This rare and attractive pair of sea charts, printed on a single sheet, features two historically important harbours in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). Both charts are based on careful Dutch hydrographic surveys, with the waters featuring copious nautical information, such as bathymetric soundings and the locations of hazards, such as shoals. Terrestrial details are expressed most elegantly, with landmarks and hills presented in profile, while forts, towns and other manmade details are presented pictographically.
The first chart depicts what was known to the British as Calpentyn Road (today’s Kalpitiya, Puttulam District), a Dutch base and anchorage on the west coast of Sri Lanka. The fortified town of Kalpitiya, flying the Dutch East India Company (VOC) tricolour, is located near the end of a peninsula, upon an inlet, the opening of which treacherously abounds in shoals. Fortunately, the map grants a clear direction for navigating the entrance, showing that one should sail near the far eastern side of the opening, near Caradive Point, while avoiding Buffaloes Island.
The lower map features the key Dutch base of ‘Batecalo’ (Batticaloa), which lay on a lagoon along the east coast of Sri Lanka. The fort of Batticaloa is located on an island along the northern end of the lagoon, while three Sri Lankan towns occupy the southern part of the area. The Dutch fort was originally founded by the Portuguese, but was taken over in 1658 by the VOC, who expanded it considerably. As shown, the lagoon is connected to the sea by a narrow but navigable passage, which opens into a bay treacherously lined with rocks. The chart identifies the best anchorage point beyond the lagoon and employs the Fryer’s Hood Mountain as navigational landmark for entering the channel. Another important anchorage, ‘Venlos Bay’ (Vandelous Bay) is located to the north.
Since the mid-17th Century, most of Sri Lanka, including all coastal areas, had been controlled by the Dutch East India Company (the VOC). However, as the 18th Century progressed, the British, particularly their own East India Company (the EIC), became increasingly interested in trading (illegally) with Sri Lankan ports and furthermore had an eye towards one day conquering the island. Indeed, by 1780, within two years of this chart being printed, Britain and the Netherlands found themselves at war in the Indian Ocean, as part of the global extension of the American Revolutionary War (1775-83).
It was in this context that the leading London map publishers, Robert Sayer & John Bennett, copied many of the charts within Johannes van Keulen II’s Nieuwe Lichtende Zee-Fakkel, volume 6 (Amsterdam 1753), otherwise known as the “Secret Atlas” of the VOC. This atlas, printed in very limited quantities for the exclusive use of the VOC’s captains, contained many of the finest Dutch surveys of Asian waters, including Sri Lanka. Sayer & Bennett managed to acquire a copy of the atlas and used Van Keulen’s charts as the basis for many of their maps within their The East-India Pilot, or Oriental Navigator (London, 1777-82), a very rare work which Rodney Shirley describes as their “most substantial compilation,” as is consisted of 124 charts on 111 sheets (the present map appears in the first of its two volumes). Appropriately, the British cartographers attribute their work, as they clearly note that both charts are “from Vankeulen”.
Sayer & Bennett’s atlas became the authoritative British navigational guide for Asian waters during a critical period of British economic and political expansion in South and Southeast Asia. Indeed, the charts from the The East-India Pilot, or Oriental Navigator were the maps of record used by the British when they took over Sri Lanka from the Dutch in 1798. Sri Lanka would remain a British possession until gaining her independence in 1948. A 1794 edition of the chart was published by Sayer & Bennett’s successors, Laurie & Whittle, as part of their edition of the The East-India Pilot, or Oriental Navigator (1797).
The original Sayer & Bennett edition of the The East-India Pilot, or Oriental Navigator (1777-82) is a great rarity its constituent charts appear very infrequently. We can trace no record of an example of the present chart being offered separately on the market since 1986.
References: Rodney Shirley, Maps in the Atlases of the British Library, vol. 2, (p. 1281), M.SAY-3a, nos. 49.1 & 49.2.