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The Florida Archipelago in its Grandest Form – An Exceptional Chart of Florida, the Gulf Coast and Caribbean

Rare state of Bellin's important sea chart of the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean, which is substantially revised and updated from the first edition of 1749.

The chart includes a sliver of the Pacific, with the Yucatan Peninsula and the large islands of Cuba and Saint Domingue at the center. The northern-most part of South America looms to the south, with the small dots of the Leeward Islands in the east.

The updates throughout the map are significant, from the changes in the interior of Texas, to the better understanding of the course of the rivers and contours of the coastline throughout the entirety of the Gulf Coast. This is particularly evident near New Orleans.

Throughout this chart are notes as to the whereabouts of colonial fortifications, an indication of how hotly contested this area was by European imperial powers. There is also an unfinished color code to indicate the status of each island with regard to its imperial master: blue for France, yellow for Britain, orange for the Danes, red for Spain, and green for the Dutch. The stakes were high in claiming territorial possessions. For example, Saint Domingue was the most lucrative colony in the world at this time, making France great wealth via enslaved labor working on sugar plantations.

This edition includes mountains in the interior of many landmasses. This gives the viewer an idea of the terrain, even if the purpose of the chart was primarily to share nautical information.

The additions and alterations are also evident throughout Central America and the Caribbean. For example, the outlines of the Yucatan Peninsula and Isle de la Trinite have been reworked. The Leeward Islands are substantially more detailed.

Perhaps the most significant change, and the one which would continue to evolve on maps and charts over the next several decades, is the vastly different treatment of southern Florida. In this edition, Bellin has broken up the Peninsula into a vast archipelago of islands, beginning in the central part of Florida's east coast. Such a depiction is distinctive and reveals how little European navigators still knew of Florida’s shores south of St. Augustine.

States of the chart

This map is apparently an early state of this second edition of the map, with the date of “Annee 17.” While some observers have noted that "Annee 17" could mean the seventeenth year of the French Republic, it is more likely this state was prepared with the latter part of the date unfinished, so as to be completed when the chart was completed and approved by the officers of the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine.  

Other evidence on the map supports this pre-revolutionary interpretation, namely the words "Vaisseau du Roy" which still appear in the title. Bellin is also referenced as "Censeur Royale;" both phrases strongly suggest that the French Revolution had not yet commenced.

The Ministre de la Marine, at who’s behest the chart was made, is listed as the Duc de Praslin. César Gabriel de Choiseul received that title in 1763. He served as Secretary of the Navy from 1766 to 1770, when he retreated from public life after falling from political favor.

The inclusion of his name suggests that the chart was initially prepared in the late 1760s, perhaps in 1769. The date was left unfinished, most likely because it was unclear whether the chart would be published in 1769 or 1770. It remained unfinished, however, and then was added to in the early 1770s; the last date mentioned on the chart itself is 1773, when a new rock was discovered just south of the cartouche. This state was printed unfinished, hence the partial year.  

However, the officers of the Dépôt quickly remedied their mistake. They re-engraved the title cartouche to mention the 1749 first edition and removed Praslin’s name.

Jacques Nicolas Bellin Biography

Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (1703-1772) was among the most important mapmakers of the eighteenth century. In 1721, at only the age of 18, he was appointed Hydrographer to the French Navy. In August 1741, he became the first Ingénieur de la Marine of the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine (the French Hydrographic Office) and was named Official Hydrographer of the French King.

During his term as Official Hydrographer, the Dépôt was the one of the most active centers for the production of sea charts and maps in Europe. Their output included a folio-format sea atlas of France, the Neptune Francois. He also produced a number of sea atlases of the world, including the Atlas Maritime and the Hydrographie Francaise. These gained fame and distinction all over Europe and were republished throughout the eighteenth and even in the nineteenth century.

Bellin also produced smaller format maps such as the 1764 Petit Atlas Maritime, containing 580 finely-detailed charts. He also contributed a number of maps for the 15-volume Histoire Generale des Voyages of Antoine François Prévost.

Bellin set a very high standard of workmanship and accuracy, cementing France's leading role in European cartography and geography during this period. Many of his maps were copied by other mapmakers across the continent.

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.