Riding the wave


John Thornton

John Thornton (1641-1708), a major representative of the "Thames School, for a time was in the service of the East India Company as a hydrographer. The author of numerous handwritten charts, he was among the first prolific engravers and publishers of printed charts, and produced The third book Describing the Sea Coasts ... in the Oriental navigation of the English Pilot started by John Seller.

The repertoire, which includes 35 charts, appeared in London in 1703, preceding by about half a century similar nautical atlases for navigation in the eastern seas, published in France by Jean-Baptist D'après de Mannevillette in 1745, and in Rotterdam by the van Keulens in 1753.

Bombay. John Thornton, undated engraving ca 1685, by James Clerk, mm. 530 x 435, graphic scale in miles, [1:78.000] North to the left.

John Thornton actively co-operated to various re-editions of the Atlas maritimus of Seller, in collaboration with him, Fisher and others, and finally, in 1685, he published his own remake, inclusive of the chart of Bombay, which has a small coastal view designed inland, together with profiles of scattered buildings and trees along the coasts, according to a frequent habit of the time.

On the right there is a cartouche with the inscription "A New Map / of the Island of Mumbai and / SALLSET / By John Thornton Hydrographer / to ye Hon.ble East India Company at / ye signe of ye plat in ye Minories / London" . On the left another cartouche contains a dedication "To the Hon.ble Governor / Deputy Governor and Committees / of the East India Company / this map is humbly dedicated by John Thornton. Bombay had been ceded to England by Portugal in 1661, as dowry of the Infanta Catherine of Braganza on her merriage to Charles II, and was then assigned to the East India Company in 1668.
(Greenwich, National Maritime Museum.
Persian Gulf. John Thornton, 1699
(Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France .

In parallel to the English Pilot and to the Atlas, of great commercial relevance, Thornton - as hydrographer of the English East India Company and of the Hudson's Bay Company - produced between 1667 and 1701, a large number of manuscript charts, of which at least thirty for navigation in the seas of the East.

Among these, the chart of the Persian Gulf - on large parchment - shows, especially with regard to the northern coasts of Arabia, the vague knowledge that Europeans had of that region even in the late seventeenth century.

The costs of Persia are instead portrayed in great detail, from the bathymetry to shallow waters and to emerging rocks, to the views of the two main ports in the Gulf: Gombaroon - today's Bandar Abbas - which fly the flags of the English East India Company and of the Dutch Vereenidge Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), and Buzare - now Basra - at the western end of the Gulf, where there is only the British flag.

There also appear two views taken at different distances, of the island of Carack, today Khark. As reported in the dense caption close to the wind rose, it was an important base for food supplies and provided pilots able to assist mariners through the rough waters off the city of Basra.

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