Notable Navigational Chart of the Strait of Malacca and Singapore
Exceptionally-rendered early sea chart of the Strait of Malacca, showing the southern part of Malaysia, the island of Singapore and the eastern part of Sumatra.
This chart was created by the greatest French hydrographer of the eighteenth century, Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, and first appeared in 1755.
The chart contains several illustrated profile views of land as seen from the straits. These views are centered at the top of the chart, providing important context for original viewers and adding to the chart’s visual interest today. The illustrations are notated with their place names and navigation directions from known landmarks, making their locations easily traceable on the chart.
The Malaysian coastline on this chart is extraordinarily detailed, a testament to the diligence of Bellin and his fellow cartographers at the Dépôt de la Marine (French Hydrographic Office.) The seal of the French Hydrographic Office can be seen at bottom right, consisting of an anchor surrounded by three fleurs de lis.
The cartouche located at bottom left includes several lovely botanical illustrations. Included in the cartouche is a note that the map has been drawn from the records and manuscript map of “Sr. Dauge, Pilote du Service de la Compagnie des Indes,” a ship captain in service to the Compagnie française pour le commerce des Indes orientales (also known as the French East India Company) who had travelled through the region.
Rhumblines (lines of constant compass bearings) and water depth soundings are included throughout this chart marking its purpose as a navigational tool. The chart is bordered by neat longitude and latitude scales. Separate longitude scales are included for major prime meridians, including London, the island of Tenerife, Cap Lezard (Lizard Point, Cornwall), and l’Isle de Fer (El Herrio) in the Canaries.
Several annotations provide crucial navigational information. South of “Pulo ou Isle Panjang” (Malay for “Long Island,” modern-day Singapore), Bellin warns there are “a large number of small islands whose location is unknown.” Other annotations include two “sandbanks to be wary of” in the Malacca Strait, and a warning that “all the islands” south of the Governor’s Strait “seem to make one large land.”
Navigating through the Strait of Malacca and past Singapore was a treacherous endeavor in the eighteenth century, and this chart and its accompanying atlas would have been the prized possession of any sailing vessel attempting this journey.
Voyage of the Oiseau in 1687
This map includes the route of the vessel Oiseau, known to have completed two trips from France to Siam (Thailand) between 1685 and 1688. In 1685, the ship carried six Jesuit monks from France headed to China. The monks disembarked at the Siamese capital, and the following year the ship returned from Siam with members of a diplomatic mission to the French court.
In 1687, the Siamese diplomats returned home aboard the Oiseau, accompanied by M. de la Loubere, French envoy to the King of Siam. The ship returned to France later that year. The 1687 voyage is shown here, providing an example of a successful route to sailors viewing this chart.
It can be assumed the earlier voyages in 1685 and 1686 took similar routes as the one depicted for 1687. The ship is shown as sailing through both the Detroit du Governeur (Governor’s Strait) and the Nouveau Detroit de Sincapour (New Sincapour Strait), just south of Singapore. The northern route around Singapore, labelled Vieux Detroit de Sincapour (Old Sincapour Strait, known today as the Johor Strait) does not appear to have been in use by the time this chart was created.
The Malacca Strait as a trading gateway
The Malacca Strait has historically served as a gateway connecting Europe to trade opportunities and luxury resources in East Asia. Since the seventeenth century, the strait has been the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.
Today, the Malacca Strait remains one of the busiest and most important shipping routes in the world, and this chart reveals its historical legacy as well. It was one of the most sophisticated charts of the region from the eighteenth century and remains a fine example of French hydrography.
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.
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.