Daniel Ross (1780-1849) was a renowned marine surveyor in the service of the East India Company (EIC). His precision and skill were lauded by contemporaries, including those at the Royal Navy’s Hydrographic Office. Clements Markham, explorer and President of the Royal Geographical Society, called him “the Father of the Indian Surveys.”
Ross’ mother, Elizabeth Foord, was a freed slave from Jamaica. His father was a Jamaican merchant, Hercules Ross. His father moved his children to Scotland, where they attended school. At fifteen, in 1795, Daniel joined the Bombay Marine and quickly gained a reputation for being brave, clever, and studious.
Over the next decade, Ross acquitted himself well in EIC ships and, for a time, Royal Navy ships when he was seconded from 1797-8. Promoted second lieutenant in 1800, Ross quickly proved himself adept at fighting pirates and rivals of the Company. He was made first lieutenant in 1804 and commander the following year.
To this point, Ross had earned a reputation primarily as a fighting captain. Given command of the Antelope in 1806, Ross was chosen for a patrol of the waters near Macao because of that reputation; however, the mission was also to survey ports of refuge when time allowed. This began an important fourteen-year period of hydrographic work in the South China Sea. Paired with Lieutenant Philip Maughan, also a skilled nautical surveyor, Ross and his crew brought many of the area’s tricky passages and coveted ports to light for the first time. Of his colleague, Maughan said:
Concerning Captain Daniel Ross’s labours in the China Seas from 1806-1820 believe me the British Merchants Trading to China and the Captains and ships owe much to his scientific exertions…no fatigue night or day damped his ardour to benefit his country – I was with him most of the time & witness to his exertions…He carried out all his surveys on a trigonometrical basis; all his angles were checked with sextant and his triangulation frequently checked by astronomical observations. (as quoted in Agnes Butterfield, Captain Daniel Ross (1982), 5; manuscript at the Royal Society)
Ross gained wide approbation for this work. Captain Jervis of the Bengal Engineers stated at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (August 26, 1838):
The maritime surveys which have been made by the East India Company's naval officers are honourable to the spirit of the great public body whose desire they were instituted. A series of charts of the entire coast of China, by my friend Captain Daniel Ross, Indian Royal Navy, and others, illustrating the ports, rivers and coasts, from Cochin China and throughout the Malayan Archipelago to the confines of India, by Captains Crawford, Robinson and Ross, are highly useful to the navigators who frequent those seas.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1822 and, a year later, appointed Marine Surveyor General at Calcutta (Kolkata). Between 1823 and 1833 he superintended the surveying of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Ross held the position until his resignation in 1833, when he retired to Bombay (Mumbai) to serve as the Master Attendant (Harbor Master). There he served as President of the Geographical Society of Bombay from 1838-1845. In declining health, Ross resigned his post in 1848; he died the following year.
Between 1805 and 1833, he and his crews completed 46 charts. These would form the basis of Horsburgh’s famed India Directory. Ross was also a pioneer in the nascent science of tidology, playing a role in the publication of the first tide tables in 1833. His works are much sought-after today and they are only rarely found on the market.