During the age of sailing ships, vessels were at the complete mercy of the sea, and a captain’s job was mitigating the ocean’s rage and harnessing its winds as best as possible. Travel times were a matter of chance as much as the skill of the crew, and the best that could be expected was a safe voyage.
During the age of steam ships, which had its heyday in the second half of the 19th century, vessels sought to conquer the elements, following more direct routes, even if that meant heading against the winds. Captains were expected to follow strict schedules, whether they oversaw a navy vessel seeking to rendezvous with a fleet, or a commercial ship carrying passengers or freight. Shipping companies that could hew close to schedule were rewarded with custom, while those who were habitually tardy suffered. During this era, it became a priority of navies and shipping firms to have a precise understanding of ocean winds and currents, with their great seasonal variations, so that they could properly plan their schedules and anticipate their fuel needs, etc.
Moreover, the mid- and late 19th century saw the rise of the science of meteorology, whereby people used empirical data to predict the weather. A critical factor in this pursuit was a stellar understanding of ocean winds and currents. Weather prediction promised all manner of economic, military and social advantages, and the matter was of great import to authorities and commercial concerns worldwide.
While crude, although not necessarily unhelpful, attempts to map ocean winds and currents were endeavoured during the 1700s, it was not until the middle of the next century that these efforts assumed a scientific form, predicated upon the analysis and consolidation of data gathered at sea from shipping logs, leading to its sophisticated graphic representation upon sea charts.
A key advancement in maritime anemology (the study of winds) was the invention of the wind rose, in 1840, by the Birmingham glass manufacturer and amateur scientist Abraham Follett Osler. This circular diagram, placed at set locations on sea charts, featured arrows or lines emanating out of it in various directions, with their lengths corresponding to the strength of the prevailing winds from said directions.
Another great leap forward in mapping ocean winds came with the publication of the charts of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the chief of the Depot of Charts and Instruments of the U.S. Navy. From 1847 to 1860, he produced charts of the waters and routes frequented by American vessels that featured wind roses at regular locations, with details predicated upon data gathered from hundreds of naval and merchant mariner shipping logs.
Maury’s stellar work was continued by several other great scientist-mariners who took the study of maritime anemology to whole new levels.
Enter Admiral de Chabannes: Charting the Atlantic Winds off South America
The creator of the present atlas, Viscount Octave Pierre Antoine Henri de Chabannes-Curton (1803 – 1889), was a prominent French naval officer, colonial administrator, politician and scientist. Born in Paris of noble stock, he graduated from the elite École Polytechnique before joining the French Navy. For a time from 1831, he served as an officer aboard the royal yacht Reine Amélie, whereupon he gained the favourable attention of King Louis-Philippe and several leading political figures, which did much to advance his career.
Then Frigate Captain Chabannes commenced his critical experience with South America upon serving as the interim Governor of French Guiana (1851-2). From 1853-4, as the commander of the Charlemagne, he served as one of the leading Allied naval figures during the Crimean War, before serving as the Commander-in-Chief of the Algeria Squadron of the French Navy.
From 1858 to 1863, Chabannes fulfilled an important assignment as the Commander-in-Chief of the Brazil Squadron of the French Navy, headquartered in Rio de Janeiro (France and Brazil were then close allies). In this capacity he was one of the architects of Napoleon III’s ambitious designs to meddle in the political, commercial and military affairs of several South American countries. It was also during this time that Chabannes had the opportunity to gather the immense amount of raw data that led the creation of the present atlas.
Chabannes was promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral in 1861, and in 1863 he was made the commander of the important naval base of Cherbourg, and the following year given the same role in Toulon. He was made a senator in 1867 and retired from active naval service in 1868. He left public life upon the downfall of the Second Empire in 1870.
The Present Atlas in Focus
During the mid-19th century, South America was of the upmost importance to France. First, it owned a piece of the continent in the form of French Guiana. Second, France was one of the largest trading partners, foreign investors and creditors of many key nations, namely Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Third, France had long extensively interfered in the military and political affairs of these countries. This included direct involvement in such momentous events as the and Uruguayan Civil War, or Guerra Grande (1839–1851) and the Anglo-French Blockade of the Río de la Plata (1845-50). During the rule of Napoleon III (reigned 1852-70), France, as a close ally of Brazil, ramped up its involvement in South America, and as such, aiding shipping across the Atlantic from Europe to ports such as Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and Buenos Aires, etc., was critical.
In the late 1850s, The French Navy held as a priority the creation a scientific wind atlas of the South Atlantic covering the waters of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, from mouth of the Amazon, in the north, down to Buenos Aires, in the south, (from the 1° South down to 36° South). Notably, Matthew Fontaine Maury had already published masterly large format wind charts of the same seas, being a Pilot Chart of the South Atlantic (Washington, D.C., 1850), composed of a series of very sophisticated wind roses, and his Wind and Current Chart of the South Atlantic (Washington, D.C. 1853), a colossal 4-sheet masterpiece, being a map that shows the tracks of voyages that recorded data, along with wind roses. However, these works were incredibly complex, both visually and intellectually, and did not lend themselves to easy practical use at sea. What was desired was a scientifically precise, but easily accessible work that charted South Atlantic wind patterns.
Admiral de Chabannes, while serving as the Commander-in-Chief of France’s Brazil Squadron filled the void. In 1858, upon his arrival in Brazil, he submitted a proposal to the French Navy Minister, requesting official support to create the present atlas. His plan was approved and for the next three years Chabannes worked feverishly to obtain the best possible data on the wind currents in the Atlantic off the east coast of South America as they were at all times of the year. The French government sent him information from the hundreds of logbooks in their possession, while the Brazilians furnished him with access to their excellent collection of logs. He also acquired information from innumerable merchant and naval vessels of all flags.
Chabannes stated that he owed a great debt to Maury especially, as well as other anemological mapmakers. His objective was that his charts “will result in providing navigators, as regards the winds, important information which the longest personal experience could not make known to them and which it is possible to obtain only by means of observations collected in thousands of logbooks”. Amazingly, in composing the present atlas, Chabannes used 84,000 data points gleaned from recent and historical ships’ logs, while adding another 27,000 data points from his own contemporary investigations, bringing a total of 111,000 data points!
Chabannes’s resulting atlas was published in 1861, in Paris, by the Dépôt général de la marine, in a grand folio format. It covered the Atlantic waters extending well off the coast of South America from 1° South (near Pará (Belém), by the moth of the Amazon) down all along the length of Brazil and Uruguay to just past Buenos Aires, at 36° South, thus embracing all the great Atlantic trading ports of the continent.
After the introductory text, the map features 50 full-page plates (49 maps, 1 with a trio of diagrams). The first map, a key chart, embraces the entire area covered, and has it divided into 4 sections, or feuilles (sheets), which are as follows, Première feuille (1° to 11° South); Deuxième feuille (11° to 21° South); Troisième feuille (21° to 30° South); and Quatrième feuille (30° to 36° South).
Following the key chart are 48 maps, individually providing a view of each feuille for each month of the year. The maritime areas of each chart are divided into quadrants, within each of which is a wind rose that shows the prevailing direction and windspeeds at each location at said time. While quite accurate, anchored in an unprecedented amount of scientific data, the wind roses are intentionally quite simple in design (certainly compared to those of Maury) in order to ensure that they would be easy to understand by skippers at sea. The maps label key ports and other seminal features but are otherwise sparing of detail to allow users to clearly plot courses in manuscript as they might see fit.
The final plate [no. 50], features a trio of charts with wind roses for each month of the year for the roadsteads of the great ports of Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
Chabannes expressed that he had considerable “confidence” in the atlas, as “I must say that there are none of the same extent based on such a large number of observations”. Indeed, the work was a great leap forward in maritime anemology, with its charts being more accurate and easier to comprehend that its predecessors, such that it would have been of tremendous value to mariners navigating to and from Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.
Chabannes’s atlas would have been a fine companion to the Portuguese Admiral João Carlos de Brito Capello’s Ventos e Correntes do Golpho de Guiné (Lisbon, 1861), a series of four seasonal maps of the notoriously treacherous waters off West Africa (there was then much maritime commerce between Brazil and West Africa).
The present atlas had a profound influence upon the work of Chabannes’s younger colleague, the French naval officer, Commander Louis-Désiré-Léon Brault (1839 – 1885). He published a series of sets of 12 charts each showing the monthly wind profiles in every sector of the oceans, being Atlantique nord: cartes de la direction et de l’intensité probables des vents (1874); and relating closely to the present work, Atlantique sud: cartes de la direction et de l’intensité probables des vents (1876); Mer des Indes: cartes de la direction et de l’intensité probables des vents (1880); and Océan Pacifique: cartes de la direction et de l’intensité probables des vents (1880).
Provenance: Prosper de Chasseloup-Laubat – Arch-Proponent of French Foreign Adventurism
The present example of Chabannes’s atlas comes from the library of Prosper de Chasseloup-Laubat, Viscount (later the 4th Marquis) of Chasseloup-Laubat (1805-73), a political heavyweight who was one of the leading proponents of French colonialism and robust engagement in South America. One of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s (later Emperor Napoleon III) most trusted associates, he served as the French Navy Minister (1851) and the Minister for Algeria & the Colonies (1859-60), before assuming the ultra-powerful combined portfolio of Minister of the Navy & Colonies (1860-7), whereupon he oversaw French colonial expansion in Africa and the French takeover of Southern Vietnam. Chasseloup-Laubat was a bibliophile and highly carto-literate, so there is little doubt that he would have shown considerable interest in the present atlas, especially as he was the dedicatee of the work (as noted in the title) and the final sponsor of its publication
Befitting its unique status, the present example of the atlas was finely bound in quarter dark green calf with pebbled cloth with elaborate blind-stamped deigns and gilt title, whereas the other examples of which we are aware have far more modest bindings.
A Note on Rarity
Chabannes’s atlas is very rare, it would have been published in only a small print run for select specialist use. We can trace only 5 institutional examples, held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France; Defensiebibliotheken (The Hague); Bibliotheek Universiteit van Amsterdam; Virginia Military Institute (Preston Library); and the National Library of Sweden. Moreover, we can trace only a single example as having appeared on the market (being a very flawed copy).
References: Bibliothèque nationale de France: GE SH 19 PF 1 TER DIV 8 P 4 (2) D; OCLC: 69383766, 923502324; Annales hydrographiques: Recueil d’avis, instructions, documents et mémoires relatifs à l’hydrographie et à la navigation, tom. 19 (Paris, 1861), pp. 474-7; Dépot des cartes et plans de la marine n°408. Catalogue chronologique des cartes, plans, vues de côtes, mémoires, instructions nautiques, etc. (Paris, 1865), p. 185; Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt, Band 7 (Gotha, 1861), p. 406.