Some years ago, a Russian tanker hit a rock, somewhere near Scandinavia, spilling crude oil over the adjoining coastline. In the ensuing litigation, in which the Russian tanker captain was being sued for the recovery of the costs of a clean up, it emerged that the rock had been misplaced on the modern charts. It had, however, been correctly placed on the charts of the 19th Century. That incident said a lot about the quality of 19th century hydrography, and the failures of modern methods, or at least, of those who use them. The cause of the error on the modern charts was the production of so much digital information about objects in the area, that a mistake was made in feeding the relevant information into the chart production, now a digital, process. Until the invention of the echo sounder in the early 20th Century, hydrography and the production of sea charts relied on methods hardly changed for hundreds of years. Lead lines, logs, sextants and compass bearings, served hydrographers well. The results of these old methods are the subject of these two books, both by the same author, John Blake.

These two books, both by John Blake, will satisfy any mariner’s interest in the history of sea charts. The Sea Charts of the British Isles, subtitled a voyage of discovery around Britain, explores, through a series of historic charts, the multitude of seaports, fishing and commercial harbours, naval bases, dockyards and seaside havens, said by the author to have supported local life, and defended and imported for the nation. After an introductory Chapter, setting out a general description of Great Britain as an island, and providing a brief history of the work of the hydrographic office during the 19th Century, Sea Charts of the British Isles takes a circular tour, clockwise from London and the Thames Estuary around the coast of Great Britain. Each Chapter is fully illustrated with charts from, broadly, the 16th to the 19th Centuries. This is a softback packed with fascinating information of many familiar ports and coastlines. Although there is an introductory text to each Chapter, covering substantial sections of the coastline, the greatest interest lies in the charts themselves and the associated explanations.

The Sea Chart, also by Blake, is a much more substantial work, in a different sense. Even its subtitle, The illustrated History of Nautical Maps and Navigational Charts, fails to do justice to the scope of the works. This is a review of a number of charts from across the world. This book has as its theme a worldwide survey of sea charts. As Blake notes in his introduction, the French were the first to set up a hydrographic office in 1720, and the British, with much Admiralty vacillation, but spurred on by the American War of Independence, followed much later in 1795. Indeed, as Blake explains, Denmark had set up such an office in 1784, Spain in 1800 and Russia in 1827. Officers and sailing masters often prepared their own charts before these dates and, with a hydrographic office in several countries, these and other charts were submitted to the central authority. In this work, Blake first explores the British coasts and Northern Europe, before proceeding to the Arctic to find the North East and North West Passages, then on to Africa, India, Ceylon and the Persian Gulf, before moving further east to the Pacific and the East Indies. He then has Chapters covering the Caribbean and northwards along the east coast of North America before concluding Chapters deal with the west coast of America and Australia, New Zealand and the Antarctic. Blake provides more information in his textual description of the history of chart making in the respective regions of the world.

Both of these books are fascinating, especially for those who take an interest in chart making. Some of the earlier charts are beautiful productions. Of the two books, I think I would prefer to take the Sea Charts of the British Isles with me when cruising around the British coastline, simply for comparison and discussion. The second book, The Sea Chart, is far more academic and comprehensive in its approach to the practice of hydrography across the world; it is really a book for the reference library.