line in the interior represents the beginning of the highlands. The course of the Agulhas Current, a powerful warm stream that runs southwestwards down the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa, is expressed through stipple engraving, a highly unusual technique for a sea chart. While covered by a pastedown manuscript title, the underlying printed title of the chart reads ‘Track of the Ship Hannah John Lamb R. N. Commander Round the Cape of Good Hope in June & July 1822’, and in this vain, the Hannah’s arduous course sailing against the Agulhas Current is shown, tacking erratically back and forth, but overall forward, with numbers marking its daily progress.
This underlying chart was privately printed, likely in London, in 1823, for Captain John Lamb (1790 - 1862), a former Royal Naval officer who retired on half-pay, in 1814, in order to pursue a career in the merchant marine. For some years, Lamb worked for the firm of Buckles, Bagster & Buchanan as the master of several ships, one of which was the Hannah, ferrying convicts and cargo between England and Australia. Lamb eventually settled in Sydney, founding his own firm, and becoming immensely wealthy through the shipping and wool trades.
The printed chart is extremely rare, we can only trace a sales record for a single example; and can find no references whatsoever to the chart beyond that. It was evidently issued in a very small print run, likely as a memento for John Lamb and his crew.
The Australian Connection
This present example of the chart had been contemporarily altered in a way that makes it unique and intriguing. Pasted over the original printed title is a pastedown slip bearing the manuscript title, “Track of the H.M.S. Tamer round the Cape of Good Hope”, while, on the chart proper, are manuscript lines in pencil of the course of another ship departing from the tracks of the Hannah, heading northeastwards, closer to the coasts of Natal.
The manuscript alterations to the chart refer to the H.M.S. Tamar (‘Tamer’ was then a common alternative spelling for ‘Tamar’), a Royal Navy ship that in 1824 was traversing the Cape of Good Hope while on a top-secret mission to found the first British settlement in what is today Northern Australia.
Britain had, by 1814, upon the end of the Napoleonic Wars, utterly vanquished France and her Dutch puppet-state, the Batavian Republic. For some time thereafter, Britannia’s dominance over the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia seemed quite secure. However, by the early 1820s, the newly reconstituted Kingdom of the Netherlands had rebounded from its previous misfortunes. The Dutch were aggressively expanding their presence throughout the Indonesian Archipelago, parts of which were only a relatively short distance across the Timor Sea from the northern reaches of Australia. It is important to note that, at that time, in Australia, Britain only had a physical presence in what are today New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania. She had no credible claim to possession of the rest of the subcontinent, which was, in theory ‘up for grabs’ by any rival power.
Whitehall’s spies began to hear unsettling rumours of a Dutch plan to found a base somewhere in Northern Australia, supposedly in order to create a wider perimeter of influence around Indonesia, and the adjacent sea routes. The East India Company was particularly alarmed and lobbied Whitehall hard, in order to forestall any Dutch expansion into Australia. Robert Lord Dundas, the First Lord of the Admiralty, decided to act, without delay.
At the beginning of 1824, Dundas dispatched Captain James Gordon Bremer (1785 - 1850) on a top-secret mission to Australia. Bremer’ was a highly skilled officer, who would later distinguish himself in the First Anglo-Brumes War and would, in 1841, famously accept the surrender of Hong Kong from China, as the British Commander-in-Chief during the First Opium War. Bremer’s objective was to establish a permanent and effective trading base on either the Melville or Bathurst islands, which are located off of the far northern coast of what is today Australia’s Northern Territory.
In February 1824, Bremer set out from England aboard the H.M.S. Tamar, a 26-gun Conway class sixth rate, which had been built in 1814. The Tamar then proceeded southwards, towards the Cape of Good Hope.
Importantly, the present chart’s marking of the route of the “H.M.S. Tamer” refers to the H.M.S. Tamar’s rounding of the Cape on this mission. Apparently, a member of Bremer’s party had acquired an example of Lamb’s chart before leaving England, and then modified it to show the course of the Tamar, as shown here. While it is unlikely that the Tamar followed the exact course as the Hannah around the Cape, the basic point still remains, that the Tamar had a difficult time battling the Agulhas Current, before pulling northeast, up the Natal coast, and then on its way towards Australia. Not only do the dates ‘work’, but Bremer’s sailing from England to Australia in 1824 was the only time that the Tamar was known to ever traverse the Cape of Good Hope sailing eastwards.
From the South Africa, the Tamar, made its way to port Jackson (Sydney), where it re-victualed and set out for Northern Australia on August 24, 1824, accompanied by two support vessels. The Tamar arrived at Melville Island, and after scouting locations, on September 27, 1824, immediately commenced construction of Fort Dundas. Completed on Trafalgar Day (October 21), the fort became the first British settlement in Northern Australia.
For some time, all efforts were made to keep Fort Dundas a secret, as Whitehall did not want to alert the Dutch until they were confident of the settlement’s permanency and the British claim to Northern Australia. However, the secret proved difficult to keep.
For instance, a missive in the ‘Newspaper Rumours’ of the January 1825 edition of The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany, reads:
“The sailing of H.M.S. Tamar, in February last, with sealed orders, was occasioned by the determination of the Government to colonize Melville Island, in the gulph of Carpentaria. – An apprehensions entertained in the best quarters that the Dutch have been beforehand with us, in occupying the port of New Holland, nearest to the Indian Islands, which we had in in view to colonizing for commercial purposes.”
However, Fort Dundas proved to be an unsuitable location for a British base. It had a harsh, disease-prone climate, the indigenous peoples were unwelcoming, and it was far too distant from shipping lanes to be useful for trade, or to be efficiently re-supplied. By 1828, the fort was abandoned. Lord Kintore, the Governor of South Australia, later remarked that Bremer’s choice for the location of Fort Dundas was perplexing, an obvious error that was “never satisfactorily explained”.
That being said, Fort Dundas still had the distinction of being the first British settlement in Northern Australia. Two other unsuccessful attempts were made to create an outpost in Northern Australia before the first successful and permanent venture, Palmerton, was founded in 1869. Palmerton was later renamed Darwin, and today serves as the capital of Northern Australia.
In summary, the present chart demonstrates the interconnectedness of the British Empire during the early 19th Century, especially with respect to maritime operations. In this way, a chart of South Africa was transformed into a piece of Australiana!
References: N / A – Unrecorded. Cf. [On historical background:] John Connor, The Australian Frontier Wars, 1788-1838 (2002), pp. 68-83; The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany, vol. 19 (January 1825), p. 212.