In 1764, Le petit atlas maritime – “the little maritime atlas” – was published in Paris. Consisting of 5 volumes, each about 14 inches tall and containing 581 maps in total, Le petit atlas maritime is not particularly little. Its subject matter, in fact, is expansive: individual volumes are dedicated to maps of North America and the Caribbean, South America, Asia and Africa, Europe excepting France, and France itself, respectively.
The atlas is the work of Enlightenment cartographer Jacques Nicolas Bellin, engineer of the French Marine Office and Official Hydrographer to King Louis XV. A prolific cartographer, he published many individual maps as well as large folio nautical atlases (the standard by which Le petit atlas maritime was deemed “petit”).
Bellin’s focus in Le petit atlas maritime is, as one might expect, maritime. With just one or two exceptions, each of the maps depicts a possible destination for a sea voyage. Many maps show port cities, but with more detailed attention given to the coastline and the harbor than to the city’s layout or landmarks. Others show bays and coastal regions. Still others chart the mouths of navigable rivers, including the St. Lawrence, the São Francisco, and the Senegal.
Many maps are of islands, in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and elsewhere. Regular lengthy voyages between the colonies and the metropole, or between ports of trade, required reliable and accessible mapping of any potential stopover or haven.
Maps have long been among the favorite tools of empire, and Bellin’s charts are no exception. The French empire in the early 1760s included vast New France in North America, several sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean, and coastal entrepots in India and West Africa; detailed maps of many of these places are included in Le petit atlas maritime. However, the atlas appeared in print the year after the 1763 Treaty of Paris, in which France lost its North American colonies. Bellin ostentatiously dedicated the volumes to Étienne François, duc de Choiseul, the Secretary of State for War who presided over the Marine Office as well as the 1763 Treaty.
After the Treaty of Paris, the map of the French-controlled world looked significantly different. But Bellin, with the publication of Le petit atlas maritime, had ensured that French ships could sail confidently throughout the seven seas.
Learn more: Explore other maps from Le petit atlas maritime in our online collections.