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Little Atlas, Big World

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.

Map of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean

Carte réduite du Golphe du Mexique et des isles de l’Amérique. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

Map of the city and port of Macau

Plan de la ville et du port de Macao. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

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.

Map of the gulf of the St Lawrence River and Newfoundland

Le golphe de Saint Laurent et l’isle de Terre-Neuve.. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

Map of the mouth of the São Francisco River

Entrée de la Riviere St. Francois à la coste de Brezil.. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

Two maps on one sheet; the upper shows the mouth of the Senegal River and the first part of its course inland to the island of Bilbas, and the second shows the course farther inland

Cours de la Riviere de Sanaga ou Senegal : depuis son embouchure jusqu’à l’Isle de Bilbas levé par un ingénieur francois en 1718 ; and Suite du cours de la Riviere de Senegal depuis l’isle de Bilbas, jusqu’au sault du Rocher de Govina.. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

Map of the Island of Barbados

Carte de l’isle de la Barbade. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

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.

Map of several islands north of Haiti

Carte des isle situées au nord de St. Domingue, avec les passages pour le retour appellés débouquemens, 1763. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

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.

Map of New France, or Canada

La Nouvelle France où Canada. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

Map of the island of Guadeloupe and islands nearby

Isle de la Guadeloupe, les Saintes et Marie Galante. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

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.

Map of mainland Southeast Asia

Carte des royaumes de Siam, de Tunquin, Pegu, Ava Aracan, &c. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

Map of the mouth of the bay and port of New York

Baye et port d’Yorc, capitale de la Nouvelle Yorc. Jacques Nicolas Bellin, [1764]. Geography and Map Division.

Learn more: Explore other maps from Le petit atlas maritime in our online collections.

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