Tag Archives: old nautical maps

The Pillars of Hercules

old nautical map gibraltar

Nautical Map of the Strait of Gibraltar, 1644.

The Strait of Gibraltar has always been a highly strategic naval passage between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and therefore the subject of many disputes and wars. The name comes from Arabic, meaning Tariq’s mountain, referring to the Muslim commander Tariq ibn Ziyad who conquered the Rock in the early 8th century. In ancient times, the Strait was called The Pillars of Hercules (Columnae Herculis). This refers to the legend of Hercules and his twelve labours. One of these, which included travelling to the most western limits of the world, was to bring the cattle of Geryon to Greece. The title Pillars of Hercules was also included on ancient maps before Gibraltar became the widespread name for the Rock and the nearby Strait from the 8th century onwards.

The travel book, “Pillars of Hercules” by Paul Theroux describes the author’s travels from Gibraltar around the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Ceuta, a Spanish territory in Africa, just across from Gibraltar.

Buy restored reproduction of this map printed on a high quality handmade paper here.

The Eddystone Lighthouse Story

old nautical map atlantic

Portolan Map Covering the Atlantic Ocean by the English, French, Spanish and Portugese Coastline, 1698. This map  oriented to the East.

Because of the colonies in Africa, Asia and America, the intensity of transatlantic trade had increased considerably by the end of the 17th century. This made the coastline of England, France, Spain and Portugal very busy due to the maritime traffic. The development of seafaring brought the need for new tools in navigation and safety at sea. That is why many lighthouses were built in this area.

The first recorded instance of an offshore lighthouse was in 1698, which was built on Eddystone Rocks, located about 14 kilometres offshore from the major harbour of Plymouth. The rocks are also marked on this map. There is a moving story of Mr Henry Winstanley connected to this lighthouse. Winstanley was a man with many interests such as mechanics or mathematics. He became a merchant and purchased five ships for such entrepreneurial activities. After two of the ships were wrecked on Eddystone Rocks, Winstanley complained, claiming that ships should be protected from such dangerous rocks, but nothing was done as the reef was considered impossible to mark. As a result, he decided to build a lighthouse himself, which took him two years to finish. He had to face unexpected obstacles during the construction. As this was in the period when England was at war with France, he was taken captive by a French privateer while on the construction site and taken to France. The construction had been destroyed. However, the French King Louis XIV ordered his immediate release, stating: “France is at war with England, not with humanity”. Winstanley returned to the Eddystone reef and finished the construction in 1698. He remained as the lighthouse keeper for the next five years. During the time he ran the lighthouse, no ships were wrecked on Eddystone rock. He died in the lighthouse in 1703 during a particularly strong storm.

For the full story, read “Henry Winstanley and the Eddystone Lighthouse” by Adam Hart-Davis or “Fearless” by Elvira Woodruf.

Buy restored reproduction of this map printed on a high quality handmade paper here.


Invention of a Chronometer – a Big Progress in Sea Navigation

old nautical map of atlantic

Nautical Map of the Atlantic Ocean by the Coast of Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar and Morocco, 1760

This is a nice example of what are known as portolan charts – navigational maps based on compass directions and estimated distances observed by captains at sea. Portolan maps have one main compass rose in the middle with 16 other compass roses located in a circle around the main rose.

The Age of Discovery peaked with James Cook and his famous voyages in the second half of the 18th century. The biggest problem in sea navigation was solved around this time when the marine chronometer invented by John Harrison enabled the measurement of accurate time and, therefore, accurate longitude at sea. Whereas latitude could be easily determined at sea by measuring the sun’s angle at noon, the measurement of longitude remained a major problem until the 1760s. With the invention of the chronometer, it was possible to accurately measure the time of a known fixed location, for example, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Knowing GMT at local noon allows a navigator to use the time difference between the ship’s position and the Greenwich Meridian to determine the ship’s longitude.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory displays a collection of the first chronometers invented by John Harrison. His life-story is narrated by Kathryn Lasky in her children’s book “The man who made time travel”.

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Brittany Bloomed Due to Its Strategic Position in Late 17th Century

old nautical map of southern brittany

Map of the Southern Coast of Brittany /Bretagne, 1693.

This map brings us to the end of 17th century when Brittany fully benefited from its strategic position between Spain, Britain and the Netherlands and played a leading role in France’s naval expansion – Bretons constituted an important component of the French Navy and contributed to the colonisation of the New France and the West Indies.

Buy restored reproduction of this map printed on a handmade paper here.