A Sea Waggoner for the Whole World

Article excerpt

It would be "a sea waggoner for the whole world, with charts and draughts of particular places, and a large description of all the roads, harbors, and havens, with the dangers, depths, and soundings in most parts of the world, which work was never yet performed by any [Englishman]." Thus did John Seller announce his intention in 1669 to publish The English Pilot, the first major sea atlas in the English language.

The task was an ambitious one, for throughout the age of exploration the chart trade had been monopolized by continental Europe. Even the coast of England itself had been mapped by the Dutch, and few English sailors had the requisite mathematical or cartographical skills to construct an accurate chart. Moreover, Seller's vision encompassed the entire known world. He proposed to publish not one, but five separate volumes, one for the waters of northern Europe, one for the Mediterranean, and one each for Africa, the Orient, and the Americas.

Alas, Seller's aspirations exceeded his resources. Though he was a successful entrepreneur who traded in compasses and other nautical instruments, and had written and published several texts on navigation, he could neither draw competent charts nor engrave the copperplates with which to print them. Though the title page of Seller's premier volume, published in 1671, assured the reader that the work was "furnished with new and exact draughts, charts, and descriptions gathered from the experience and practice of divers and expert navigators of our English nation," the work was more accurately described by diarist Samuel Pepys as containing maps printed from "old worn Dutch plates."

Fortunately for future generations of sailors and bibliophiles, the enterprise was underfunded, and Seller soon was forced to take on partners who, by the publication of the first American volume in 1689, had bought him out entirely. Seller's successors were William Fisher, a bookseller, and John Thornton, described by one scholar as the most competent and distinguished chart maker in England at that time.

It was this felicitous combination of talents and resources that made the American volume, or The English Pilot; The Fourth Book, into one of cartography's most remarkable achievements. Thornton contributed twenty of his own original charts to the first several editions of the atlas. These additions, along with work of other deft hydrographers, were so clear and simple to use that The Fourth Book was considered the most authoritative guide to American waters for more than fifty years. Between 1689 and 1794, it was published in no fewer than thirty-seven legitimate editions and in at least three pirated, unauthorized ones. The textural content changed little over 105 years, but maps and charts constantly were added and deleted as new information became available or as the copperplates from which the maps were printed simply wore out and had to be replaced. …