Monthly Archives: February 2024

Maps as scrap paper: an unfinished work from the 1730s

This atlas seems to have had a hard life. The printed maps, dating from the early eighteenth century, are nicely engraved and hand coloured but most are stained and tatty and have been heavily folded to fit into the binding. On closer inspection it is not a published atlas as such, but a collection of separately published maps, in French, Latin or English, bound together. Some of the maps are incomplete, others have been repaired, their tattered edges strengthened with thick paper. Some of the most interesting information, though, is on the backs. The large sheets have been used as scrap paper for pen and ink drawings, maps of parts of the Middle East with detailed latitude and longitude shown in the borders. The back of this map of Tartarie by the respected French mapmaker Guillaume de L’Isle has been used for a map of Syria and Lebanon. 

The latter part of the book contains smaller plain sheets which have been used for sketch maps and for lists of place names and page references. The text is a mixture of English, Arabic and Latin. This map shows an area to the south of the previous one, covering modern day Israel and Palestine. The Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea are marked and the towns of Haifa and Acre (Acca) can be seen on the coast; a few place names on this map are in Hebrew.

There are also some more detailed maps, such as this one of the rivers of southern Iraq showing Basra and Al-Qurnah.

Who was responsible for this work, and why? There is a clue on one of the later pages in two incomplete drafts of a letter asking for money to continue the project. The first begins by explaining that the writer has been unable to visit because of both poverty and ill health, and  explaining: “I have begun to put to the press my Geography of Abulfedah, and near 20 sheetes are work’d off continuing the whole of Arabia and part of Egypte …” before going on to describe his financial needs and his inability to support his family. This is crossed out, and a second draft takes a more optimistic note: “Being pretty well recovered of my late indisposition … when such a fair promise takes effect I’ll go on chearfully in my undertaking, and return my hearty thanks in a dedication …” The reference to the Geography of Abulfedah makes it seem almost certain that this book was the property of Jean Gagnier, who published a translation from Arabic of the “Taqwim al-buldan,” or geographical description, of Abū al-Fidāʾ (or Abulfeda) a fourteenth century Kurdish geographer.  Publication was delayed by lack of money;  Gagnier’s “Descriptio peninsulæ Arabum” appeared in 1740, shortly before the writer’s death, and was incomplete, covering only Arabia and part of Egypt . The letter asking for financial support would appear to have been unsuccessful if it was ever sent.

The published work does not appear to have contained any maps. It’s interesting to see the parallels between Gagnier’s interpretation of Abū al-Fidāʾs work, and earlier European works based on Ptolemy’s Geography. Ptolemy’s work included only geographical description, without surviving maps, but later interpretations and translations included maps based on the written account.  Gagnier seems to have had it in mind to do something similar. Towards the end of the book is a table where Gagnier has compared the latitude and longitude of places (including Baghdad, Jerusalem and Alexandria) as calculated by Ptolemy, Abū al-Fidāʾ and the contemporary mapmaker de L’Isle, perhaps attempting to reconcile them. At least some of the maps were used as source material as well as scrap paper.

Gagnier was brought up in France but lived in Oxford from the early 1700s, teaching Hebrew and Arabic; he also published translations, including a life of Mohammed in Latin based on Abū al-Fidāʾs Arabic text, and a chronicle based on the work of the Hebrew historian Josephus. The Bodleian also holds some of Gagnier’s manuscript notes and preparatory material for his published works. This volume of maps was acquired by the library in 1885, along with a misleading contemporary note attributing the manuscript maps to someone else entirely. Further research in 1913 identified the connection with Gagnier, but it does not appear to have been widely publicised.

[A collection of manuscript maps and notes, apparently created in the preparation of Gagnier’s Descriptio peninsulæ Arabum.] Oxford, [between 1727 and 1740]. Map Res. 73

A fiery map for February

This has to be one of the most dramatic items in our collection, a beautifully illustrated manuscript map of a naval engagement during the Napoleonic Wars. The French Republic had persuaded the Ottoman Empire to deny passage to the Dardanelles to the Russian navy, allowing only French warships through the straits. The Russian declaration of war to Turkey brought Britain into the conflict as a Russian ally. British naval vessels were sent into the Dardanelles on the 19th of February 1807 to force a passage into the Sea of Marmara, the action so vividly portrayed in the map.

The British Squadron under the command of Vice Admiral Sr. John Thomas Duckworth, K.B., forcing the passage of the Dardanelles, on the 19th of February 1807.  1807, (MS) D30:24 (12)

There is topographical information along the shore-line and in the lay-out of Turkish defences but the ships have a pictorial feel to them, and the angle of depiction is different for the two elements on show. There is a list of the ships of the line, both British and Turkish as well as information on the strength of defences and description of the damage caused to the Windsor Castle. A note at the bottom states that the ‘Circumference of the Marble Shot which entered the side of the Windsor Castle, and wounded her main mast, is 6 feet 11 inches, Weight Eight Hundred and Four Pounds’, which seems an incredibly large piece of shot. The damage that this type of artillery can cause to the crew isn’t mentioned but you can get an idea when you look into the life of Sir john Thomas Duckworth, K.B, Second in Command of the Mediterranean Fleet’. Born in 1748 Duckworth joined the navy at 11 and had a long and distinguished naval career. During one naval battle he was concussed when hit by the head of a sailor struck off by a cannonball.

The Dardanelles are more famous for another military operation, the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War. The Bodleian holds a large amount of mapping for Gallipoli; British, Turkish and commercial newspaper maps. Shown here are British War Office maps, the first highlighting the forts along the coast while the second is a more detailed map of the area. The opposing towns of Chanak Kale and Kilid Bahir in this map are the castles of Abydos and Sestos in the 1807 map.

Map of the Peninsula of Gallipoli and the Asiatic Shore of the Dardanelles, 1908, D30:3 (20) [283]

Gallipoli – scale 1:20,000 Chanak, 1915, D30:3 (20) [415]

The more detailed map would have been used for observation. There’s an intricate grid over the topographical information shown, each numbered large square is split up into 25 lettered squares (the e not used) and then in each of these smaller squares there are 9 dots, which in the top left of the smaller squares in each large square are numbered, like this.

Using a combination of the three different characters would give a very accurate field position for artillery and other purposes.

Finally one of numerous maps created by newspapers to illustrate news reports on the campaign. This is a particularly fine example of a pictorial map, and shows the area at the entrance to the Dardanelles.

“The Graphic” map of the Dardanelles Operations, c1916, D30:24 (3)

The Duckworth map is similar to another held in the collection, by the diarist John Evelyn. Evelyn was reporting back to his friend Samuel Pepys, who at the time was an administrator in the Navy, about a battle in the River Medway. More on this fascinating story can be found in an earlier blog and more on Gallipoli can be found here

The map’s intention is a mystery. The Bodleian doesn’t hold a printed version so it is unlikely to have been made for publication. The map could, with its accurate depiction of the action and the level of information given, have been made for a report or a record of events. Whatever the reason, we’re left with a dramatic and intriguing document of a relatively unknown part of one of the more famous conflicts in history.