Home > History of Wine, Image > “wee…put to sea, setting our course for the Ilands of Madera”: A few charts of Madeira

“wee…put to sea, setting our course for the Ilands of Madera”: A few charts of Madeira


Heather, William. A New Chart of the Madeira and Canary Islands. 1801. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.  The Boston Public Library. [1]

The exact latitude of Madeira was not settled until 1822 with early accounts reflecting the uncertainty of even reaching it. John Huyghen van Linshoten, the Dutch merchant who published detailed nautical maps which opened up trade to the East Indies, departed Lisbon on April 8, 1583, writing that they “put to sea, setting our course for the Ilands of Madera, and so putting our trust in God, without whose favour and help we can doe nothing, and all our actions are but vaine, we sayled forwards.”[2]  Seven days later he sighted land.

Over the next few centuries ships were still able to reach Madeira in approximately the same time.  Vice Admiral William Fitzwilliam Owen made the same journey in the admittedly quick period of six days.[3]  Despite the ability to find Madeira by ship, the uncertainty of its longitude is exhibited in maps of the period.  This, of course, was caused by the limitations of chronometers. While the rates of the chronometers were measured in order to improve latitude calculations, the changing behavior of the rates, though often recognized, could not be.

Bellin, Jacques-Nicolas. 1753. CARTE REDUITE DES COSTES OCCIDENTALES D’AFRIQUE. Bibliothèque nationale de France. [4]

In maps of the period, the island of Madeira appears at slightly different locations.  Two maps that highlight this issue include Jacque-Nicolas Bellin’s Carte Reduite des Costes Occidentales d’Afrique (1753) which puts Funchal east of 17° London meridian and William Heather’s A New Chart of the Madeira and Canary Islands (1801) which puts it just west.

Heather, William. A New Chart of the Madeira and Canary Islands. 1801. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.  The Boston Public Library. [1]

These limitations in calculating longitude were known so chronometers and sightings were taken at reference locations.  In Europe, the arsenal in Lisbon might be the first reference point in calculating the location of Madeira.  The consul’s garden in Funchal would be a reference in Madeira.  Just a few days sail away, the various islands and peaks of the Canary islands were used.  As a result, longitudinal reference lines often appear running through Madeira down to El  Hierro and Teneriffe.

Plusieurs routes d’Ouessant a Madere. 18th century. Bibliothèque nationale de France. [5]

Depending upon the mapmaker, maps of the period might reference the meridian to Rome, Paris, or London.  I have included a final, unattributed French map from the 18th century.  This detail shows numerous routes taken from the French island of Ushant in the English Channel down to Madeira.  There appear to be slightly different locations for Funchal between the pencil and pen versions.


[1] Heather, William. A New Chart of the Madeira and Canary Islands. 1801. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.  The Boston Public Library.  Call #:
G9150 1801 .H43 URL: https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:kk91fr30b

[2] Burnell, Arthur Coke.  “The Voyage of John Huygen Van Linschoten to the East Indies. Vol 1”.  The Hakluyt Society.1885. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=R2c_AAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

[3] Owen, William Fitzwilliam. “Table of latitudes and longitudes by chronometer of places in the Atlantic”. 1827. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=R2c_AAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4] Bellin, Jacques-Nicolas. 1753. CARTE REDUITE DES COSTES OCCIDENTALES D’AFRIQUE. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, CPL GE SH 18 PF110 DIV 2 P13/1. URL: http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb41059484s

[5] Plusieurs routes d’Ouessant a Madere. 18th century. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans, GE SH 18 PF 118 P 54 D. URL: http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb43600492h

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