Charting the Approach to the Americas in the Seventeenth Century
Fine first state of John Seller's sea chart of the Western Atlantic and the contiguous coasts of New England, Canada, the eastern Caribbean, Brazil and the northeast coast of South America.
The chart is orientated with west at the top. It shows the coasts of Labrador, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the Gulf of St Lawrence and along the coast to Long Island. From there, the chart covers the Atlantic south to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and along the coast of South America into Brazil, including Pernambuco (now Recife). The Azores and Cape Verde Islands are on the east side of the chart.
The chart was meant to help navigators in the approach to the Americas. However, it is not without ornament. In the interior of Labrador is the crest of Charles II, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland when this chart was published. The crest represents all three nations, with the three lions of England in the first and third quadrants, Scotland’s lion in the second, and Ireland’s harp in the third. With the three lions are fleur-de-lis, a reference to an antiquated English claim to the French throne. The motto around the crest, Honi soit mal y pense, translates as, “Evil to him who evil thinks.” The Portuguese crest is in Brazil, much smaller than the English crest.
In the top left is a triple scale bar and a title cartouche. The title is carried on an animal hide by two women of color, a reference to the imperial systems at play when this chart was made. The Indigenous population of the areas shown had been decimated by the mid-seventeenth century. The primary labor force was enslaved people of African origin and descent. By the 1690s, just after this chart was published, 30,000 enslaved people per year were being shipped across the Atlantic on the Middle Passage. Overall, from 1526 to 1867, 12.5 million enslaved people were sent to the Americas; 10.7 million arrived there.
Seller's chart is based upon Theunis Jacobsz’s chart of ca. 1650. The most notable additions are the inclusions of the Orinoco River in South America and the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. This first state was used from 1674 (the date penciled onto the chart in Samuel Pepys’ copy of Seller's Atlas Maritimus) to 1677, when the plate was revised. It may have been issued separately as early as 1672.
States of the chart
The chart is known in two states.
- State 1: John Seller imprint only.
- State 2: The names John Colson, William Fisher, James Atkinson and John Thornton are added to the title.
The chart is very rare on the market. This is only the second example of the first state which we have offered in over 25 years.
John Seller was one of the most notable map and instrument makers in England in the late-seventeenth century. He was especially known for the sea charts, many of which featured in his influential English Pilot and Atlas Maritimus. Seller was born in London in 1632. His father was a cordwainer and John was apprenticed to Edward Lowe, of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. He was made free of that company in 1654. Later, he also was made a brother of the Clockmakers’ Company, which housed several instrument makers. He started business as a compass maker but expanded his offering to include navigational instruments and charts.
Seller’s career was halted temporarily, and fantastically, when he was tried for high treason in 1662. He was accused of involvement in a plot led by Thomas Tonge. While Seller likely only unwisely repeated rumors, he was convicted. The other conspirators, who did admit some degree of guilt, were executed, but Seller maintained his innocence and, via insistent petitions, he eventually secured his release from Newgate Prison.
This episode did not seem to slow Seller’s rise too much, however. Seller was granted a royal license to publish English-language maritime atlases. This gave him a near-monopoly and led to his being named hydrographer to the King in 1671. Although the point of the project was to produce English charts of Dutch dominance and bias, Seller ended up using many Dutch plates as his base material. The first volume of The English Pilot was published in 1671, followed by more volumes as well as The Coating Pilot (1672) and the Atlas Maritimus (1675). Seller was commercially successful, but some of his projects required further support. The English Pilot was eventually taken over by John Thornton and William Fisher, for example, and his proposed English atlas only produced maps of six counties.
Seller’s sons, John and Jeremiah, followed in their father’s profession. Seller also apprenticed several promising young men, including Charles Price, with whom his sons partnered. Through Price, Seller can be seen as the founding figure of an important group of London mapmakers that included Price, John Senex, Emanuel Bowen, Thomas Kitchin, and Thomas Jefferys.