Riding the wave


Hydrography Hydrographic Service of British, nineteenth century

John Edward Mills was in Virginia during the Anglo-American around 1812 and drew a map of Hampton, for it was necessary for the British fleet to close down access to the sea on the east coast of northern America. The city of Hampton was in fact destroyed by fire during an armed clash in 1813, while the author was killed the following year in an action in New Orleans. The views are illustrated by brief nautical instructions.

Hampton, Virginia (detail).
John Edward Mills, [1812]
watercolor, ca mm. 267x419
(Taunton, UK Hydrographic Office)
Papadoula, southern Turkey.
Francis Beaufort, 1812
ms., mm. 130 x 120 approx
(Taunton, UK Hydrographic Office)

Sir Francis Beaufort (1774-1857) was the most famous British hydrographer of the nineteenth century. As a young man had participated in the naval expeditions in Spain, in actions against piracy in the Mediterranean and in an hydrographic campaign in the Rio de la Plata.

In 1829 he was appointed "Hydrographer of the Navy,", i.e. chief of the UK Hydrographic Service, and in just over twenty years almost tripled the Admiralty chart portfolio

His name is related to the scale for measuring wind speed, which he proposed in 1806 and was universally adopted in 1926.

During the hydrographic campaign of 1811-12, his vessel "Frederickstein" carried out the survey of Papadoula island, which he described as an isolated, uninhabited and unknown rock formation, whiere were evident, however, the remains of an ancient civilization.

As H. Foster stated in a small caption at the bottom of the map of southern Shetlands, the islands were discovered in February 1819 by William Smith, captain of the merchant ship "Williams", pushed off its course off Cape Horn, who took possession of them in the name of King George III. The following year, to verify the reliability of Smith's discovery and to better define the position of the islands, the Admiralty sent the "Creole" on which was Henry Foster, on his first experience at sea, who surveyed their coasts in January 1820.

He returned there a few years later in command of a specific expedition, which was the first official campaign by the British Navy.

Naval activity was complemented, however, by the factual reconnaissance carried out by whalers, who pushed further south in pursuit of their prey, and probably gave little emphasys to their geographical sightings for commercial reasons.

Southern Shetlands. H. Foster, 1820, watercolor, mm 355x267 approx (Taunton, UK Hydrographic Office)
William Henry Smyth

WH Smyth (1788-1865), was an indefatigable and deeply knowledgeable hydrographer in the Mediterranean, and reached the rank of admiral, remaining in service until 1824. He began his career during the Napoleonic wars and was later sent in 1814 on a diplomatic mission in the Kingdom of Naples.

When his military commitments came to an end with the fall of Napoleon, he devoted himself to the survey of Sicily in the command of the Brig "Scylla" and produced a number of maps and drawings that roused the Admiralty unconditional admiration for their beauty and accuracy.

He was subsequently engaged in hydrographic operations in the Adriatic, collaborating with the Austrian and Neapolitan authorities in the production of loose charts and of the Carta di Cabottaggio del Mare Adriatico , published in 1822-24.

At the beginning of the twenties, in the command of the ship "Adventure", he performed the survey of the North African coasts and was the author of many more charts of the Spanish, French, Italian and Greek coasts, as well as of several books of nautical relevance.

Among these, Memoir ... of the Resources, Inhabitants and hydrography of Sicily and its Islands (1824), Sketch of Sardinia (1828), A Cycle of Celestial Objects, of which the first edition appeared in 1844 while the second appeared posthumously, The Mediterranean: A Memoir physical, historical and nautical (1854) and The sailors word - book, published posthumously in 1867.

He was among the founders of the Royal Geographical Society and president of the latter and of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Map of Sicily, about 1:65.000, engraved J. Walker,
kept at the Italian Navy Hydrographic Institute.
Dahomey. A.T.E. Vidal, 1837
(Taunton, UK Hydrographic Office)

In 1837 Captain Vidal was in command of the "Aetna" on a hydrographic expedition along the coasts of West Africa. On that occasion he drew the beautiful chart representing the entrance to Dixcove in Dahomey, on what today is known as the "Slave Coast" because of the local intense slave-market, opposed by the British warships.

In the small bay has its mouth the river, then called "Alligator River, near which the English had erected a fort adjacent to the slave town": a caption under the title of the chart informs that the fort is 28 feet above sea level, is surrounded by walls about 38 feet high, and is protected by a hill.

The chart has a lovely view of the bay, where a large canoe with a crew of natives carries a distinguished passenger, protected by a white parasol.

Thomas Graves is presumably the author of a watercolored chart of Sighajik in Turkey, about mm. 304 x 178.

The chart is anonymous and undated but derives from the surveys made on board the ship "Beacon" during the hydrographic campaign under the command of Thomas Graves, and is therefore attributed to him.

Sighajik, Turkey. [Thomas Graves, 1836]
(Taunton, UK Hydrographic Office)

Thomas Graves' name appears instead on the chart of Cape Krio in the Peninsula of Knidos, mm. 330 x 457, very attractive in its displaying some archaeological finds in colorful pottery, emblematic of the local ancient civilization.

Graves, like Smyth before him, worked extensively in the Mediterranean and was an admirer of local history and Greek-Roman culture: this inclination of his is also reflected by the care with which he surveyed the archaeological sites described in a thick legend.

At the center of the chart there is a view of Cape Krio, taken from approximately 3 miles.

Krio Cape (peninsula of Knidos).
T. Graves, 1838, ship "Beacon"
(Taunton, UK Hydrographic Office)

LG Heath was a young officer when, in 1846, was aboard the frigate "Iris" under the command of Capt. George Mindy, stationed in the Far East. When HM units were engaged on geographic and hydrographic reconnaissance duties, the officers on board would still be encouraged to represent the countries visited through drawing, and often, as in this case, the results were equal to the work of their more experienced hydrographer-colleagues.

Hong Kong. LG Heath, 1846
inc. b / w mm. 630 x 160
(Taunton, UK Hydrographic Office)

Captain Stokes, commander of the "Acheron", between 1847 and 1851 accomplished the almost complete survey of New Zealand. From those works derived the chart of Bones Bay in the Bank Peninsula, in what is now called Middle Island of New Zealand.

Previously he had served on the "Beagle" under the command of Phillip Parker King in his expedition in the Strait of Magellan between 1826 and 1829.

He was again on board the "Beagle" during the famous campaign that the hydrographic vessel led in Latin America under the command of Robert Fitzroy, to which also participated as naturalist Charles Darwin.

Bones Bay, New Zealand
[John L. Stokes], 1849
(Taunton, UK Hydrographic Office)

The publishing house of James Imray is still active today - although with different names in the course of time - since 1763. In 1823, in fact, the British Admiralty began retail sale of its "official" charts, i.e. produced by the Hydrographic Service established in 1795, but private publishers retained their own large market with the production of the charts known as bluebacks.

This definition referred to the fact that, in order to give more strength to their loose charts, these were mounted on a backing of canvas or heavy paper, usually blue.

Early in the nineteenth century the popularity of the large and akward nautical atlases in use since the sixteenth century began to decay, and the "bluebacks, became widely popular, so that this definition came to be generally applied to the charts produced by commercial firms for use on merchant ships.

The major publishers of the time include William Heather (1740-1812), who started his firm in 1765, and James Imray, whose company descended from John Hamilton Moore's firm, founded in 1763.

In 1801 he became "Blachford Publishing House ", in 1836 "Blachford & Imray, in 1840 "James Imray" and, around 1855, "Imray & Son".

In 1899 the company merged with "Norie & Wilson ", i.e. Heather and William's successors, and in 1903 incorporated the firm of Robert Laurie, founding the "Imray, Laurie, Norie and Wilson Ltd.", still active today in the field of cartography for fishing and leisure sailing.

James Imray & Son, 1855
engraving, mm. 1300 x 1000, 1:2.640.000
Detail of the Chart / of the / West Coast / of / South America / Extending from / to Valparaiso Truxillo / with / plans of the principal harbors / Drawn chiefly from surveys made by / the officers under the orders of Capt.. Fitzroy RN / London / published by James Imray & Son / 102 Minories / 1855.
The chart, oriented with North to the left, includes some views and plans of ports of Callao and the adjacent coasts.
(Greenwich, National Maritime Museum)

Commercial production, however, was based on hydrographic surveys carried out by the British Navy, and in fact in this chart they appear to have been led by Captain Robert Fitzroy, commander of the "Beagle", on which Charles Darwin embarked as a naturalist.

In order to limit chart-supplies on board, the "bluebacks" were on small scales and usually large in size, and included plans of the main ports of the area represented, in addition to the traditional coastal views.

A nice chart of Petalidi Bay was produced by Lieutenant John Drew in 1865, during one of the various expeditions in the Aegean Sea led by Captain AL Mansell, at that time commander of the "Hydra".

Greece, Bay Petalidi
J. Drew, 1865
(Taunton, UK Hydrographic Office)

The charts are reproduced in Coste del Mondo nella caartografia europea :1500-1900 , (179 p., about 300 images), by Priuli & Verlucca, publishers, Ivrea, 2000.)