The West India Atlas

The West Indian Atlas. Jefferys, T, 1775

Thomas Jefferys, royal geographer to George II and III, spent ten years collecting material for this atlas, which was published posthumously in 1775. It is an ambitious work "illustrated with forty correct charts and maps taken from actual surveys together with an historical account of the several countries and islands which compose that part of the world; their discovery, situation, extent, boundaries, product, trade, inhabitants, strength, government, and religion". It was dedicated to Sir William Young, Captain General and governor of Dominica and "first commissioner for the dispersal of lands in the ceded islands".

The West Indian Atlas
Jefferys, T, 1775 
Presented by Thomas Phillips, 1850 (PHI 00115)

This view is an impressionistic image of a West Indian scene, roughly based on the information and experiences of the period. The rest of the material in the book is more factual, comprising of historical and contemporary information and detailed maps showing sea routes and landscapes. Created using evidence from ships' journals, observations and many maps, it is one of the first atlases of its kind, in its scope and detail, to be published in Britain. There were other West India pilots but they were often copied from the Dutch or filled in with conjecture and supposition. We are often liable to forget the limitations of scientific knowledge that still existed at this time; for instance, the confusion over Longitude is described in the atlas' introduction.

The Atlas was designed to appeal to the "curious" as well as for use by trained sailors; "Hitherto there has been too much dryness and sterility in Sea Charts: that mere outline, barren and divested of objects which has hitherto been presented to the mariner as the boundary of the sea and his knowledge might be rendered of a less melancholy aspect... the useful would become agreeable without losing its value". The atlas therefore combines a visually interesting representation of sea travel in the West Indies together with technical, nautical information and is thus able to satisfy the reader aesthetically as well as intellectually.

Focusing on the first illustration more closely, we can begin to read the significances depicted in the scene. As with much artwork, the representation neatly encapsulates several narratives in one frame. The scene is tranquil and harmonious but the ships in the background intimate the importance of maritime activity in the area. Although the picture does not make direct reference to the Seven Years War, the text frequently refers to the recent battles for colonial supremacy between the British, French and Spanish and how the maps and territories that swapped hands influenced the creation of this atlas. The main trading goods in the West Indies were sugar, rum and tobacco, which are referenced by the objects on display. The landscape of the area is illustrated through the depiction of the volcano, vegetation and wildlife.

The black figures depict the West African slaves that were used on the plantations (the indigenous people had largely been killed through colonisation). Slavery was already becoming an extremely controversial topic in this period; it was banned in England in 1772 but was such an integral part of the colonial system that it continued in the British Empire until 1833. The introduction to this atlas contains an interesting early tirade against the practice of using slaves; "This trade to the disgrace of the age has so deeply taken root... it is now almost a ridiculous common place to cry out against the barbarity and cruelty of it". The author ended the work saying he would appreciate responses from mariners who used the atlas.

Amelia Joicey

Bibliography:

Augier, F. R., S.C Gordon, D.G Hall, 1961 The Making a/the West Indies, SuffolkParry, J. H. & P.M Sherlock, 1956 A short History of the West Indies, Macmillan.James, W. 2002 Slavery and the British, "History Today", p48.

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