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Map of the North Atlantic, Featuring Lord Nelson Chasing the French Fleet to the Caribbean

Intriguing and aesthetically-pleasing, large-format map of the Atlantic, published by John Thomson in Edinburgh.

The map was drawn for inclusion in Thomson’s influential New General Atlas, first published in 1817.  

The map centers on the North Atlantic, a primary theater for commercial and naval traffic between the Americas, Africa, and Europe. It stretches from Hudson’s Bay to Scandinavia, and from Iceland south to Brazil. The Caribbean is drawn with the large, and sometimes dangerous, banks around the Bahamas and south of Cuba shaded in. Similar banks are included off of New Foundland. The coastal detail is excellent and there are a few soundings in the Grand Banks.

At sea, there are many small islands, as well as obstructions that could pose a hazard to a ship. Many of these have explanatory notes. For example, a dotted circle off the coast of Sierra Leone, here written Sierra Leon, includes this text, “a Shoal even with the Water, and about 3 Leagues round seen by the Ships of the French East India Company.”

Another of these Atlantic features is Brasil Rock, west of Ireland. Hy Brasil was a wandering island thought to appear from time to time to sailors through the mist. The myth dates back to the Medieval period. Its existence was uncertain, but still plausible enough to include here.

This map includes trading routes from England to New Foundland and from England to and from the Caribbean. Two other tracks are also noted. One is the route of the American ship Insurgent to and from Spain. The USS Insurgent was a captured French ship that was then commissioned as part of the nascent US Navy. It cruised for prizes in European waters in the winter of 1799-1800, which is the voyage shown here. After the ships’ return to Baltimore and then Hampton Roads, it was to sail to the West Indies to protect American shipping and harass enemies. However, after leaving in early August, the ship was never seen again. It was presumed loss in a September storm in the West Indies.

The final track is that of Lord Nelson pursuing the French in 1805. By that year, Horatio Nelson was not only an important naval commander, but also a national hero thanks to his victories at the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Copenhagen, among other actions. After a year-and-a-half locked in by Nelson’s blockade, in January 1805, the French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve managed to slip by the British at Toulon. Villeneuve was blown back to Toulon but escaped again in April, passed the Straits of Gibraltar, and set out for the Caribbean. Nelson chased the French all the way to the West Indies, as shown here.

However, he could not find them once he arrived. Villeneuve returned to Europe, even though he had been ordered not to by Napoleon. Nelson also returned, reaching Gibraltar in late July. After a stint in England, Nelson returned to his fleet to face the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cadiz in late September. He engaged the enemy at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, winning a great victory for the British. He also received a mortal wound, dying below decks.

John Thomson Biography

John Thomson (1777-ca. 1840) was a commercial map publisher active in Edinburgh. He specialized in guide books and atlases and is primarily known for his Atlas of Scotland (1832) and the New General Atlas, first published in 1817 and reissued for the next quarter century. The New General Atlas was a commercial success—it was also published in Dublin and London—and it compiled existing geographic knowledge in compelling ways for a wide audience.

His Atlas of Scotland introduced new geographic information and was the first large-scale atlas of Scotland to be organized by county. It provided the most-accurate view of Scotland available before the Clearances. Work on the atlas began in 1820 and led to Thomson’s bankruptcy in 1830 due to the high costs of gathering the latest surveys and reviewing the required materials. Despite the publication of the atlas, Thomson declared bankruptcy again in 1835.