So what is a 'Portolan'? Charts, maps and plans at the Caird Library

Cutty Sark closure

Visitor notice: Cutty Sark will be closed on Sunday 1 March for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. The Park Row car park will also be closed to the public all weekend. On 29 February and 1 March access to the National Maritime Museum and Queen's House will be via the Romey Road or William Walk gates. Our other museum sites will be open as usual. Plan your visit

Hello, my name is Tara and I recently joined the Manuscripts team as an Archives Assistant. Prior to this, I studied English Literature and subsequently the art of graduate job-hunting. After various stints working in smaller archives, I’m enjoying being in a large, specialist archive. I’m still getting used to just how vast the collection here is! Given that the role of archives is focussed very much on increasing public access, it is a great opportunity for me to be part of a team that spends a great deal of time helping members of the public get the most from the NMM archives collections. Whilst we can’t do everyone’s research for them, we do our best to guide researchers to possible sources for the information they seek. So when I’m not on duty in the library helping readers in person, I am usually answering public enquiries and trying to absorb the knowledge around me!

One of collections that I find interesting are the Atlases, Maps and Portolans (archive catalogue reference ‘P’). Consisting of fity-eight manuscript atlases believed to date from as early as the thirteenth century, the collection is a fascinating insight into how our ancestors navigated the seas.  I spoke to the NMM Curator of Hydrography and learned that these atlases are made up of navigational sea charts known as a 'portolan charts'. Emerging in the thirteenth century, portolan charts are a mystery of sorts as they appear to have been created right through to the eighteenth century before disappearing. It is not known exactly who first created them or how, yet it is believed they were used for over four hundred years to navigate the seas, primarily by judging the distance and direction between ports, and demontrate an impressive accuracy in their depictions of coastlines and dimensions.

A fascinating example of the detail of these charts can be seen in Basil Ringrose’s ca. 1682 atlas: A Waggoner - ‘Shewing the making and bearing of all the coasts from California to the Streights of Le Maire done from the Spanish original by Basil Ringrose’(archive catalogue reference P/32: you can scroll down to click on the individual pages refered to here in brackets beneath the image). ‘Waggoner’ means sailing directions and the manuscript consists of 106 individual charts with explanatory notes, covering the Pacific coast of the Americas. The origins of the atlas are rather interesting - Basil Ringrose was part of a group of English Buccuneers who on capturing several Spanish vessels, also captured a book of charts and sailing directions. On returning to England, he created his own atlas from the stolen Spanish charts. Drawn against a sqaure pencil grid, Ringrose used a coloured line to show the coastline clearly and employed a variety of symbols to mark features as well as annotations about places and ports. A compass rose, a typical feature of early charts, shows the direction of the winds. Opposite each chart, is accompanying text with information gained from the seafarers who used these type of charts, mostly to navigate between ports for trade purposes. Below are some examples.

Reference: P/32(11). This chart shows the coast of Acapulco, Mexico. The chart is one of the more detailed on the atlas and includes the compass rose, a note of the lattitude, depth soundings (the numbers in the sea area) as well as the dot textured areas to indicate shallow waters and red symbols for anchorages. Written opposite (not shown here), the text begins ‘Acapulco is a great port of trade it is the place whence the Spaniard embarques from Mexico for China and the Fillipines’ and goes on to explain that this is ‘a peculiar privilige it hath for no other port dares trade to any parts of the East Indies.’  Considering that the atlas is based on stolen Spanish charts, it's not hard to see how valuable it was for the English to learn the Spanish trade routes. Indeed, on return to England, Charles II, far from punishing the buccaneers for their piratical deeds, expelled the Spanish Ambassodor! The text describes how ‘all goods are carryed on mules’ how during the journey the Spanish pass through ‘a nation of Indians’ who have ‘tiranicall masters’.

Reference: P/32(26). This chart shows the coast of El Viejo, Nicaragua. This chart is well annotated and shows the port of El Realejo, which was once the principal port of Nicaragua. During the early seventeenth century, it fell victim to piracy and declined in importance. It is therefore curious to see it charted by a buccaneer shortly after this period! The chart is detailed including extensive shallows and various ancorages. Intriguingly there are symbols for two nearby churches and a ship is shown coming by river from Fonseca...

And lastly:

Reference: P/32(2). Basil Ringrose’s waggoner also demonstrates the extent of European knowledge of the New World at the time: recording California as a separate island!

To see more images from Basil Ringrose’s South Sea Waggoner, search the online charts and maps collection here:!csearch;searchTerm=basil_ringrose

If you are interested in knowing more about the NMM atlases, charts and maps, browse our archive catalogue here: using the finding reference ‘P’ and look out for a coming item of the month post about London map and chart maker William Hack’s elaborate 1685 atlas of the same coastlines!

Further books available in the Caird Library catalogue:

Portolan Charts and Atlases in the National Maritime Museum
Pflederer, Richard L. [Library ID: PBF7917]

Finding their way at sea : the story of portolan charts, the cartographers who drew them and the mariners who sailed by them
Pflederer, Richard L. [Library ID: PBH5595]

Tara (Archive and Libary)