Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - December - 2006 Issue

19th Century Sea Charts From Shapero Rare Books

Blueback (and other) Charts from Bernard J. Shapero.


By Michael Stillman

Here is a catalogue for those whose dreams are to sail the seas. It is a collection of sea charts, roadmaps for those who traveled by water rather than by land. The catalogue is Blueback Charts (in One Hundred Charts) and it comes from British bookseller Bernard J. Shapero Rare Books. There are 100 of these charts that were used as sea maps during the late 18th through the 19th century. There are charts for most areas of the world.

"Blueback" charts were those privately printed, as distinguished from those put out by the British Admiralty. The official charts were large and on high quality paper, but were not always so practical for those using them on the high seas. Mariners needed charts tough enough to withstand the elements at sea, and which opened into convenient sizes. In other words, ones that provided a section of coast to be navigated in a single map, rather than a huge foldout or atlas of an entire ocean. This need led to a group of private publishers who would use both official and independent information to create these maps of sea routes all over the world.

The term "blueback" comes from the tough, blue-colored paper backing used on these sea charts. The tough backing enabled the charts to survive conditions at sea that would have destroyed most typical maps.

While the title of the catalogue refers to the blueback charts, among the 100 being offered are official as well as private bluebacks. While most charts are British, there are also Spanish and American ones in the collection. Shapero provides an excellent explanation of the types of charts that were produced in the introduction to this catalogue, along with a description of the major publishers of these navigational charts. This being specialized work, there were only a handful of publishers throughout the 19th century who produced them.

To say that these charts display coastlines would be to point out the obvious, but many of the land features are islands. The oceans are filled with these little things, though I venture many of us are unaware of them. For example, item 19 is the Chart of the Islands and Reefs of the Laccadive Group. Do you know where these are located? The Laccadives are a group of small islands in the Arabian Sea, off the southwest coast of India (they are a part of that nation). Eleven of the islands are inhabited, though the total population is only around 60,000. All right. This was a trick question. "Laccadives" was the old British name. The islands are now known by their proper name, "Lakshadweep." If I had said that, you undoubtedly would have known where to find them. This chart was published by James Horsburgh in 1848. Priced at £350 (British pounds, or approximate US equivalent of $667).

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