Festina Lente: Charting the Mediterranean 1814-1824


Festina Lente: Charting the Mediterranean 1814-1824
by Robert T. Osteen
178 pages

It’s big news among voyagers when one of the electronic chart companies is found to have a chart with some inaccuracies. Of course, voyagers need accurate charts to help ensure they don’t go aground. But imagine a time when charts were routinely unreliable, with geographical features mischarted by hundreds of miles. That’s the situation that starts Robert Osteen’s book, Festina Lente (Latin for “make haste slowly”). By the beginning of the 19th century, the British Royal Navy was finally coming to grips with the uneven nature of its chart data after significant losses of ships due to groundings during the Napoleonic Wars. As Osteen writes: 

“The Royal Navy had no lack of charts. The Navy’s storerooms were filled with charts of varying and unknown accuracy. … The important map of the Chesapeake Bay in 1597 by Cornelius van Wytfliet places the entrance of the bay four to six degrees (240-360 nautical miles) too far north, or approximately the latitude of southern Maine.” 

The Royal Navy addressed the problem by putting together a group of hydrologically inclined officers who could make accurate charts. Osteen focuses his book on one of them: William Henry Smyth, who did extensive surveying as a Royal Navy officer in the Mediterranean between 1814 and 1824.

Smyth conducted years of surveying aboard sail-powered ships along coasts made dangerous by both rocks and reefs and sometimes openly hostile locals. The result was a series of accurate and handsome charts of the Mediterranean that provided the basis for mariner’s charts for many decades after he was gone. 

Osteen, a retired surgeon and life-long sailor, navigator and collector of antique maps, has produced a detailed account of one man’s dogged persistence and the great work that came of it. Readers interested in charts, navigation, sailing ships, the history of the Royal Navy or the story of a determined man overcoming challenges will find Festina Lente a fascinating book. Readers interested in purchasing the book should email the author at Robert_Osteen@dfci.harvard.edu

By Ocean Navigator