This fine, separately-issued map is the first edition of the first printed map of the island of São Tométo have been predicated upon a systematic trigonometric survey, conducted by Gago Coutinho, who later became famous as an aviator for leading the first flight across the South Atlantic Ocean. The map was published by the Portuguese Comissão de Cartografia in Lisbon, in 1922.
São Tomé is an 854 km2 (330 sq mi) island, about 48 by 32 km in dimension, that lies on the Equator in the Bight of Bonny, off of the coast of West Africa. Today, it is the dominant part of the independent nation of São Tomé and Príncipe. The Portuguese first settled São Tomé in 1493, with many of its early settlers being Jews, fleeing the Inquisition in Iberia. São Tomé’s rich volcanic soil supported a thriving sugar economy, while the island became a major entrepôt for slaves, between West Africa and the Americas. In the 19th Century, following the collapse of the ignoble industry of slavery, the island’s economy shifted to the cultivation of coffee and cacao. Soon private plantations, or roças, took up most of São Tomé’s arable land. By 1908, the island was the world’s largest producer of cocoa, which remains the leading industry to this day. São Tomé and Príncipe remained a Portuguese colony until it achieved its independence in 1975.
Returning to the present map, it provides an extremely detailed and scientifically precise rendering of the island for the very first time, the result of exacting trigonometric surveys conducted between 1916 and 1918 by Gaga Coutinho. The coastlines of the island are exactingly demarcated, as is São Tomé’s extremely rugged topography, with points of elevation expressed by contour lines at 100 metres intervals, with the names and elevations of all major peaks given. All villages are labelled, roads are delineated, as is the island’s sole rail line. Of interest, all of the major roças are marked and named. Also noted by triangles, are Coutinho’s numerous trigonometric surveying base-points. The composition is completed by an inset map (lower right), depicting the island’s capital and main port, ‘Plano da Baía de Ãna Chaves’.
Gago Coutinho: Pioneering Surveyor and Aviator
Carlos Viegas Gago Coutinho (1869 – 1959), popularly known simple as ‘Gago Coutinho’ was an eventful and fascinating figure. He was born into a poor family in Belém, Lisbon, and could not afford to go to engineering school (his early dream), so entered the Portuguese Navy at the age of 17. He subsequently served on many ships, sailing all over the world. In 1898, he commenced his career as a surveyor in East Timor, impressing his superiors with has natural talent and his painstaking attention to detail. He subsequently conducted advanced trigonometric surveys of parts of Angola and Mozambique. Importantly, his exacting demarcation of the Angola-Belgian Congo border was accepted as definitive by both sides, so ending a long-running boundary dispute.
In 1916, Coutinho was placed in charge of the mission to survey São Tomé and Príncipe. The hitherto best map of São Tomé was António Augusto Oliveira’s Carta da Ilha de São Tomé (Lisbon, 1885), which while giving a fine impression of the overall topography of the island and its cultivated areas, it fell far short of being a systematic scientific survey. Coutinho applied the most advanced triangulated techniques to map the island, resulting in the present map.
From 1920, Coutinho turned his energies to aviation, which was then an incipient field. He invented an ingenious new type of sextant to be used by aviators that worked on the ‘Sistema Gago Coutinho’, later marketed by the German firm of Plath. In 1921, he tested the sextant on a pioneering air voyage between Lisbon and Madeira.
Famously, in 1922, Coutinho and his colleague, Sacadura Cabral, completed the first flight across the South Atlantic, flying from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. To be clear, the flight was not similar in nature to Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo, non-stop flight across the North Atlantic. Coutinho and Cabral’s trip was made by seaplane, which stopped on several occasions along the way, to be refuelled by supply ship. That being said, the flight was a spectacular achievement that gained worldwide news headlines. Coutinho became a hero in both Portugal and Brazil.
The present map is a landmark in the cartography of Portuguese Africa, and rarely appears on the market.
References: Biblioteca do Exército (Lisboa): B6VC-CL30/2 IGeoE.