George Robertson in the China Sea

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The Honourable East India Company, or HEIC, was staffed by devoted officers who travelled the world on the company's ships on a mission of crucial importance: to chart, in all the seas known to man, the reefs, currents, position of ports, rivers and natural bays, etc. By doing so, they created precise maps to ensure that future expeditions would avoid catastrophe and return to Europe with their precious cargo intact.

Thanks to the works he published, we know a little of the eventful life of one of these men: Commanding Officer George Robertson.

Robertson embarked on a naval career with the East India Company at the beginning of the 1780s. He compiled observations, comparing these systematically with information in earlier English, French and Dutch publications. When he started publishing himself in 1801, after almost 20 years at sea, he was quick to pay tribute to the instrument that had helped him the most:

"The present work, or compilation, is published since the introduction of that great improvement made in the art and practice of navigation, the marine chronometer, the only sure means of ascertaining meridian distance with facility, and that to a degree of precision (when common care has been taken in the observation) to answer every purpose required in the formation of a general chart."

Robertson found Arnold's chronometers to be the most reliable. He was aware that many explorers whose observations he compiled used them: Captain Lestock Wilson and Captain Cook when he mapped Macao and Cochinchina, or Captain Fraser, when he was interested in New Holland, present-day Australia.

In October 1788, he himself was on board the General Coote in the China Sea, off the coast of the island of Borneo, in a channel riddled with treacherous reefs:

"The Praters Shoal is a very dangerous reef, near the coast of China, and lies much in the way of ships coming from the eastward late in the season. On the 12 October, in the ship General Coote, Capt. Baldwin, we made this Shoal; and had a very favourable opportunity of determining its exact position, by a well-regulated box-chronometer, made by Arnold, whose uniformity of rate during our four months' stay at China, I could never discover to alter."

Robertson also provided valuable information regarding the circumnavigation of Formosa and New Holland. It is not known what became of him after the publication of his works. However, he was known and respected by numerous seafarers who crossed his path, including the famous Captain Joseph Huddart, who improved the design and manufacture of marine rope, and who remembered his skill as a cartographer in mapping the Keeling Islands, a small archipelago in the Indian Ocean:

"The ingenious Mr. George Robertson has determined their situation by an Arnold's box chronometer in a short run from Java Head, and corroborated by three sets of Lunar observation, objects East and West."

 

Bibliography:

Huddart, Joseph, Captain,The Oriental Navigator(London, 1801).

Robertson, George,A Short Account of a Passage from China(London, 1802).

 

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