This is one of the seminal sea charts of the Singapore Strait and the adjacent lands, depicting Singapore Island, southeastern Malaya (Johor), the Riau Archipelago and the part of Sumatra. These waters, then as now, hosted one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, connecting the Indian Ocean (and by extension Europe) with the Far East. The present example is a heavily updated version of a chart created by James Horsburgh, a Scotsman who was the foremost authority on the hydrography of Asian waters of his time. It was arguably the most influential chart of the Singapore Strait region of its era, printed in various editions for thirty years.
The chart captures all of Singapore Island, upper left, accurately outlining its coastlines and showing the built-up area of Singapore city, then a bustling trading port of 60,000 residents. ‘Govern. Ho.’, the epicentre of British power in Southeast Asia is labelled, while the ‘Malay Town’ is located to south, as is the ‘New Harbour’ (today’s Keppel Harbour), the main area for hosting capital ships.
To the north, is the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, then controlled by the Sultanate of Jahor (‘Johore River’ is noted across the water from Singapore Island).
To the south of Singapore, the Singapore Strait, the great shipping road (connecting to the Malacca Strati and the Indian Ocean to the northwest) is shown in detail, noting many bathymetric soundings and showing landmarks and hazards, while further south is the Riau Archipelago, then part of the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia). Further down are the various islands associated with Sumatra (appearing in the lower left).
In the South China Sea, to the right, the chart shows the track of the ship Charles Grant, en route from China to Europe by way of the Sunda Strait which ran between Sumatra and Java. While the areas near Singapore are well surveyed, the coverage further afield is variable, with the unsurveyed coasts shown as tentative thin lines.
While the present example of the chart is noted as having been updated with ‘Corrections to 1850’ in the imprint, in the lower margin, the paper is watermarked with the date ‘1853’, suggesting that it was printed by the Admiralty’s’ Hydrographic Office about that time.
Turning to the bigger picture, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, when Dutch and French power were at their nadir, Britain took the initiative. One of their great powerplays occurred in 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles founded the town of Singapore, on the south coast of Singapore Island, guarding the best shipping lane between South Asia and the Far East. Encouraging immigration from China, India and Malaya, the town grew rapidly into a thriving mart of commerce and one of the Asia’s great logistics hubs.
While Singapore Harbour was able to host a large fleet of capital ships, and the strait provided good sailing roads, as the present chart demonstrates, these seas posed many hazards that could snag or doom ships. Moreover, sailing these waters in a fluid manner was critical, as the area was one of the world’s most notorious pirate haunts; dithering vessels made for easy prey.
However, in the immediate wake of the founding of Singapore, the British regime found the existing sea charts of the Singapore Strait wanting, their coverage was patchy and vague, if not downright inaccurate. The lack of a reliable navigational guide threatened to hider Britain’s ambitions in Southeast Asia and Far East. The foremost authority on the hydrography of Asian waters was charged with ameliorating the situation.
James Horsburgh and his Chart of the Singapore Strait
Enter James Horsburgh (1762 – 1836), who brought the maritime mapping of India, Southeast Asia and much of the Far East to high scientific standards. Horsburgh was born in Fife, Scotland into humble circumstances and entered the merchant marine at the age of sixteen. By 1784, he was in India, where for most of the next two decades he would be a crewmember of Bombay-based commercial vessels, trading on routes between that city, Calcutta, Canton and various location in Southeast Asia.
In May 1786, when Horsburgh was serving as the first mate of the Atlas, en route from Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia) to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the vessel was shipwrecked upon the island of Diego Garcia, due to inaccurate navigation.
This event was a complete shock to the Atlas’s crew, as their charts showed that they had been travelling through open sea, far from any islands. While Horsburgh and his companions were able to survive from food supplied by a local settlement, they were marooned on Diego Garcia for six months before being rescued.
Up to the time of the shipwreck, Horsburgh was considered an intelligent, if unremarkable, merchant seaman. However, the trauma of the accident and the realization that thousand of sailors were unnecessarily loosing their lives in the Indian Ocean every year due to faulty navigational aides caused him to dedicate the rest of his life to “making accurate charts”.
While he had no formal education, Horsburgh sought out tutelage in surveying and draftsmanship from more seasoned mariners. He spent all of his abundant free time recording nautical remarks and drawing charts of the coasts he visited. Over time, he constructed three great charts including: of the west side of the Philippines; the Dampier Strait off of New Guinea; and the Makassar Strait between the islands of Makassar and Borneo (in modern Indonesia), each accompanied by detailed sailing directions.
Horsburgh arranged for his charts to be sent to London, where EIC’s grandees were so impressed with their accuracy and thoroughness that they gifted him a large sum of money in order to purchase the finest surveying instruments. In 1796, when Horsburgh visited London, he was received with great respect by Alexander Dalrymple, Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society and Dr. Neville Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal.
Upon his return to the Asia, Horsburgh conducted many groundbreaking surveys, notably the first proper scientific charting of Bombay Harbour.
In 1805, Horsburgh moved to London where he soon became a leading sea chart publisher. His charts and sailing directions set the new ‘gold standard’ for the mapping of Indian and Asian waters. He was admired for his uncanny ability to isolate only the best and most accurate information upon being presented with a massive bundle of charts and notes. His sea pilot, Directions for Sailing to and from the East Indies, China, New Holland, Cape of Good Hope, and the interjacent Ports, compiled chiefly from original Journals and Observations made during 21 years’ experience in navigating those Seas (1809–11), was a masterpiece that became the standard guide for navigation in Asian waters, being reissued numerous times over many years.
In 1810, Horsburgh was appointed as the Hydrographer to the East India Company, a post he held for the next 26 years.
One of his most important assignments was to gather and edit the very best available sources, including the surveys of the important Jamaican-born surveyor James Ross, to create a grand chart of the Singapore Strait. This resulted in the first edition of the present work, issued in December 1821.
The chart was imbued with great importance and Horsburgh updated the copper plate, producing subsequent editions in 1824 and 1831.
After Horsburgh’s death, the responsibility for updating the chart was taken up by the Admiralty Hydrographic Office, which produced editions with ‘Corrections’ dated 1841, 1849 and 1850 (being the present issue, seemingly the last edition).
The early editions were quite different in detail from the later issues. For instance, while the Singapore Strait is well defined, the shape of Singapore Island had yet to be properly mapped.
For a comparison, please see an example of the 1831 edition of the chart, courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore:
In the end, the chart had a print run of thirty years, a remarkable achievement for a 19th century sea chart, and a testament to its immense influence.
A Note on Rarity
All editions of the present work are very rare, in keeping with low survival rate of such large working sea charts.
We are aware of only around half a dozen institutional examples of any of the editions and can find only a single example of the present 1850 issue (held by the Boston Public Library). Moreover, we are aware of only a few examples of the chart in any edition a having appeared on the market over the last generation, with another example of the 1850 issue having appeared at auction in 2014.
References: (re: present 1850 edition:) Boston Public Library: G8073.R5P5 1850 .H67; (re: 1849 edition:) National Library of Singapore (Lee Kong Chian Reference Library): 623.8922472 HOR.