This beautifully engraved sea chart embraces a great expanse of the Indian Ocean within a triangle extending from Northeast Madagascar up to the Seychelles, and then over to the southern tip of the Maldives, in between containing the Mascarene Islands, notably Mauritius and Réunion. Overall, the placement of the islands and nautical features are impressively accurate for the time, accounting for the abstraction created by the projection on which is noted “the distances of places are measured as in a Mercator’s Chart.”
The chart was issued in 1780, during a period in which this expanse of sea and islands occupied a critical role in global geo-politics. This part of the Indian Ocean was the scene of an epic naval contest between Britain and France, as part of the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), a worldwide conflict known regionally as the Anglo-Maratha War (1775-82). It also lay upon one of the world’s prime shipping routes, connecting Europe with Asia and, as such, was one of the great haunts for pirates. Although European navies had suppressed much of the piracy over the decades previous, it was still not unusual for a merchant ship on the India trade to be relieved of its precious cargo.
Northeastern Madagascar appears in the lower-left of the chart, including ‘I. St. Mary’ (Île Sainte-Marie, Malagasy: Nosi Boraha), which in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries had been the world’s leading pirate base. Since then, its fine natural harbour remained of interest to mariners as a re-victualling base, watched with caution by European naval powers, lest it, once again, became a haunt for corsairs.
To the southeast are the Mascarene Islands, most importantly ‘Bourbon I.’ (Réunion) and Mauritius, important stopovers for shipping between Europe and Asia. Réunion was settled by the French East India Company in 1665, while Mauritius had come under the Company’s auspices in 1715. By the time that this chart was issued, both islands had become home to globally important sugar economies. France spent vast resources protecting the islands from being taken by Britain’s Royal Navy. Both islands would eventually be seized by Britain in 1810 (with Réunion being returned to France; while Mauritius was permanently retained by Britain).
To the northeast of Madagascar are the ‘Maha or Seychelle Isles’ (Seychelles), which were first settled by France in 1756. The tropical paradise would remain in French possession until being taken and permanently retained by Britain in 1794.
In the upper-right of the chart are the southern atolls of the Maldives, marking the approaches to the Indian Subcontinent, the ultimate destination of much of the shipping in the region.
The other features on the map can mostly be considered either navigational hazards or emergency stopover points for European vessels. These include ‘Sable or Sandy I.’, today known as Tromelin Island, a tiny islet that, in 1776, saw the rescue of a party of Malagasy survivors of a shipwreck, having been marooned on the island for 15 years.
Just to the northeast, are marked the 1773 tracks of a French frigate traversing the ‘Nazareth Shoals’.
Elsewhere, are atolls such as the Chagos Islands and Diego Garcia, long lethal hazards to shipping. Their location is accurately marked on the present chart.
The experience of James Horsburgh (1762 – 1836), a Bombay-based sea captain, who later became one of the world’s great hydrographers, illustrates the practical value of the present chart. In May 1786, when Horsburgh was serving as the first mate of the Atlas, sailing en route from Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia) to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), due to inaccurate navigation, the ship grossly overshot its mark and was shipwrecked upon Diego Garcia. As Horburgh recalled: “The charts on board were very erroneous in the delineation of the Chagos Islands and Banks, and the commander, trusting too much to dead reckoning”. Evidently, the Atlas’ crew did not have a copy of the present chart, in which case they would have avoided such a catastrophe. However, the mishap had an upside. The experience caused Horsburgh to dedicate the rest of his life to making accurate sea charts of Asian waters. He proved to be so virtuously talented at this calling, that his charts ended up saving thousands of lives.
Henry Gregory & Son, a Critical Link in the Ascendency of British Chart Making
The present chart was produced for the father and son partnership of Henry Gregory I and Henry Gregory II, boutique instrument and chart-makers that maintained a special interest in Oriental navigation. Most notably, the present chart first appeared within the firth (1780) edition of the sea atlas of Oriental navigation, A New Directory of the East Indies, first devised and published by William Herbert in 1758. A New Directory, played a critical role in the rise of Britain to the forefront of global maritime cartography. Towards the larger picture, the atlas’s charts were critical tools in the ascendency of Britain and her East India Company to becoming the dominant political and economic power in South and East Asia.
During most of the first half of the 18th Century, the East India Company (EIC) 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. In 1776, a fourth edition of the New Directory was issued, which was expanded to include 136 charts.
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. The 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.
Enter the Gregorys. William Herbert retired in 1776, shortly after the appearance of the fourth edition of the atlas. Herbert promptly sold his plates to Henry Gregory I and his son Henry Gregory II for the price of 1,000 Guineas, licensing them to publish his atlas. Henry Gregory I (1716-80) was a boutique instrument maker who also published a couple of sailing manuals for Oriental navigation. While not prolific, he produced quality work, with his instruments being favoured by none other than Captain James Cook. Henry Gregory II (fl. 1753-89) was likewise an instrument maker, who entered into partnership with his father in 1775. Both Gregorys were closely associated with the mathematician, astronomer and cartographer Samuel Dunn (d. 1794), who was the draftsman of the present chart.
The Gregorys produced the fifth edition of A New Directory, dated 1780 (but actually issued in 1781), which included a handful of entirely new charts created under their supervision, of which the present chart is especially notable.
After Henry Gregory I’s death, in September 1780, his son entered into a partnership with Gabriel Wright, with the enterprise later taking on an additional partner, William Gilbert. The partnership produced the sixth and final edition of A New Directory in 1787.
Notably, the present original state of the chart of the Indian Ocean appeared in only the last two editions of the atlas (1780 and 1787), and bears the imprint ‘Published according to Act of Parliament 17th Jany. 1780 By H. Gregory Junr.’
The Gregory, Wright and Gilbert partnership was subsequently dissolved, with Gilbert taking sole possession of most of the plates. A second state of the present chart was separately issued by Gilbert, bearing his own imprint, dated January 27, 1789.
In closing, Herbert and the Gregorys’ 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 extremely rare. We can trace only a few institutional examples, and are aware of no other examples appearing on the market since 1993.
References: Shirley, Maps in the Atlases of the British Library, vol. 2, M.HERB-1d, no. 17 (p. 1185); Worms & Baynton-Williams, British Map Engravers, ‘Gregory, Henry 2’, p. 281.