Chart of the Gulf of Mexico and Windward Passages including the Island of Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.
Published 1871, London
Size: 41.5" X 75.5"
Condition: Working nautical chart, exhibits pencil marks related to navigation, some cracking, overall toning, staining in corners. Original blue back backing and brown linen edging.
A majestic nautical chart of the Gulf of Mexico including the Caribbean published by the renown firm of James Imray and Son. The chart is also adorned with four inset charts. These include insets of Galveston, Texas, and of the River Goazacoalcos, Vera Cruz and Laguna de Terminos in the Mexican of coast of Vera Cruz and the Yucatan peninsula.
Interestingly, the current example of Imray’s chart has manuscript markings showing past navigational use East of the Bahamas.
It should be noted that bluebacks are rare in general, but especially those that were in actual use, due to the nature of the wear and tear of working nautical documents. However, when they do survive the vagaries of time, they often offer an interesting view into the past where nautical information was still a work in progress. For example, a notation exists that indicates that “no part of the Island of Puerto Rico has been surveyed… its coast should therefore be approached with the greatest care.”
Another notation indicates that “only a small portion of the coast of Haïti (the N.W. part) has been examined; the remaining part… is believed to be very imperfectly represented on the chart.” As such, it was advised by the publishers that the larger chart of this specific region, be consulted. Finally, it is noted that “the Grand Cayman is from a survey made in 1773 by Mr. Gould, but the Little Cayman and Cayman Brock have not been examined. The position of the islands is considered uncertain and a survey of the whole group is much needed.”
The American coast line does not escape surveying uncertainties either. The publisher makes a point in noting that “No part of the coast between the Rio Grande and Vera Cruz has been surveyed.” Furthermore, Arnet Shoal, first discovered in 1852 has has the dubious precision attached of “hereabout?” And just to hammer the point home that these blueback charts were working documents a notation was added to most charts published by the firm of Imray on Son that indicates that “the publishers respectfully request communications that may tend to the improvement of this or any of their works.”
However, it should pointed out that unlike the admiralty charts, which began to be sold to the public in 1821by the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty, and which had a reputation for greater accuracy, the privately sold bluebacks, were the preferred choice of the important and growing merchant fleet. It has been argued that the continued demand for the bluebacks resulted in large part because of their focus on specific, and well travelled routes, as opposed to the Navy’s need for greater accuracy in more distant and obscure shores. Furthermore, the heavier inks applied, and the use of the Mercator’s projection with the occasional rhumb line, made for an easier reading by a less demanding merchant fleet for accuracy, but well entrenched in their historical ways and preferences.
As such, bluebacks continue to be sought after by collectors because of their ability to convey a past where a sailors experience was as important as the chart itself. Trade routes were often well trotted such that charts could forgo a certain amount of accuracy, in exchange for the familiar components with charts of the past such as the ornate script used for cartouches, and the overall look and feel of the chart itself.
(Sources: Fisher, S., The Makers of the Blueback Charts.)