Habsburg Imperial Projects

Mapping Global Ambitions: Habsburg Imperial Projects in the Indian Ocean during the Eighteenth Century by Madalina Veres

In the early eighteenth-century, after the territorial losses suffered during the Spanish War of Succession (1701-1714), the Habsburg rulers consolidated their power around their Central European stronghold of Vienna. As an almost completely landlocked empire, the Habsburg Monarchy in the eighteenth century had no non-European vast lands it could conquer, first rhetorically and then in reality, in a similar vein to the Spanish, Portuguese, French and British rulers in America or the Russian Empire in Siberia. Despite these geostrategic challenges, Charles VI (r. 1711-1740), Maria Theresa (r. 1740-1780) and Joseph II (r. 1780-1790) remained committed to establish worldwide connections from their imperial capital in Vienna, through the creation of trading factories, participation in global scientific projects, and the amassing of impressive collections of plants, minerals and animals. The Austrian Habsburgs never achieved a global empire, but the transoceanic experiences of their administrators, engineers, scientists and traders, often translated in cartographic format, informed internal and international policies.

The three maps chosen for this exhibition reveal the maximum extension of the Habsburg Monarchy during the second half of the eighteenth century and one of the focal point of the Viennese rulers’ transoceanic ambitions: the Indian Ocean. During the 1720s, the Ostend Company based in the Austrian Netherlands fostered commercial connections with Bengal and China. The need to ensure British and Dutch support for Maria Theresa’s right to succeed him as the ruler of Habsburg lands, motivated Charles VI to abandon this ambitious global project. In the 1770s and early 1780s, Maria Theresa and Joseph II pursued again similar initiatives, all culminating in the Habsburg’s short-lived claim of the Nicobar Islands and the Eastern African territory of Delagoa Bay.

Carte Renuite de l'OCean Oriental ou Mer de Indes
Carte Réduite de l’Ocean Oriental our Mer des Indes, Bellin, Jacques Nicolas Paris: 1757
Jacques Nicolas Bellin’s (1703-1772) sea charts and atlases, such as this map, most likely also served as an important reference for Bolts when preparing his journey to India. This overview map of the Indian Ocean reveals not only the location of the Delagoa Bay (named on this map as the Gulf of Laurent Marquez and thus acknowledging the Portuguese claim to this area), but also shows the second significant site that Bolts claimed for the Habsburgs: the Nicobar Islands. Located south-east of India, these islands could have constituted a strategic outpost supporting Habsburg trade in south and east Asia. The ship “Joseph and Theresia” arrived to the Nicobar Islands on June 1 and encouraged by the presence of fertile lands and protected harbors, the Habsburgs agents built a small colony on a hill on one of the islands.[1] Unfortunately for Bolts, the Danes had also claimed possession of this territory in 1756 and, despite the absence of any Danish agents on the islands, the Danish government did not back down from these pretensions.[2] Eventually, the Habsburg representative in the Nicobar islands, lieutenant Gottfried Stahl died in 1783 and a Danish ship took the survivors to India, thus putting an end to this Habsburg colonial episode in the Indian Ocean.[3]
Carte Réduite de l’Ocean Orientale qui contient la Côte d’Afrique, depuis le ge. degré de latitude méridionale jusqu’au 30e. Avec l’Isle Madagascar et les Isles adjacentes
Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Denis D’Après de Mannevillette (1707-1780) Oriental Neptune approx. 1775
In 1776, William Bolts who had worked for the English East India Company between 1769 and 1768, left from Trieste on the ship Joseph und Theresia (Joseph and Theresia) in the service of Habsburg monarchs Maria Theresa and Joseph II.[1] The goal of this journey was to establish long-lasting trade connections between the Habsburg lands and the rich ports of India and China. One of the geographic sources Bolts used to prepare his journey was the improved edition of the Oriental Neptune of Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Denis D’Après de Mannevillette (1707-1780), the director of the French Map Archive of the Company of the Indies, who had travelled five times to India, China and the coasts of Africa. In a letter to chancellor Kaunitz from August 20, 1782, Bolts applauds Mannevillette as the “most famous marine geographer that Europe had produced” and who had “taken all the possible care” in preparing his maps.[2] This map of Madagascar shows south-west of Madagascar, next to the coast of Africa, the island Unhaca (Inhaca) and the river Laurens Marquez, sites where Bolts set up a Habsburg fort in the spring of 1777 as this location was midway on the route between India and Europe. Bolts claimed he had purchased this territory from a local African ruler and criticized the mapmaker Mannevillette for using the name of a Portuguese navigator (Lorenzo Marquez) on his maps to denote one of the main rivers flowing in the Delagoa Bay next to Inhaca Island. Bolts criticism reflects his awareness that the Portuguese ruler was also claiming these lands during this time. Indeed, infuriated by Bolts’ actions, in the spring of 1781, the Portuguese Governor in Goa sent a ship from Bombay which captured the ships located in Delagoa Bay and destroyed the Habsburg settlement.[3]
Post-Charte Der Kaiserlich Koniglichen Erblanden
Post-Charte Der Kaiserlich Koniglichen Erblanden, Georg Ignaz von Metzburg and Johann Erns Mansfeld, 1782
This engraved postal map of all the Habsburg dominions in 1782 reveals the immensity of this empire’s possessions, stretching from the Austrian Netherlands in the west to Transylvania and Galicia in the east, from Bohemia in the north to Lombardy in the south. In addition to their vastness, Vienna’s territorial possessions presented geographic challenges such as an almost completely land-locked state with non-contiguous domains (Austrian Netherlands, Lombardy) and borderlines with some of the greatest powers in Europe, including France, the Ottomans, Prussia and Russia. This postal map is the first printed map showing the totality of the Habsburg domains after the 1720s map published by the Homann House in Nüremberg Tabula Geographica Europae Austriacae Generalis). The long temporal gap does not reflect the Habsburgs’ disinterest in mapping their lands and is a reflection of the dynasty’s decision to pursue the production of large-scale secret military maps instead of openly publishing the result of the imperial surveys performed between 1763 and 1787. Von Metzburg’s map also reflects the interest of Habsburg rulers Maria Theresa (r. 1740-1780) and Joseph II (r. 1765-1790) in developing the empire’s infrastructure. Building on Charles VI’s legacy who had declared the postal service a state monopoly, Maria Theresa and Joseph II introduced postal carriages with regular service. The map includes two types of borders: provincial marked with orange, and imperial delineated with yellow. The commitment to representing the location of Habsburg borders reflects a second major trend in this empire’s cartographic projects at the time: establishing clearly demarcated linear borderlines with all their neighbors. From 1750s to 1780s Habsburg military engineers surveyed and mapped imperial borderlands in order to help Viennese diplomats and decision makers to obtain the upper hand in the trans-imperial border negotiations. Von Metzburg’s map presents an empire with clear, noncontroversial borderlines, omitting the ongoing negotiations and the complexity of the borderland claims.