roseopt.gif (8507 bytes) Special Collections Division
the University of Texas
at Arlington Libraries

Vol. XV II* No. 2 * Fall  2003

The Third Coast: Echoes of Exploration and Discovery
Katherine R. Goodwin

In the five hundred years since Christopher Columbus’ first landfall, the mapping of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea has provided the catalyst for emerging arts and sciences to document the movement of people and ideas out of Europe. And, despite numerous textual accounts, including journals and diaries, maps continue to best illuminate this rapid movement into the New World.

The Gulf region is a major focus of the collections found in the Virginia Garrett Cartographic History Library (VGCHL). Established in 1978 to support the rich holdings of Special Collections in documenting Texas and Greater Southwestern history, the VGCHL seeks out materials to further the research and study of the area, appropriately called the "cradle of the New World." In advancing the library’s mission, we have recently acquired a set of important early 19th century Spanish navigation charts.

Navigation charts are the working maps of the ships that plied the waters of the world in search of economic gain and/or national interest. These charts began as oral and written records of sea routes, descriptions of ports, coastal outlines and promontories, harbors, islands, shallows, and reefs, and were used to steer the ships. In the fifteenth century, cosmographers prepared accurate manuscript coastal sailing charts called portolan charts, but within forty years of the advent of the printing press, the portolans were replaced with printed charts that allowed the rapid spread of geographical information.

Carta Esférica que comprehende todas las Costas del Seno Mexicano, Golfe de Honduras, 
Islas de Cuba Sto. Domingo, Jamaica y Lucayas
(Madrid, 1813, 1814).

The Spanish, sponsors of the first explorations into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, considered geographical knowledge as state secrets and were particularly secretive with the information of the New World brought back by their ships. As early as 1508, they established the Casa de Contratacion, which was responsible for receiving the mandated reports from each royally sponsored voyage and for coordinating the mapping of new Spanish dominions, but the information was not for "public consumption." Published accounts as well as the first maps and charts of the region fell to a group of scholars, geographers, cosmographers, engravers, printers, and draftsmen in St. Die who produced the first map of the New World without Spanish cooperation. In fact, it would be the late eighteenth century, long after the Dutch, French and English set up offices for the dissemination of accurate sailing information, before the Spanish would establish a government agency to print charts and maps of their New World holdings.

It is this Spanish agency, the Dirección de Hidrografía, that produced the navigation charts recently acquired by Special Collections. The first four rare charts, delivered recently, are a significant addition to an important collection of materials focusing on the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The first four charts are:

The maps include numerous insets of city plans, depths shown by soundings, and relief is shown pictorially and by hachures. Most importantly, the maps include manuscript annotations by unknown pilots who actually used these particular charts, presumably in the early 19th century.

Special Collections, in addition, holds an 1819 edition of the pilot’s book of the region, published by the same agency, titled Derrotero de la Islas Antillas, de las Costas de Tierra Firme y de las del Seno Mexicano, formado en la Direccion de Trabajos Hidrográficos para Inteligencia y uso de las Cartas que ha Publicado (Madrid, 1819). In the introduction to the pilot’s book, the agency states that the information was obtained from the current and historic records of the Academy of Pilots, the Army, and the Spanish Marine Service. There is also a disclaimer that the information, while produced to accompany the maps of the agency, is not perfect, but rather represents the accumulation of data from a succession of navigators, and such information is in the public interest. The charts published by the agency, including the recent acquisitions, benefited from the inclusion of this data acquired from the historical records of the organizations mentioned.

Special Collections also holds two major charts issued by the agency and the Secretaria del Estado y de la Marina, the Carta Particular de las Costas Setentrionales del Seno Mexicano (Madrid, 1807) and Carta Esférica que comprehende las costas del Seno Mexicano (Madrid, 1799). The Carta Esférica represented an important advance in geographical knowledge and remained the prototype for maps of the Gulf for many years. The Carta Particular was also an improvement over the English charts, which it superseded, and is the first large scale printed chart of the Texas coast based on actual soundings and explorations. In addition, Special Collections holds a variety of charts published by the agency in 1825, 1836, and 1846, as well as Portulano de la America Setentrional : dividido en quatro partes (Madrid, 1809), an atlas of charts of the bays and ports along the Gulf Coast, the Antilles, Cuba, Santo Domingo, and Jamaica.

Carta Esferica del mar de las Antillas y de las Costas de Tierra Firme (Londres, 1810)

Special Collections has already cataloged the first of the charts and expects to take delivery on the second set of charts in November 2003. The division is particularly pleased to have acquired these scarce charts. Publication of charts and maps by either the Spanish government or Spanish commercial firms is rare, and the addition of the annotations on the charts makes them even rarer still. The handwritten notes and markings add to the wealth of information presented on the charts. It is expected that inquiry into the production of these charts will bring a greater understanding of not only the Spanish Colonial Empire, but also reveal insights on the process of exploration and discovery in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

For more information on the Spanish navigation charts or other cartographic materials in the Virginia Garrett Cartographic History Library, please contact Kit Goodwin at

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This page last update on Wednesday, November 05, 2003