Manuscript Chart of the Western Atlantic and Eastern American Seaboard
Master & Commander: a manuscript map of Napoleonic War Atlantic maritime activity unlike any other.
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At Neatline, we make it a point to specialize in the rare and extraordinary. Many of the scarce and important maps in our holdings fit this description, but few stand out like this remarkable, hand-drawn late 18th century map of the Western Atlantic seaboard, a cartographic document of considerable historical import. The map tells the story, in exquisite and engaging detail, of both the strategic importance of Britain’s Bermuda station, as well as of the complicated alliances and fragile tensions between Britain, France, Spain, and the newly formed United States during this tumultuous period.
Specifically, the manuscript map documents a period of several years in the active life of the HMS St. Albans, a 64-gun Royal Navy ship of the line. The St. Albans had a long and fascinating career, serving among other things in the American War of Independence from 1777. She was part of the English fleet that captured St. Lucia and fought at the infamous Battle of the Saintes (1782), in which the British Navy routed Comte d’Estaing and his French fleet from the Caribbean. The map is centered on the island of Bermuda, and was likely compiled by one or more crew members at sea and while stationed on the island. The geographic scope covers large parts of the Western Atlantic, as well as areas of the East Coast spanning from Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, to Halifax in Nova Scotia.
The mapmakers chart at least ten of the ship’s voyages, including an extended voyage home to Britain. It is, however, much more than a simple navigational chart. It has been embedded with so much narrative that it has become a cartographic golem of sorts: an inanimate chart into which the compilers have breathed life by documenting their experiences. In doing so, they have left us a dynamic and vivacious testimony of the bold voyages of the St Albans and her crew. In the following, we will discuss not only the pivotal role played by this ship in the history of American-British relations, but also analyze the map’s details in order to get a better understanding of the dynamics behind its compilation.
Maritime cat-and-mouse and fugitives at sea
As mentioned above, drawn on the map are the courses of at least ten voyages by the HMS St. Albans out of the Bermuda station, many of which are dated (by month, but not year) and include annotations that provide sporadic information on the purpose, scope, and success of the voyage. Most of these expeditions seem to have been relatively standard assignments in the waters off the American coast and the legible annotations are often limited to the ship’s exact position and a date of recording. There are, however, several of the itineraries that stand out as more important or eventful, and which are well worth a closer look.
Among the more adventurous excursions was the discovery of three French frigates off Chesapeake Bay and the subsequent chase of them into the Atlantic. The course of this encounter is carefully marked on to the map with wonderful illustrations of both the French and British ships involved in the action. The Royal Navy sister ships that helped the St. Albans in her chase of the French vessels have been noted on the map as the HMS Resolution (n.b., not Cook’s Resolution) and the HMS Topaze. While no year is assigned to this confrontation, there are clear echoes of the Atlantic Campaign of 1806 and one cannot help but think of the dramatic cat-and-mouse encounters featured Master and Commander and the other Aubrey–Maturin historical novels by Patrick O’Brian…here in real life!
Another thrilling incident is found just southwest of Bermuda. A track in green relays a spring mission in which the HMS St. Albans first meets up with a Bermudan vessel named the Cleopatra, and then, three days later, with an American schooner slightly further north. On board the American schooner is the Count de Vouveray, a mysterious personage who in July of 1806 had landed on the Venezuelan beaches alongside the great Venezuelan freedom fighter, Francisco de Miranda, during his second attempt to liberate his homeland from Spanish rule. At some stage, Vouveray seems to have been arrested and imprisoned in the West Indies, but soon escaped and made it to sea on the American vessel.
While the English and Americans were not on the friendliest of terms at this stage, both nations considered Spain their enemy. Supporting the growing insurrections in Spanish America were part and parcel of taking sides in that conflict. It was only with Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 that alliances shifted and England and Spain now had to work as allies against France. Since Francisco de Miranda’s second attempt to take Venezuela occurred in the summer of 1806 and this track was plotted in the months of spring, we may assume (but cannot confirm) that this encounter at sea occurred in 1807.
There are, generally speaking, very few markings of particular years on the map itself. Those that we do have are of considerable import, however, as they assist in confirming our attribution of this map to the St. Albans. The most important piece of information in this regard is the documentation of the ship’s journey back to England in 1797. Sailing north from Bermuda to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the ship set out across the North Atlantic on June 6th of that year. This voyage is the only annotation on the map to actually bear the ship’s name. After twenty years of loyal service in the Atlantic and Caribbean, it was not unusual for ships of the line to be temporarily decommissioned and sent to port for retrofitting and repairs. Historical records have verified the return of the St. Albans’ to Europe that year. We know from records kept by the British Admiralty that she rendezvoused with a large British fleet under the command of Admiral John Jervis at the mouth of the Tagus in Portugal in late 1797.
With its distinct focus on the Western hemisphere and American seaboard, the St. Albans’ adventures in Europe have naturally not been recorded on the map. Nevertheless, a return voyage to the Americas is documented and dated to 1802.
Geographic scope and map details
The map is centered on the Northern Bahamas, and the island of Bermuda in particular, where the HMS St. Albans was stationed alongside most of the Royal Navy fleet. Rather than offering a continuous American coastline, the map charts a series of geographically structured, but physically detached hot-spots along the coast — almost like a series of inset maps. These have nevertheless been carefully ordered, not only in relation to each other, but also to the bordering graticule. A significant number of places have been labeled, providing a clear overview to both the original users and the modern viewer. From south to north, identifiable locations include Cape Hatteras, Chesapeake, Delaware, Sandy Hook, Long Island, Montock Point, the Nantucket shoals, Boston Bay — including Cape Cod and Cape Ann, Cap Sable and finally Halifax in the north.
The reasons for depicting the American coastline in this manner are not difficult to discern. This was essentially a British sailor’s map; and as such it not surprising that an overtly maritime perspective has been applied. After the American War of Independence, it was not necessary for a British sailor to draw the entire coastline by hand, as it was hardly a place that Royal Navy ships would put in during these years. Instead, what was crucial to document for a patrol ship were the salient physiographical markers along the coast (points, bays, inlets, harbors, islands, shoals etc.). The map was in other words designed to help Atlantic navigators visually orient themselves as to their latitude when sailing in close proximity to the American coast. But it was in no way compiled to assist in landing there.
Underlying this method of mapping was of course the fact that following U.S. independence, the Royal Navy no longer sailed on the North American coast. They patrolled the waters along their former colonies, in part to safeguard their merchantmen, but during these tense years they would only put in as an absolute last resort, or to engage in combat, as in the War of 1812. The disconnected coastline thus provides us with a type of terminus post quem for the map, in that it verifies that its compilation began after American independence had been achieved.
The distinctly nautical outlook of the map is further emphasized by its many details. The elegant inclusion of the Gulf Stream along the East American seaboard, which has been labeled using large dramatic letters in black ink and is shown on the map as large curving black arrows. It flows from an unseen Florida and north along the coast, before veering off into the Atlantic around Delaware. Understanding this phenomenon would naturally be quintessential knowledge for anyone sailing up and down the American coastline.
A final maritime element is visible in the extremely meticulous and absolutely gorgeous rendition of a range of different ships on the map. The degree of detail in the hull construction, the rigging and sail, the way each vessel cuts through the water, and the varying perspectives applied in depicting these ships: all these features testify to an artist not only familiar with seafaring, but one who was sincerely appreciative of what a complex technical wonder some of these vessels were.
Context is everything — HMS St. Albans
The HMS St. Albans was a 64-gun ‘third rate ship of the line’ of the British Royal Navy. It was built by the Perry, Wells & Green shipyards in London and was launched from there in 1776. She served the Royal Navy faithfully for almost four decades, being stationed on Bermuda through most of her active duty, but also serving in Europe and the Far East.
The HMS St. Albans was initially captained by Richard Onslow, who guided her safely through several confrontations along the American coast during the War of Independence. In July 1777, she was part of the British fleet that repulsed Admiral d’Estaing at Sandy Hook. Following this important British victory, the St. Albans joined the Caribbean fleet under Commodore Hotham to take St Lucia. Defending this prize, she would meet d’Estaing in battle for a second time, this time during the Battle of the Cul de Sac in December 1778. Towards the end of the American War for Independence, in 1782, the HMS St. Albans was once again an integral part of an historical turning point, when she fought valiantly in the Battle of the Saintes. Many historians have labelled this as the most decisive naval battle and most important British victory in the American War for Independence.
In the years following American independence, the HMS St. Albans was stationed at the large Royal Navy base on Bermuda. The island had always served as an important way-point on the Atlantic crossing for British ships, but it became particularly important after Britain lost its thirteen American colonies. Henceforth, the bulk of British naval presence in the Atlantic sailed from Bermuda, which also became the assembly point for the British fleet that took Washington in the War of 1812.
From Bermuda, the HMS St. Albans sailed on numerous voyages along the American coast, many of which are documented on our chart. Among the more honorable achievements was the rescue of the crew of HMS Actif, which was sinking in the mid-Atlantic. This was in 1794. After this, records of her activities in the Americas diminish, until we find her operating out of the China Station by 1810. She was taken out of active duty and converted to a battery barge in 1812-13, ending an illustrious career on the high seas.
Uncovering the map’s secrets
While the attribution of this map to the crew of the HMS St. Albans is the most likely and only convincing explanation in light of what is actually depicted on the map, there are no formal markings from the Royal Navy to confirm this. It is consequently unclear whether this incredible chart served an official purpose on board, or whether it may have been the private initiative of a navigational officer or other skilled midshipman. If this is the case, however, it would have required someone with significant knowledge of surveying and navigation, as the map is extremely well-executed in regard to both aesthetics and precision.
Despite the lack of formal Royal Navy markings, the many annotations align perfectly with both the waters and the period in which the HMS St. Albans sailed, and the itineraries noted on the map are exactly the types of journeys that we know she and her crew undertook. Moreover, on the return voyage to England in June of 1797, not only is the ship named explicitly, but naval records also confirm that the HMS St. Albans joined the Royal Fleet outside Lisbon later that same year, confirming her crossing. This is strong and concrete evidence in favor of attribution to that particular ship.
For the keen observer, there is only one element that might draw the attribution into question. The map includes a faded itinerary drawn onto the map in pencil, which suggests activity until 1816. This is anachronous, however, as the HMS St. Albans was converted to a floating battery barge in 1813 and broken up completely the following year. By 1816, the ship no longer existed. At first glance this annotation may detract from the attribution of this hand-drawn chart to that iconic vessel, but here it is important to note that the annotation carrying the date of 1816 is entirely distinct from the rest of the chart. Not only is it the only annotation made in pencil, but it was also done in a rather different, and somewhat weaker hand than the other itineraries, which consistently have been kept in original colored inks.
In addition to being dated to 1816, the pencil itinerary starts out from Boston, after which it cuts eastward across the Atlantic and out of the map. This is also historically incongruous. The War of 1812 saw vicious fighting between Britain and the United States, and all of their formal and informal dependencies. This violent struggle had only ended in 1815 and British Royal Navy vessels (from which there can be no doubt that this map comes) would not be setting out for an Atlantic crossing from Boston Harbor the following year. Everything about the pencil annotation thus suggests that it does not connect to the genesis of the original document.
The map was drawn on paper using black, red, green, blue, and sepia ink. Along all four edges the map is framed by an impressively accurate hand-drawn graticule. Sections of the map — specifically the American coastline, Bermuda, and the Bahamas — are provided with topographical detail and colored in greens, blues, and yellows. Despite a long and hard life at sea, the original coloring has been beautifully preserved and helps bring the chart to life. To ensure the chart’s longevity despite harsh conditions, it was at some stage backed on Hessian cloth and thin board.
Hepper, David J. (1994). British Warship Losses in the Age of Sail, 1650-1859. Rotherfield: Jean Boudriot.
Lavery, Brian (2003) The Ship of the Line - Volume 1: The development of the battlefleet 1650-1850. Conway Maritime Press.