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SRI LANKA – GALLE and SOUTHWEST COAST: Trigonometrical Survey of the West Coast of Ceylon, Executed by order of the Madras Government, By Lieuts. F.T. Powell & R. Ethersey, I.N. Sheet IV. From Point De Galle to Dondra Head by T.H. Twynam, Master Assistant



Exceedingly rare – one of only 2 known examples – the first publication of the earliest systematic trigonometrical survey of the south-western coast of Sri Lanka, a self-contained section of a four-part series of charts resulting from Lieutenants Frederick Thomas Powell and Richard Ethersey’s masterly survey of the ‘West Coast of Ceylon’, undertaken upon the orders of the East India Company.

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Copper engraving contemporarily mounted upon linen, original vertical centrefold (Very Good, some light stains in lower right corner, a very tiny hole in negative space in upper centre), 49.5 x 65 cm (19.5 x 25.5 inches).


This excellent and exceedingly rare sea chart represents the first printing of the first survey of the South-western coast of Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) conducted by systematic trigonometric methods.  It is the final part of a four-part series of charts showcasing the first scientifically precise survey of the West Coast of Ceylon, conducted by Lieutenants Frederick Thomas Powell and Richard Ethersey of the Indian Navy (the naval force of the East India Company, or EIC).  Powell and Ethersey were charged with surveying the Palk Strait, the vital shipping channel that runs between Ceylon and India, and then afterwards to chart the entire coastline of Ceylon.  They commenced their operations in June 1837 and having completed the Strait, worked their way southwards mapping the West Coast of Ceylon, including the stretch of coastline from Bentota to Galle, showcased upon the present chart, accomplished in March and April 1838.  Due to matters related to the build-up to the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) and the First Opium War (1839-42), just as Powell and Ethersey’s had finished charting the Point of Galle, their surveying project was suddenly cancelled by the EIC hierarchy; the surveyors were redeployed to duties elsewhere.  Due to the interceding wars and the disorganization of the EIC, Powell & Ethersey’s survey of the West Coast of Ceylon, including the present chart, was not published until 1850.

The present chart covers the section of the coasts of Ceylon from ‘Bentotte’ (Bentota) and then southwards to include ‘Amblamgodde’ (Ambalangoda); Galle, the old Portuguese fort that had become the main city in South-Western Ceylon; ‘Belligam’ (Weligama); ‘Matura’ (Matara), a major port; and then, finally, Dondra Head, the southernmost point of the island.  The stretch from Bentota to Galle was surveyed by Powell and Ethersey, whereupon the delineation of the coastline is exceedingly accurate, labelling all ports, estuaries, headlands, and reefs, while the seas feature copious bathymetric soundings in fathoms, plus the marking of hazards.  Below the title, the shorthand used to describe the surveyors’ annotations as to the nature of the benthos employed is as follows: c. Course; crl. Coral; gy. Grey; r. Rocky; s. Sand; and sh. Shells.  The interior beyond the immediate coastal region is intentionally left blank, save for the appearance of the ‘Haycock’ (Hiniduma Kanda), a mountain which rises to 661 metres prominently above the coastal plain, and which can be easily sighted by mariners cruising off shore.

One will notice that the charting of the coastline form Bentota down south to the Point of Galle is far more detailed and precise than the charting from Galle to Dondra Head; moreover, the shorelines of this stretch are adorned with designs of palm trees, which do not appear further south.  This more detailed charting represents what Powell and Ethersey were able to accomplish before they were recalled from Galle in April 1838.  The stretch of the coastline from Galle to Dondra Head, as noted in the title, was taken for a manuscript chart made in 1830 by Thomas Holloway Twynam (1794 – 1869), Master Assistant at Galle.  While this charting is not as accurate as Powell & Ethersey’s, as it clearly did not employ the same level of scientific rigour, it is still a fine piece of work.

Importantly, while the present chart is one of a four-chart series, it is a complete publication in and of itself, with its own title and imprint, as well as possessing a self-contained format.


A Note on Rarity

The present chart and the four-part series to which it belongs is exceedingly rare.  We can trace only 1 institutional example of the four-piece series, at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Munich), and no examples of the any of the individual charts.  Moreover, we can trace no sales records for any of the charts.


Historical Context: The Imperative to Scientifically Chart the Coastlines of Ceylon

Up to the mid-1830s, the coastlines of Ceylon had yet to be surveyed by systematic, trigonometric methods.  This meant that the hydrographic coverage of the island was spotty; while some major ports and key stretches of coastline were well charted, other areas were left in a dangerously ambiguous state.  While Ceylon’s plantation economy boomed, the lack of universally reliable sea charts became a drag upon economic growth, as ships had difficulty accessing small ports, while the high rate of maritime accidents was driving insurance premiums though the roof.  The island’s political and business leaders knew that something had to be done.

Coastal Ceylon had come under under Dutch hegemony in 1640, and so it remained until British forces conquered these parts of the island in 1796.  Between 1803 and 1818, Britain had to fight three hard wars against the interior Kingdom of Kandy before it gained control over the entire island.  During the succeeding generation, Ceylon surged to become a highly profitable plantation colony, rich in tea, coffee, sugar and other cash crops.

Ceylon came under the administration of the East India Company (EIC), the private organization that governed Britain’s colonial possessions in South and East Asia.  While Ceylon was a boon to the Company, the EIC’s overall finances were in decline, bogged down by the immense costs of administering and pacifying the Indian Subcontinent.  The Company was constantly trying to find ways to save funds in relatively peaceful and prosperous parts of its domains (such as Ceylon), so as to redirect these resources to fight wars and to build infrastructure in more difficult areas.  This parsimonious attitude extended to the sponsorship of cartography.

Focussing on the mapping of Ceylon up the mid-1830s, it would be fair to say that impressive efforts had been made in isolated areas, yet, no endeavour to seriously map the country either hydrographically or topographically, in a complete, systematic and scientific manner had ever been undertaken.  Most of the coastal regions and much of the interior had been mapped to a decent standard, yet no funds were valuable to conduct a grand trigonometrical survey of the entire island.  As for maritime mapping, several of the key harbours, namely Colombo, Galle, Trincomalee and Batacaloa had been charted to a high standard in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, with charts published by the likes of Sayer & Bennett (and their successors, Laurie & Whittle), Alexander Dalrymple, and the British Hydrographic Office.  Moreover, during the first quarter of the 19th Century reasonably good general charts depicting Ceylon were published, such as various issues by James Horsburgh (published around 1811) and Heywood & Wedgburgh’s Chart of the Island of Ceylon with the adjacent coast of India (London, 1822).  However, all these charts had ‘weak spots’, such that none provided consistently scientifically accurate coverage of Ceylon’s coasts.

While the existing charts were enough to guild vessels in and out of Ceylon’s major ports, they were not adequate to ensure safe passage of vessels for inshore navigation.  Through the 1820s, as Ceylon’s plantation economy grew, it became clear that it was far more economical to load produce onto vessels in small ports and river estuaries near the locations of plantations, instead of first transporting the cargo to major ports (the quality of the roads was generally poor), as had been the custom.  However, while attempting to pick-up cargo at small ports, many vessels, including expensive schooners, were being wrecked on reefs that were not marked upon exiting printed charts.  Up the 1790s, the same problems had affected Jamaica, another great plantation colony, so motivating the British authorities to sponsor hydrographic surveys of the entire island.  Successive Governors of Ceylon urged the EIC authorities to fund a comprehensive hydrographic survey of the island, but for years these calls fell on deaf ears.

While the Royal Navy often pitched in, responsibility for charting the coasts of India and Ceylon fell to the Indian Navy, the EIC’s own private Armada.  The Indian Navy was blessed with some of the world’s most talented hydrographers, who succeeded in making precise charts of astoundingly difficult coastlines under trying circumstances.  However, through the first half of the 19th Century, the declining financial fortunes of the EIC ensured that the Indian Navy and it hydrographic abilities were mismanaged by cost-cutting and a lack of strategic vision.  The EIC was relegated to reacting to crises, instead of anticipating them, and often moved their naval resources around in an abrupt manner before projects, including maritime surveys, could be completed.  Moreover, the EIC had no clear structure for commissioning, managing, storing or disseminating hydrographic surveys.  This meant that good projects were often left unfinished and fine charts left in manuscript form, unpublished, such that their valuable information was essentially lost.  For instance, and of direct relevance to the present chart, around 1825 the EIC hydrographer Daniel Ross conducted a fine survey of the portion of the south-west coast of Ceylon, from Colombo to Point de Galle (with the chart thought to have been drafted by John Septimus Roe), but the resulting manuscript map remained unpublished and essentially unknown to other mariners (today this manuscript can be found at the State Library of Western Australia, Perth). 

Two factors, when combined, became catalysts for change with respect to the commissioning of a systematic trigonometric maritime survey of Ceylon.  First, the advent of steamships meant that skippers were encouraged to find more direct, linear shipping routes, often through inshore waters, traversing difficult passages.  The Palk Strait, which separated Ceylon from India, was identified as one of the world’s most vital lanes for steamships; however, it was full of dangerous reefs and islands, and so was urgently required to be charted to a much higher degree of precision.  Moreover, the adjacent coastlines of Ceylon were hazards to steamships, due to the inexact nature of their appearance upon sea charts.  These factors intensified the lobbing for improved surveys of these areas.

Second, the arrival of James Alexander Stewart-Mackenzie, as the Governor of Ceylon (in office, 1837-40), provided a powerful local champion for the surveys.   Stewart-Mackenzie was deeply bothered by the deleterious effect that the lack of systematic surveys of the coasts of Ceylon were having upon the island’s economy.   He employed his uncommon political tact upon his immediate superior, the Governor of the Madras Presidency of the EIC, to finally agree to sponsor a complete, trigonometric survey of the Palk Strait and the entire coasts of the Island of Ceylon.

Powell & Ethersey’s Survey of the Palk Strait & Ceylon

At Stewart-Mackenzie’s urging, in June 1837 an especially skilled team of Indian Navy surveyors was dispatched to chart the Palk Strait and the coats of Ceylon.  The mission was led by Lieutenant Powell, aboard the Royal Tiger, assisted by Lieutenant Richard Ethersey, aboard the Shannon.  Both Powell and Ethersey had distinguished themselves while charting the Red Sea, considered one of the most challenging hydrographic endeavours of the era.  Of their seasoned crew, Lieutenant Felix Jones deserves special mention as the mission’s chief draftsman.

The team commenced their systematic trigonometric survey with the Madura Coast (in today’s southern Tamil Nadu), the shoreline of India immediately opposite Ceylon.  They next moved to chart the exceedingly difficult reef and island-strewn Palk Strait, which separated India from Ceylon.  Mapping several distinct channels, the survey’s objective was to find the best routes for steamships, providing both enough depth and direct trajectories.  This aspect of the survey proved to be especially challenging, as usually high surf caused operations to be suspended for a time in January 1838; however, the mapping of the Strait was completed by the following month.

Next, Powell and Ethersey proceeded to chart the coasts of Ceylon, working from the Palk Strait southwards, past the island’s capital, Colombo, and then further still.  The stretch of coastline from Bentota to Galle, the principal port of south-western Ceylon, featured on the present map, was surveyed in March and April 1838.  However, in April 1838, as soon as Powell and Ethersey has fished charting the Point of Galle, orders from the highest levels arrived calling for the mission to be immediately suspended.  The team was to be broken up and re-deployed elsewhere to conduct surveys that would aid the transport of vessels to the theatres of the oncoming First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) and First Opium War (1839-42).

As evident upon the present chart, Powell and Ethersey, added Twynam’s less precise, but still very good, 1830 charting of the coasts from Galle to Dondra Head, just past Matura, to complete the projection of the West Coast of Ceylon.  Sadly, the systematic trigonometric charting of the entirety of Ceylon’s coastlines would have to wait for some decades.

Amazingly, Powell & Ethersey’s charts of their West Coast of Ceylon survey were not published until February 1850, by John Walker, the Hydrographer to the East India Company.  This long delay was due to the distractions of the various interceding conflicts, as well as the institutional disorganization which increasingly dominated the EIC’s affairs.  It also seems that Walker issued only a very limited print run of the series.  Importantly, however, the ground-breaking information showcased upon the charts was picked up and integrated into subsequent charts of Ceylon published by the likes of Norie & Wilson and the British Admiralty’s Hydrographic Office.   This ensured, that while delayed, Powell & Ethersey’s surveys had a useful legacy towards improving navigation along the West Coast of Ceylon.


The Surveyors: Powell and Ethersey

Frederick Thomas Powell (1806/7 – 1859) was an important surveyor and administrator in the service of the Indian Navy.  Born in England, he joined the Indian Navy in 1823 and quickly distinguished himself for his unusual talent at maritime surveying.  He was chosen to join the mission to conduct the first scientific survey of the Red Sea (1829-34), considered an especially challenging assignment.  He was then selected by the esteemed senior surveyor Captain Robert Moresby to join him in charting the incomparably treacherous atolls of the Maldives and the Chagos Archipelago.  The Alifushi Atoll of the Maldives was named the Powell Islands in his honour.

In 1837, then Lieutenant Powell was given command of his first major survey.  Along with Lieutenant Robert Ethersey, he executed the first systematic, scientific surveys of the Madura Coast, Palk Strait and West Coast of Ceylon, leading to publication of the present chart.

During the First Opium War (1839-42), Powell commanded his own battle ship in the Hong Kong vicinity and in 1842 skippered the steamship HEICS Memnon from England to Hong Kong.  In 1843, the same ship, while under his command, ran aground along the coasts of the Horn of Africa; however, Powell was acquitted of any negligence at a court martial.  This incident did not seem to harm his career, for in 1847, he was appointed as the Commander of the Indus Flotilla during the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-6).  He subsequently rose to become the Deputy Superintendent (Second-in-Command) of the Indian Navy.

Powell, suffering from ill health due to many years of labour in the tropics, retired to England, settling in Bath.  There he died in 1859.

Richard Ethersey was one of the most promising commanders of the Indian Navy until his life came to a tragic end.  He joined the Indian Navy at an early age and was quickly marked for promotion by his superiors.  He was selected to serve on the Red Sea Survey (1829-34) and from 1834 to 1837, he charted large portions of the coastlines of the Gujarat.  In 1837 and 1838, he served with Lieutenant Powell on the Palk Strait and West Ceylon Survey.  He later saw action in the South China Sea during the First Opium War.

Ethersey was on his way to serving at the highest levels of the Indian Navy, described by one of his contemporaries: “If there was one officer more then another who commanded the respect and confidence of the entire Service, as in every way calculated for high command by reason of his antecedents, great experience, and indomitable courage and resolution, it was Richard Ethersey”.

However, Ethersey had a dark side.  He suffered from nervous depression and could occasionally drag his entire crew down with his melancholia, leading to the nickname “Grim Dick”.

In 1847, Ethersey was appointed the Deputy Superintendent of the Indian Navy and he subsequently became the Commodore of the Persian Gulf, the navy’s chief officer in that critical region.  On the night of March 16, 1857, during the Anglo-Persian War of 1856-7, Ethersey, while stationed at Bushire, allowed his problems to overwhelm him.  He shot himself to death in his quarters, his body being discovered by Felix Jones, then the British Resident at Bushire, and the same officer who had served as his draftsman on the Palk Strait-West Ceylon surveys.


References: OCLC: 165101652 / Bayerische Staatsbibliothek: Mapp. XXV,25-4; Charles Rathbone Low, History of the Indian Navy (1613 – 1863) (London, 1877), vol. 2, pp. 79-80, Powell & Ethersey’s Ceylon charts mentioned, p. 79.  Cf. Richard Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa; Or, an Exploration of Harar (London, 1856), p. xx.

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