Description

In the late 17th century, the South Seas were plagued by English buccaneers who plundered merchant ships for treasure. Some of their prime targets were Spanish vessels carrying silver from the mines of Potosi in Peru along the South American coast.

This hand-painted book of sea charts and coastal views was designed to guide Spanish sailors around the Pacific coast. But it also betrayed their secrets, making it hot property for the English. These maps were captured from a Spanish vessel by the English buccaneer Bartholomew Sharpe (b. c. 1652) and his fellows William Dampier and Basil Ringrose.

Buccaneers

During wartime, buccaneers – also known as privateers – were effectively legalised pirates, licensed by the Crown in order to acquire wealth for England and to disrupt Spain’s colonies. In reality, however, buccaneers were difficult to control, and their plundering often spilled out beyond wartime, evolving into illegal piracy.

How did Sharpe seize the maps?

In July 1681 Sharpe’s ship, the Trinity, stormed the Spanish Rosario near the Ecuadorian coast. Sharpe killed the Spanish captain, and, in the fray, he grabbed a ‘book full of Sea-Charts’ – a ‘Manuscript of Prodigious Value’ ‒ before the crew could ‘throw it overboard’. Sharpe noted in his journal how ‘The Spaniards cried when I gott the book (farewell South Sea now)’.[1] Once home, Sharpe was put on trial for piracy and murder, but spared, probably on account of hi seizure of the maps.

How did the maps reach King Charles II?

Because of their sensitive nature, the maps were kept back from publication. But in secret they were translated and then copied a number of times by the chart maker William Hack. This version from 1684 is dedicated to Charles II. The books were dubbed ‘South Sea Waggoners’ after the first sea atlas produced by a Dutchman named Waghenaer.

The Juan Fernández islands and Robinson Crusoe

The islands of Juan Fernández were a vital restocking place for ships sailing across the South Seas, and they are presented as the final maps in this book (ff. 269‒70).

The archipelago was named after a Spaniard in the late 16th century, but Sharpe’s was the first English party to land there – on the island of Más a Tierra, sometimes called Juan Fernández Island – on Christmas day 1680. After shooting goats, the men fled from three Spanish ships on 12 January 1680/81. In their hurry, they abandoned a Guyanese Indian named Will, who survived alone there for three years, as Alexander Selkirk did in 1704‒09. Both remarkable stories were later recounted by Woodes Rogers and probably inspired Daniel Defoe’s characters, Man Friday and Robinson Crusoe (1719). In 1966, Más a Tierra was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island.

[1] There are copies of Sharpe’s journal (c. 1685) in the British Library, with shelfmarks Sloane MS 46A and B.

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