A fascinating sea chart, depicting the Pacific Ocean immediately before the great wave of exploration that occurred from the 1760s to the 1790s.
This fine chart, issued by the French Depot de la Marine, depicts the Pacific world as it was known by Europeans in the 1750s. It depicts the entire west coast of the Americas up to around 40 degrees North. California is correctly shown to be a peninsula and the casts of South America are quite well-defined, having been mapped by Jorge Juan y Santacilia in the 1740s. On the opposite side, while not absolutely precise, most of the features of East Asia are approximately where they should be, although the Korean Peninsula takes on an exaggerated size, and the area where Japan's Hokkaido should be located is left blank, the area not having yet been properly explored.
Further south, the depiction of Australasia is fascinating. The north coast of Australia up the western shores of the Gulf of Capentaria reveals the discoveries of various Dutch explorers, particularly Willem Janszoon's voyage of 1605-6. Likewise New Guinea's coasts are partially revealed by the discoveries of Janszoon and Luís Vaz de Torres 1606 expedition. The south coast of Tasmania and the partial outlines of New Zealand are based on the mapping done by Abel Tasman from 1642 to 1644.
Otherwise the Pacific between the Americas and Asia and Australasia is largely an open enigma. There are various apocryphal islands, although the map shows the discovery of the Marquesas Islands by Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira in 1595 and the mysterious "Terre St. Esprit" (Vanuatu), discovered by Pedro Fernandes de Queirós during his 1605-6 voyage.
The chart thus depicts the state of play before the explorers Samuel Wallis, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and James Cook began to completely reveal the Pacific Ocean to European eyes. Within a generation of this map being made, the east coast of Australia and all of New Zealand would be mapped, while countless mid-Pacific islands would be discovered, most notably Tahiti and the Hawaiian Islands. This chart is thus a fascinating overview of the Pacific taken right before a transformative turning point in history.
The Dépôt de la Marine, known more formally as the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine, was the central charting institution of France. The centralization of hydrography in France began in earnest when Jean-Baptiste Colbert became First Minister of France in 1661. Under his watch, the first Royal School of Hydrography began operating, as did the first survey of France’s coasts (1670-1689). In 1680, Colbert consolidated various collections of charts and memoirs into a single assemblage, forming the core of sources for what would become the Dépôt.
The Dépôt itself began as the central deposit of charts for the French Navy. In 1720, the Navy consolidated its collection with those government materials covering the colonies, creating a single large repository of navigation. By 1737, the Dépôt was creating its own original charts and, from 1750, they participated in scientific expeditions to determine the accurate calculation of longitude.
In 1773, the Dépôt received a monopoly over the composition, production, and distribution of navigational materials, solidifying their place as the main producer of geographic knowledge in France. Dépôt-approved charts were distributed to official warehouses in port cities and sold by authorized merchants. The charts were of the highest quality, as many of France’s premier mapmakers worked at the Dépôt in the eighteenth century, including Philippe Bauche, Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, Rigobert Bonne, Jean Nicolas Buache, and Charles-François Beautemps-Beaupré.
The Dépôt continued to operate until 1886, when it became the Naval Hydrographic Service. In 1971, it changed names again, this time to the Naval and Oceanographic Service (SHOM). Although its name has changed, its purpose is largely the same, to provide high quality cartographic and scientific information to the France’s Navy and merchant marine.