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Fine Sea Chart of Eastern Patagonia Based on the Beagle Surveying Expeditions

Remarkable sea chart of the eastern coast of Patagonia, published by the French hydrographic authority, the Dépôt de la Marine. The hydrography is based on the pioneering surveying expeditions of the British Admiralty from 1826 to 1836, the second of which was host to Charles Darwin.

The chart extends from just south of Bahia Blanca on the coast of Argentina to the entrance to the Strait of Magellan. To the east, the Falklands peek out from the chart’s frame. Below and above them are views of landmarks and mountains as they would be seen from the water. Several simple compass roses are included in the water, to aid navigators in charting a course.

In inland South America, there are inset plans of:

  • Port Gallegos (Cape Fairweather)
  • Port Desire
  • Sea Bear Bay
  • Port Santa Cruz
  • Port San Julian

There are manuscript additions in pencil marking the dates that a ship was in those coordinates and other information.

The Beagle surveying voyages

Since its first passage by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, the Strait was known for its maze-like path and terrible weather. After the discovery of the alternative route round Cape Horn by the Dutchmen Le Maire and Schouten in 1615, most ships preferred to brave the harsh winds of the Horn than crawl through the labyrinthine strait.

Eager to improve navigation between Atlantic and Pacific, the Admiralty and their newly-created Hydrographic Office, founded in 1795, sought to make better charts of the Strait and Patagonia. They sent the HMS Adventure with the smaller HMS Beagle to survey the southern coast of South America. The Beagle was under the command of Commander Pringle Stokes, while the Adventure and the expedition itself was led by Phillip Parker King.

After two years of surveying work in the dismal conditions of Tierra del Fuego, Stokes shot himself. He lingered for two weeks before dying. His role was filled by the first lieutenant of the Beagle, William Skyring. Somewhat to the chagrin of Skyring and King, this promotion was not made permanent and the position was instead given to Robert Fitzroy, then only 23 years old. He served out the final two years of the first expedition and proved himself a skilled hydrographer.

In part to alleviate the anxieties and depression that had plagued Stokes, the Admiralty suggested that Fitzroy take a naturalist, and a social equal, on ship with him for the second surveying voyage, which was to carry on the work of the first. In September 1831, Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer of the Navy, wrote to Fitzroy that they had found just the man, a young Charles Darwin. Together, they sailed until 1836, when the Beagle returned to England two years later than expected.

Although eventually eclipsed by Darwin’s writings on the Galapagos and other natural history discoveries, the hydrography of the Beagle expeditions was unparalleled in its precision and volume. The maps produced by King, Stokes, Skyring, and Fitzroy were still in use well into the twentieth century. They were also clearly good enough for Britain’s rivals, as this French version of the chart shows.

Depot de la Marine Biography

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.