The authoritative sea chart of the southwestern coasts of China and northern Vietnam showing the main shipping route into Hong Kong during the era of the Second Opium War.
This important work was part of a series of charts of the South China Sea first issued by the British Admiralty's United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (U.K.H.O.). It embraces the northwest part of the sea, extending from Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam to just east of Hong Kong. It includes the entire Pearl River Delta, the coasts of western Guandong and Guangxi, the Gulf of Tonkin, the island of Hainan, the northern two-thirds of the coasts of Vietnam, as well as the Paracel Islands.
The chart is based on over a generation of continually updated surveys conducted by the Royal Navy. The coastlines are demarcated by advanced trigonometric surveys, while the sea itself features numerous bathymetric soundings. It was first issued in 1859, with the present chart being the third edition, featuring corrections up to May 1863.
Importantly, the present chart played a critical role in assisting both the Royal Navy and mercantile concerns in consolidating their vast interests in the China trade during a critical time. The Treaty of Tianjin (1860), which concluded the Second Opium War (1856-60), greatly increased Western trade privileges in China. The chart illuminates East Asia's most important shipping route, that which linked Singapore with Hong Kong, as noted on the map by the intermittent line labeled 'Usual route to and from Hong-kong in fair monsoon'. The practical utility of the chart is further confirmed by the presence of contemporary manuscript additions in pencil detailing the progress of ships en route to Hong Kong. The inclusion of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam on the chart is significant, as it was considered to be the finest deep-water shelter in Southeast Asia, and major victualing point for European vessels.
The chart features the imprint near at the bottom: ' London: Published at the Admiralty 4th April 1859 under the Superintendence of Capt. Washington R.N.F.R.S. Hydrographer. Sold by J.D. Potter, Agent for the Admiralty Charts 31 Poultry and 11 King Street Tower Hill.'
The present chart is scarce, as such working sea charts have a low survival rate.
The British Admiralty has produced nautical charts since 1795 under the auspices of the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (HO). Its main task was to provide the Royal Navy with navigational products and service, but since 1821 it has also sold charts to the public.
In 1795, King George III appointed Alexander Dalrymple, a pedantic geographer, to consolidate, catalogue, and improve the Royal Navy’s charts. He produced the first chart as the Hydrographer to the Admiralty in 1802. Dalrymple, known for his sticky personality, served until his death in 1808, when he was succeeded by Captain Thomas Hurd. The HO has been run by naval officers ever since.
Hurd professionalized the office and increased its efficiency. He was succeeded by the Arctic explorer Captain William Parry in 1823. By 1825, the HO was offering over seven hundred charts and views for sale. Under Parry, the HO also began to participate in exploratory expeditions. The first was a joint French-Spanish-British trip to the South Atlantic, a voyage organized in part by the Royal Society of London.
In 1829, Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort was appointed Hydrographer Royal. Under his management, the HO introduced the wind force scale named for him, as well as began issuing official tide tables (1833). It was under Beaufort that HMS Beagle completed several surveying missions, including its most famous voyage commanded by Captain FitzRoy with Charles Darwin onboard. When Beaufort retired in 1855, the HO had nearly two thousand charts in its catalog.
Later in the nineteenth century, the HO supported the Challenger expedition, which is credited with helping to found the discipline of oceanography. The HO participated in the International Meridian Conference which decided on the Greenwich Meridian as the Prime Meridian. Regulation and standardization of oceanic and navigational measures continued into the twentieth century, with the HO participating at the first International Hydrographic Organization meeting in 1921.
During World War II, the HO chart making facility moved to Taunton, the first purpose-built building it ever inhabited. In 1953, the first purpose-built survey ship went to sea, the HMS Vidal. Today, there is an entire class of survey vessels that make up the Royal Navy’s Hydrographic Squadron. The HO began to computerize their charts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1968, the compilation staff also came to Taunton, and the HO continues to work from there today.