The "Father of Hydrography" - "I am very satisfied with your zeal, your application and your talents, as well as their results"
By Dépot-générale de la marine - Beautemps-Beaupré, Charles-Francois , 1822

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  • Author: Dépot-générale de la marine - Beautemps-Beaupré, Charles-Francois
  • Publication place: Paris
  • Publisher: au Dépot-générale de la marine
  • Publication date: 1822-1843.
  • Physical description: 7 volumes. Large folio (655 by 500mm), 6 engraved titles (of 7), and 395 engraved maps, profiles, and tables, including 115 double-page maps, 14 full page, and numerous profiles (2 to a page), occasional slight damp-spotting, contemporary calf-backed boards, worn.
  • Inventory reference: 19464


The Dépôt de la Marine, known more formally as the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine, was the central charting institution of France, founded in 1720. The centralization of hydrography in France began in earnest when Jean-Baptiste Colbert became First Minister of France in 1661. Under his watch, the first Royal School of Hydrography began operating, as did the first survey of France’s coasts (1670-1689). In 1680, Colbert consolidated various collections of charts and memoirs into a single assemblage, forming the core of sources for what would become the Dépôt.

The Dépôt itself began as the central deposit of charts for the French Navy. In 1720, the Navy consolidated its collection with those government materials covering the colonies, creating a single large repository of navigation. By 1737, the Dépôt was creating its own original charts and, from 1750, they participated in scientific expeditions to determine the accurate calculation of longitude.

In 1773, the Dépôt received a monopoly over the composition, production, and distribution of navigational materials, solidifying their place as the main producer of geographic knowledge in France. Dépôt-approved charts were distributed to official warehouses in port cities and sold by authorized merchants. The charts were of the highest quality, as many of France’s premier mapmakers worked at the Dépôt in the eighteenth century, including Philippe Bauche, Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, Rigobert Bonne, Jean Nicolas Buache, and Charles-François Beautemps-Beaupré.

The Dépôt continued to operate until 1886, when it became the Naval Hydrographic Service. In 1971, it changed names again, this time to the Naval and Oceanographic Service (SHOM). Although its name has changed, its purpose is largely the same, to provide high quality cartographic and scientific information to the France’s Navy and merchant marine.

Charles-François Beautemps-Beaupré (1766-1854) distinguished himself as hydrographer during the search for La Perouse. From 29 September 1791 to 27 October 27 1793, Beautemps-Beaupré set sail on the frigate La Recherche. Led by Antoine Bruny d’Entrecasteaux. The expedition’s primary objective was to find Lapérouse by following his route to New Holland (Australia). The expedition took three years, much shorter than it had taken Cook and Lapérouse to travel the same distance (Lapérouse’s expeditions were projected to last four years, from 1785 to 1789). However, this would be a more arduous expedition, amplified by the secondary objective of mapping every contour of the continent called, “New Holland,” which, in 1824, became known as “Australia.”

“That will be the final destination of Sieur d’Entrecasteaux’s expedition in search of Lapérouse’s frigates. However, if these ships have indeed been swallowed by the sea, if the ocean has left no debris on any beaches, if after exhausting every possible avenue Sieur d’Entrecasteaux has no choice but to abandon this goal, as critical as it is, he shall at least have the satisfaction and glory of having made an immeasurable contribution to the perfecting of the field of cartography and the expansion of man’s knowledge. Sieur d’Entrecasteaux shall draw precise maps of every coastline and isle he encounters. If these places have already been explored, he shall verify the accuracy of his predecessors’ maps and descriptions.” (Fleurieu, Mémoire du Roi pour servir d’instruction au sieur d’Entrecasteaux, September 16, 1791).

The ships eventually came within reach of Vanikoro (the Salomon Islands), where shipwrecked survivors from La Boussole and L’Astrolabe were still living. D’Entrecasteaux died of scurvy off the coast of Java on July 20, 1793.

After spending two years perfecting his art during every day of the voyage, Beautemps-Beaupré became the premier specialist of modern hydrography. In his work he skilfully combined the art of drawing with the precision of science. It was the first time that an expedition employed a full-time hydrographer. By and large, the task of surveying coastlines and sea bottoms had previously been entrusted to naval officers, for whom it was but one of many tasks. D’Entrecasteaux quickly realized the unique chance his expedition had of having such a talented specialist aboard. The more the search for Lapérouse seemed hopeless, the more Beautemps-Beaupré had time to fulfill his scientific and artistic mission. In 25 months, Beautemps-Beaupré drew 32 maps, at a monthly rate vastly greater than any other expedition of his time.

Denis Decrès (1761-1820) Minister of the Navy during Napoleon’s Hundred Days (from March 20 to June 22, 1815) wrote to Beautemps-Beaupré to say:

“I am very satisfied with your zeal, your application and your talents, as well as their results in this important mission that has been bestowed upon you” (from a letter dated August 14, 1806), and later, recalled about his collaborator:

“Everyone appreciates the great services M. Beautemps-Beaupré has provided with a zeal, a perseverance and a talent that exceed even his praise. In light of this, nothing that interests him needs recommendation, he deserves only justice. However, I nurtured him for sixteen or eighteen years through steady relations, and have grown very attached to him, and even owe him recognition for the proofs of friendship I have received from him over the years.”

While engraving the maps from the Voyage de d’Entrecasteaux, Beautemps-Beaupré simultaneously worked on the battle maps for Napoleon’s military campaigns. Decrès entrusted the cartographer with highly confidential missions, preferring to bypass local military officials in order to keep classified information secret. He wrote to Beautemps-Beaupré instructing him how to write in code so as to conceal information:

“When L’Escaut is braced, I must be the only one to know of it. Therefore, add 4 feet to all of the soundings you record. For example, if you document a sounding of 12 feet, write down 16” (from a letter dated April 21, 1804).

The goal here was obviously to make enemy ships sink in the event that foreign spies intercepted their communications. During these campaigns Beautemps-Beaupré often worked on the ground, in full sight of the enemy:

“The presence of armed English ships prevented me from completing my reconnaissance of the Jahde and the Weser’s entries.”

Decrès, who was aware that he would be unable to find a cartographer as qualified as Beautemps-Beaupré, requested that he not risk exposure. Beautemps-Beaupré was elected a member of the Académie des sciences in 1810 and was appointed chief hydrographer and keeper of the Dépôt de la Marine (predecessor of the Naval Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service) in 1814. His work earned him the name “father of hydrography”. He was made director of the depot in 1814, and held the position until 1838. Over the course of his career Beautemps-Beaupré created at least 613 distinct works, including over 150 maps and plans and 279 views. Five navy ships have been named after him, and busts of him are to be found on the phare de Dunkerque and the phare de Goulphar (Belle-Île-en-Mer).

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