South Pacific Ocean Chart

Original content by: Rich King

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

This chart of the South Pacific represents in two-dimensional form over a quarter of the Earth. A chart, a word still in use today at sea, is a map of the oceans, seas, navigable rivers, and harbors. Along with a compass to tell direction and a sounding lead to check the depth, a reliable chart is essential and elemental for safe navigation. Different from a map on land, the information on a chart focuses on the depths of water, the tracing of coastlines, and navigational aids such as lighthouses and buoys. This chart was donated in 1943 with a set of several other charts by a wealthy descendent of a whaling family named Edward Howland Greene of Dartmouth, Massachusetts—the same man who gave Mystic Seaport the Charles W. Morgan itself.

This chart smells like an attic. Folded hard in the middle, likely untouched for decades, the chart was damaged over time, perhaps from exposure to too much light and pollutants in the air, so that on each end it has a broad brown stripe the width of a book. The low-acid content in the paper has kept the chart, especially these light-damaged ends, from becoming brittle and falling apart. The chart is sprinkled with water stains. It’s torn in places, ripped in others, and has been patched and repaired at various stages. It was constructed by hand from three sheets glued together vertically because of the size limits of the copper etching plates at the time.

Tiny print at the bottom, partly obscured by more recent repair cloth is a note stating that it was printed by J.W. Norie in 1825 in London. But this is a revised edition. This is the lower half that connects with a chart of the North Pacific, which has a cartouche that likely gives the revision date. We know this was reprinted after 1825 because there’s a notation on this chart, beside four neat little dots near the equator, which says in printed script: “Islands, seen 1832.” Can you find it? Can you find anything else on this chart that dates after 1825?

In addition to the depths and coastlines, this chart is printed with enough information and misinformation to occupy several afternoons of reading, especially with its antiquated names and the cartographer’s candor. For example, notice how much of the southern coast of Papua New Guinea in this chart is simply left blank. What is now called the “South Island” in New Zealand, or "Te Wai Pounamu" in Māori, is labeled “Tavai Poenammoo.” Look at what it says by the Galápagos. Next to several other islands far to the west, the cartographer printed simply “doubtful,” or the name of the captain who observed it—or that “Spaniards” reported the given rock.

This chart is also a work of art. The large capital letters that label and stretch across AUSTRALIA and SOUTH AMERICA were given delicate line work and shadows. Beside the Beagle Channel, the “Volcano,” which was later named Mt. Darwin by Captain Fitzroy in 1834, as a birthday gift to his twenty-five-year-old naturalist companion was illustrated with fine-line grading, like the rest of the chain of the Andes, with a snow-packed peak.

Yet what makes this chart so special is not who donated it, how old it is, or even how beautifully illustrated it is. Mystic Seaport Museum has another that’s exactly the same and several copies of this South Pacific chart are preserved in a few collections around the world. What this particular chart has, however, are the working track lines that represented the courses of different whaling voyages. It was common practice on a chart of this scale to mark the ship’s position every twenty-four hours or so, and then connect these dots with a straight line to mark where the ship has traveled. The ship’s officer measured the distance with a set of dividers. The puncture marks from the steel points of the dividers are still visible on the chart. You can see the divider punctures if you magnify, for example, beside the pencil track line off Tarrapaca, Peru.

Perhaps three or four different mariners in the mid-1800s wrote in pencil a variety of notes, corrections, dots, dotted lines, straight lines, sketched lines, circles, boxes, recommendations, and even a couple dates. The earliest we have been able to read with any confidence, written near the equator, to the west of the Galapagos) says “June 15—1847 Ship C. Morris.” This is from the whaleship Commodore Morris was out of Falmouth, Massachusetts.  We were able to match it to the logbook of that voyage from 1845-1849, Captain Silas Jones, which matches some of the tracklines on this chart.  We found the logbook at the Falmouth Historical Society.

Still another aspect of this particular chart, which makes it so special, is that at least one captain drew with his pencil several clumps of whale flukes, presumably representing whales killed. The drawings are centered among what were then called the Kings Mill group, and are now the present day Gilbert Islands, which are part of the vast island nation of Kirabiti (pronounced Kiri-bas). All these islands are scattered like seeds around the navel of the mapped Earth: where the equator intersects the dateline of 180˚ longitude. The largest patch of over two dozen drawn flukes was penciled directly around the equator. The captain drew these tightly together and among a maze of track lines that go in so many different directions and among so many position dots that doesn’t it seem like he must be joking? We don’t think he is, even though it’s such a bird’s nest of lines in and across and around the flukes.

Finally, this chart is helpful for our understanding of the novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, because the clump of hand-drawn flukes in the western equatorial Pacific is one of the prime regions where American whalers hunted sperm whales in the mid-nineteenth century, what the character Ishmael calls the “Season-on-the-Line.” This is roughly the region in the novel, Ishmael tells us, where Captain Ahab lost his leg to the White Whale, where this fictional whale was commonly sighted in previous years, and, it seems, where Ahab meets the White Whale again at the suspenseful ending of the story.

So this aged chart, a scroll, which you’re electronically scrolling over, with its beauty and detail, is packed with stories and the opportunity for interpretation and history. Mystic Seaport Museum still knows very little about it. Will you let us know if you learn more? 

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why would a whaleman draw whale flukes on the copy of his chart? What if hundreds or even thousands of whalemen did the same thing and someone collected the information? See the work of Matthew Fontaine Maury.
  2. What kind of whales do you think these flukes represent? How is the location relevant?
  3. Why was so little known about the geography of the Pacific Ocean and its islands in the 1820's and '30s?