The National Maritime Museum holds a unique collection of around 100,000 historical sea charts and maps.
Many of the historical charts and maps held by the Museum were owned by naval officers and politicians. They were used to plan and record events which have since become a part of maritime history.
Our sea charts and maps were used to navigate the world's seas and oceans and illustrate the work of leading hydrographers and cartographers throughout history.
The earliest portulan charts were prepared on vellum and depicted the Mediterranean seas. The information presented in these navigational maps was based on compass directions and estimated distances observed by pilots at sea. Later on, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese sea charts were produced based on expeditions made in the late 15th and early 16th century.
Most of the maps in our collections are drawn on Gerard Mercator's projection, which transforms the curved surface of the earth on to a flat plane. This method of charting the world’s seas and oceans was first introduced in 1569. Printed charts replaced manuscript charts in the late 16th century.
The Dutch dominated the sea chart and map market for many years and published a series of fine sea atlases. France and Britain were the next major forces in maritime chartmaking. Both countries established naval hydrographic offices, France in 1720 and Britain in 1795.
Britain’s leading contribution to charting the seas was further highlighted by the voyages of Captain James Cook (1768-80). Britain continued to lead the production of sea charts and maps throughout the 19th century.
The collections at Royal Museums Greenwich offer a world-class resource for researching maritime history. Our collections of sea charts and maps include:
Find out how you can use our collections for research