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). 


Lake Superior, with the ‘Supplemento alla Florida Orientale’ inset – a strange juxtaposition…abaco-map-zatta-1778-sm


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.



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.whale-cay-abaco-map-crop
  • 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, / 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.”




A ‘heads-up’ from the excellent ABACO SCIENTIST shows the devastating power of a hurricane-force wind, even at Cat 1 level. After centuries, the eponymous Hole-in-the-Wall has been blasted by Sandy into a Gap-in-the-Wall. Abaco has acquired a new islet, as yet to be named (I propose ‘Sandy Isle’… Or maybe ‘Storm Rock’). The photo below is by Justin Sands, and shows the new view of the southeastern extremity of Abaco. There was until recent times a very similar rock formation on Eleuthera, the Glass Window. It, too, was smashed by a storm and a new road bridge had to be built to link the separated parts (see end of post for image).

This is what the same view looked like until last week, with the ‘bridge’ still standing

Here is a very good close shot by well-known and all-knowing Abaco nature guide Ricky Johnson. There won’t be any more photos like this now… You can see what a large amount of combined wind and wave force it must have taken to blow the bridge apart.

The landmark lighthouse and defunct outbuildings at Hole-in-the-Wall sit just north of a promontory, a sort of Land’s End jutting into the ocean between Abaco and New Providence. The road to it is 15 miles of deteriorating surface through the pine forest of the National Park, and is not for the faint-hearted… see TO THE LIGHTHOUSE

A while ago I traced the history of Abaco, and in particular Hole-in-the-Wall, in maps. I got back as far as 1584 for Abaco itself, a map by Ortelius where Abaco appears as ‘Haraco’ and the geographical relationships are… vague. See A HISTORY OF ABACO IN MAPS

The first mention of Hole-in-the-Wall that I managed to trace was on a map by Couvens in 1737. The name is shown as ‘Hole in the Rock’, and that name alternated with the present one in both English and French, with variations, until settling on ‘Hole-in-the-Wall’ in the c20.

To see the full cartographical post see HISTORY OF ABACO / HOLE IN THE WALL IN MAPS

I also researched the pictorial history of Hole-in-the-Wall. Eventually I came across what may be the first pictorial representation of the Hole in the Wall. It is a fascinating aquatint from 1803 by J. Wells, published in The Naval Review and based on a sketch by a ship’s officer that accompanied a description of the southern end of Abaco for the Review. To put the picture’s age into perspective, it was completed 2 years before Nelson’s decisive victory against the combined French and Spanish navies at Trafalgar.

If you are still awake & would like to see the full post, click HOLE IN THE WALL: 1803 DESCRIPTION & AQUATINT


The other notable depiction of Abaco is a print made by (or in conjunction with) the famous artist Winslow Homer, at the time that he was commissioned to produce work in the Bahamas in the 1880s. This print is the subject of ongoing research by myself and others. It is called ‘On Abaco Island’ and clearly shows the Hole in the Wall as we knew it until last week.

Winslow Homer also produced a well-known painting, the original of which is in the Brooklyn Museum, entitled ‘Glass Windows’. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to conclude that the painting is based almost exactly on the view in the print. Even if one ignores the geological evidence (eg the structural detail of the rock at the apex of the arch), note the cloud formations that match perfectly. The print predates and was the template for the painting. If the print was the result of Homer’s time in the Bahamas and an undocumented (?) visit ‘On Abaco Island’, so must the painting be…

However, the Homer / Brooklyn painting ‘Glass Windows’ is generally identified with the similar ‘rock hole’ formation on Eleuthera that is actually known as the Glass Window. As I mentioned earlier, the Eleuthera formation suffered the same fate in a storm, and a new road bridge now connects the two sides.Picture credit (see also

It isn’t easy to tell whether there is any geological similarity between rock structure in the painting and the Glass Window on Eleuthera. However the contention (mine, anyway) is that the Winslow Homer painting ‘Glass Windows’ is of the Hole in the Wall, Abaco and should be recognised as such. The poignancy of last week’s events at HitW – the loss of a well-loved island feature that can never be replaced – arguably makes the thesis more significant.

One further nugget in support of the case is that I have very recently discovered contemporary written evidence that in the second half of the c19, around the time that Homer was working in the Bahamas, the Hole in the Wall, Abaco was known locally as the ‘glass window’. That would explain Homer’s naming of the painting based on the Abaco print, and strengthens (concludes?) the argument that it is, indeed, of Abaco and not Eleuthera. QED. Repatriate Winslow!



HITW: A UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE – PAST (close-up look from the sea)

HITW: A UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE – PRESENT & FUTURE (close-up look from the sea)