MAPPING ABACO: A JOURNEY BACK TO THE c18
From time to time I come across historic maps of the Bahamas in general and Abaco in particular. Many were included in a post I wrote some time ago about the maritime and geographic importance of Hole-in-the-Wall, HERE. Almost all pre-c20 maps of the Bahamas contain insights into the maritime and geo-political history of the islands that are worth investigating. One that recently caught my eye is a map dated 1778 from Italy, published in Venice, with the excellent title “Il Paese de’ Selvaggi Outauacesi, e Kilistinesi Intorno al Lago Superiore”, attributed to Antonio Zatta, John Mitchell and G T Raynal. “The title translated, might read, “The Country of the Savage Ottowas and Christineaux on the shores of Lake Superior.” Except for Ile Royale, the large islands in the lake are fictitious. The somewhat distorted outline of southern Florida in the inset is in keeping with general lack of British knowledge about this area” Portinaro & Knirsch
Zatta was a Venetian cartographer who produced some important maps in the 1770s and 1780s, including a 4-volume atlas of the world. Mitchell was a geographer and botanist, best known for the first comprehensive map of eastern North America (1755); Guillaume Thomas Raynal was a French writer and journalist most famous for his treatise on the ‘philosophical and political history of the establishment of commerce by Europeans in the the two Indies’, a work that was considered controversial (it was banned in France, and copies burned).
THE COMPLETE MAP
FOCUS ON FLORIDA
The ‘eastern Florida’ inset conveniently happens to include the northern Bahamas. Staying with Fl. for a moment, of note is the inclusion of C. Canaveral, spelled then as now. Key Biscayne is also shown. I wondered about the place marked Tartarughe Secche – ‘Dry Turtles’. It is now Dry Tortugas National Park. “Mostly water, this remote park features abundant marine & bird life plus a 19th-century fort. It comprises 7 islands, plus protected coral reefs. Garden Key is home to beaches and the 19th-century Fort Jefferson. Loggerhead Key has a lighthouse and sea turtles. On nearby Loggerhead Reef, the Windjammer Wreck, the remains of an 1875 ship, is a popular dive site. Bush Key is a nesting site for seabirds like sooty terns.”** I suspect that these coral reef islets were marked on maps in days before lighthouses because of the hazards they posed to navigation at sea; and because, like Hole-in-the-Wall on Abaco, they were useful navigation aids.
ABACO & NORTHERN BAHAMAS
Unacknowledged in both the map and the inset titles, are the northern Bahamas islands. We can pass by Bimini, Andros and (Grand) Bahama which, apart from distinct oddities of scale, shape, and location are more or less as one might expect for the period. Let’s look at some details of the depiction of Abaco.
- ABACO(A) The first geographical jolt comes not from the well-known fact that historically, present-day Abaco was originally called Lucaya (or variations), but that (New) Providence was called Abacoa. Adding to the confusion, some early maps also show certain cays as ‘Abaco’, ‘Abacoa’, or in the case of Tilloo Cay in 1815, ‘Aboca’, possibly through errors or misunderstandings. This map is one of the few I have seen that shows both the mapped transition of Lucaya (or its variants) to Abaco; and of Abaco(a) to Providence. If anyone has any idea why this came about, I’d be pleased to know!
- HITW? The next surprise is that Hole-in-the-Wall, an established and mapped nautical landmark for some decades, is not marked. Shown on maps since at least 1738, this is the first map I have found – other than the most basic – that does not feature HITW (in whatever language) or ‘Lighthouse Point’. An odd omission.
- PORTO PICCOLO’s inclusion is interesting because it continues a tendency – eg 1738, Couvens & Mortier – to show Little Harbour as the only named settlement, though by 1778 there must have been others. LH was clearly a place of some significance, and this presumably had a nautical explantation: the harbour is perfectly placed to offer protection and a safe refuge in stormy weather.
- CANAL DELA BALENA refers to what, by the early c20, was called ‘Whale Cay Channels’ (below), by which time it was more accurately mapped. Other c18 maps also show ‘Chenal Whale’ and ‘Whale Channel’, but considerably north of the actual location. But in those days, even the outline of Abaco and the location of the cays was usually endearingly wonky.
- BARRA DI DUCHTWRECK I haven’t been able to find out much about this location, or the wreck that gave it its name. A map by Thompson (1815) calls it ‘Dutch Wreck Bar’, and I can only assume that at some time in the early c18 – or even the c17 – a Dutch vessel came to grief on the reef. I need to look into this more. Someday. Oddly, the modern Italian for a reef is barriera not barra. Maybe the word has changed over time, or the usage barra then was colloquial; or perhaps in mapping terms it was a generally accepted abbreviation.
- I MIMBRES This reef or shoal area of is usually mapped as Matanilla Reef, Maternillo Bank or Reef, or variants. In 1656 this area – presumably dangerous for shipping – was the scene of a dramatic tragedy involving a treasure ship, the flagship of a fleet. I dug up reports of the events in Portugese which baffled ‘Google Translator. I was bailed out by an article about treasure hunter Robert Marx and his findings:
If you have got this far at all, or even with the assistance of 2 or 3 Kaliks, thanks for bearing with me. The old Abaco maps are fascinating, and of course once one begins to dig, so more stuff emerges… and so on.
Credits: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, http://www.davidrumsey.com / Cartography Associates – in particular for licensing non-commercial use of material via a Creative Commons License; magpie pickings from multiple open-source sites.
**Dry Tortugas National Park review comments are eclectic and include “Crystal clear water, lots of wildlife, nice people and such a cool fort”; “The Dry Tortugas area first gained significance after the War of 1812” and “Constant nice breeze and comfortable night time temperatures for sleeping.”