The First English Sea Chart of West Africa
Second state of John Seller's extremely rare English sea chart of the Western Coast of Africa, first published by Seller in about 1675.
The chart was originally produced a part of Seller's effort to publish an East India Pilot, intended as a guide for English mariners for the route round the Cape of Good Hope to the East Indies, which was to be the Third Book of Seller's English Pilot. While text and some charts for the East India Pilot were published, it was never formally issued as a separate book by Seller in the 1670s.
Seller was able to use the chart in his Atlas Maritimus, a one-volume work, but was not able to complete his third (East Indies) and fourth (America) books. Running desperately low on funds, he enlisted the financial support of William Fisher, John Colson, James Atkinson and John Thornton, but it was not sufficient to keep the project afloat.
The second state of this chart bears the imprint of Seller and his collaborators below the title cartouche. The first state only notes John Seller's name in the scale of miles.
The English first became involved in the west coast of Africa trade in the 1650s, when they established a trading post at the island of Goree, off the coast of Senegal. The island was strategically located near the mouth of the River Gambia, and offered a secure base for the English to trade with the local African kingdoms. The English quickly became established as a major player in the trade, and over the next few decades, they expanded their network of trading posts along the coast, as far south as modern-day Ghana.
The trade in goods such as gold and ivory was extremely profitable, and the English soon found themselves competing with other European powers, such as the Portuguese and the Dutch, for control of these resources. The English had a distinct advantage, however, as their ships were better equipped to navigate the treacherous waters along the coast, and their naval force was increasingly more powerful than that of their rivals. This would ultimately allow them to establish a dominant position in the trade, and to control the flow of goods from Africa to Europe and later slaves to America and the Caribbean.
The map is very rare on the market.
We note one example offered by Dominic Winter in 2007 at auction and 1 example offered by Susanna Fisher in a dealer catalog in 1989.
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.