This extremely rare and excellent sea chart depicts St. Augustin’s Bay (Malagasy: Anantson̈o), an excellent natural harbour along the southwestern coast of Madagascar (immediately to the south of the modern day city of Toliara), that was for centuries a key waypoint for ships making the navigation between Europe and India, and beyond, to Southeast Asia and the Far East. The chart was drafted by William Nichelson, the Master of the HMS Elizabeth, a virtuous maritime surveyor who was responsible for several important charts of harbours in Africa and Asia. The present map was first issued within the 1767 (third) edition of William Herbert’s A New Directory for the East Indies, a very rare and historically important British sea atlas of Oriental navigation.
This large chart captures the bay from a southward-oriented perspective, with the Mozambique Channel on the right. The nautical information is extremely detailed, with numerous bathymetric soundings, and other aspects identified by symbols described in the ‘References’ at the top of the chart. Of great importance are the locations of recommended anchorages and the watering place, at the mouth of the river. Several navigational sightlines connect to four coastal profile views along the shore, while the ‘Remarks’, in the upper right, grant detailed sailing directions into the bay.
St. Augustin’s Bay was perhaps the finest natural anchorage along the Madagascar side of the Mozambique Channel. Since the passage was traversed by Europeans for the first time by Vasco da Gama, in 1498, during the first European sea voyage to India around Africa, it has been one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. While sheltered from the open Indian Ocean, it was a very dangerous passage, as it featured difficult winds and currents, along with several especially tricky nautical hazards. Beyond that, it also left ships vulnerable to attacks by pirates or vessels of enemy nations, and a lack of knowledge of the navigation ensured that one would become easy prey.
Since 1540 most of Madagascar had been ruled by the Merina Dynasty. However, the Merina kingdom was based in the interior and exacted tenuous authority over many of the coastal areas. While Europeans did not gain firm rule over the the island until the late 19th Century, the English, Dutch and French had a fleeting presence along its coasts. Most notably, during the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, the Isle of St. Mary’s (Nosy Boraha), located off of north-western Madagascar, become the world’s most consequential pirate base, at times hosting the likes of William Kidd and John Avery. Having grown rich from raiding East Indies shipping, it is even rumoured that the pirates declared the establishment of their own outlaw republic of ‘Libertalia’ on the island. From the 1720s onwards, the various national navies had largely succeeded in subduing the pirates, however, shipping remained vulnerable to isolated attacks.
Importantly, the present chart was the finest chart of the bay available upon the advent of the First Anglo-Maratha War (1775–1782), which in the Indian Ocean Basin bled into the international conflict between Britain and France that was part of the American Revolutionary War (1775-83, with the Franco-British conflict lasting from 1778 to 1783). Thus, this chart would have been of particular interest to officers of Royal Navy vessels and British merchant mariners who had to nimbly avoid (or aggressively pursue!) French ships on their way to and from India.
William Herbert & A New Directory for the East Indies
The present chart was created on the orders of William Herbert (1718–95), 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 issued 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 from the officers of the EIC and the Royal Navy, merchant mariners, as well as foreign printed sources, such the charts from the first edition of Jean-Baptiste d’Après de Mannevillette’s masterly sea atlas, Le Neptune Oriental (Paris, 1745). He issued the first edition of his fine sea atlas, A New Directory for the East Indies (London, 1758), which featured 30 charts. A second edition, expanded to include 48 charts, was issued in 1759.
Later that same year Herbert suffered a setback when his shop burned down. Undeterred, however, Herbert quickly re-established himself and from 1764 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. Latterly, he also worked closely with Alexander Dalrymple, the Hydrographer of the EIC. Greatly augmented by Nichelson’s work, a third edition of the New Directory was issued in 1767 and a fourth edition appeared in 1776, which in some formats came to include 136 charts, many of which were supplied by Dalrymple. Herbert retired to the country later that year, and in his final years amassed a vast personal library. His work was continued by his successors Samuel Dunn and Henry Gregory, who issued follow up editions in 1780 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 the Indian Ocean Basin. That being said, is seems that the New Directory was reserved for use by 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 Herbert’s competitors, Robert Sayer & John Bennett’s The East India Pilot, or Oriental Navigator (London, 1777-82), and the editions issued by their successors Robert Laurie & James Whittle.
William Nichelson: Important Maritime Surveyor
The present chart is based on a manuscript drafted by the Royal Navy officer William Nichelson (fl. 1758 – 1797), an experienced mariner and cartographer who, beginning in 1764, collaborated closely with Herbert. From 1758 to 1764, Nichelson, while Master of HMS Elizabeth, toured the coasts of southern Africa, India and the Southeast Asia, where he made several charts that revealed his superb talent as a maritime cartographer. These include the finest 18th Century chart of Bombay, as well as works that depict harbours in South Africa, Madagascar, Mauritius and Malaya. Most of his charts were first printed by Herbert within the 1767 edition of A New Directory for the East Indies.
Additionally, Nichelson wrote an account of his navigation in Africa and Asia, meant to accompany A New Directory, entitled Sundry remarks and observations made in a voyage to the East Indies on board H.M.S. the Elizabeth: from the beginning of the year 1758, to the latter end of 1764: with the necessary directions for sailing to and from India … being a proper supplement for the New Directory for the East Indies (London: William Herbert, 1765).
In 1770, Nichelson became the Master Attendant of the Royal Navy’s Portsmouth Ship Yard. This senior administrative role ensured that Nichelson was the overseer of all technical facilities at one of the world’s largest naval bases. He later published a general work on sailing, A Treatise on Practical Navigation and Seamanship (London, 1792) and played a role in supressing the Naval Mutiny at Portsmouth in 1797.
The present chart was first issued within the 1767 (third) edition of Herbert’s A New Directory for the East Indies, and subsequently appeared within the 1776, 1780 and 1787 editions of the atlas. The plate was subsequently acquired by William Gilbert, who in 1790, separately-issued an edition of the map, bearing his own imprint.
William Nichelson’s present chart of St. Augustin’s Bay, Madagascar is very rare. We cannot trace another example, of any of the editions, as having appeared on the market since 1996.
References: Shirley, Maps in the Atlases of the British Library, vol. 2, M.HERB-1b, no. 39.