Mapping Of Hong Kong Part 2 – 1841 The Belcher Map

Tymon Mellor: The first survey of Hong Kong was undertaken by Captain Edward Belcher from his naval ship HMS Sulphur in 1841, with the chart published in 1843. The chart provided the first survey of Hong Kong Island, surrounding waters, Kowloon coastline, and adjacent islands. It provided topographic information and over time, was revised to reflect the growth of the colony. The chart, reference 1466 was updated multiple times with the final print being the 65 edition and published in 1969[1], 126 years after the first edition. What made this chart so special?

Copies of all the charts and maps discussed can be found at

The Hydrographer

For many, the name Belcher is associated with the streets of Kennedy Town, or of the adjacent bay, or the large modern residential development high up on the hillside above. Like many of the territory’s street names, it has been named after a member of the colonial establishment, in this case it is Sir Edward Belcher. He was a sea captain, explorer and cartographer, described as “a tyrannical martinet who made every ship he commanded a floating hell.”[2] He may have had many flaws, but he was good at his job and was allocated the task to undertake the first hydrographic survey of Hong Kong Island in 1841.

Sir Edward Belcher

Belcher was born in the British province of Nova Scotia on the 27th February 1799 into a prominent New England family and was one of 11 children. The Belcher family first went to the New World in 1659 with Edward’s father being a prominent merchant in Halifax. The young Edward was keen on science and when the family moved to England in November 1811, he took the opportunity at the age of 13 to join the Royal Navy in April 1812[3], just as tensions with the United States started to boil over into war.

Belcher came from a long established seafaring family, and his great-great grandfather was Captain Andrew Belcher (1648-1717), a part owner of a fleet of merchant ships. His great-grandfather and father were both associated with shipping including the naming of the Belcher Wharf in Boston[4].

He clearly enjoyed the naval life and within four years he became a midshipman on the “HMS Superb”, a 74-gun third-rate ship, taking part in the bombardment of Algiers in 1816 to end slavery practices and resulting in 3,000 slaves being freed. He served on a number of ships on the Atlantic coast of North America, in the West Indies, the coast of Africa, and British shores. He took the opportunity to study surveying and natural history giving him the skills he would use in exploring the world.

The Explorer

Belcher joined HMS Blossom commanded by F W Beechey in May 1825, working as an assistant surveyor on its three-year voyage to the Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean, visiting Pitcairn Island, home to some of the mutineers of the Bounty incident from 1789 and their descendants. He returned to England in October 1828. In March 1829 he was promoted to the rank of Commander and in the following year, was given the command of his first ship, HMS Ætna.

In May 1830, HMS Ætna at his command, set sail to survey the west coast of Africa and parts of the Mediterranean[5]. On his return in August 1831 Belcher and his officers filed charges against each other over alleged abusive treatment of the crew. He was acquitted and once more sailed for Africa in December 1831. On his return in August 1833, his crew once more accused him of abuse and in disgrace, he was posted to HMS Lightning to survey the Irish Sea[6], or as noted in an official biography:

“Belcher was active, intelligent, inventive, bombastic, querulous, warlike and forthright. He quarrelled with his seniors and abused his juniors. In three and a half years in Ætna, he court-martialled the majority of his officers, whom he thought formed a ‘ring’ against him. He himself was also court-martialled and acquitted, although Their Lordships were loath to give him a further command”.[7]

Upon Captain Beechey’s retirement, Francis Beaufort (he of the wind force scale) and friend of Belcher, persuaded the Admiralty to let Belcher take over Beechey’s command of HMS Sulphur and Starling to undertake surveys of the west coasts of North and South America. The two ships left Plymouth on Christmas eve 1835, and Sulphur at 380 tons was fitted as a survey vessel with a crew of 109 men. Starling, a schooner at 190 tons, was fitted as a tender and was commanded by Lieutenant H Kellett. The voyage would last nearly six years, returning to England in July 1842.

The journey was due to end earlier in 1840, but new orders arriving in October 1840 extended the expedition as the ships were ordered to proceed to China to assist in the hostilities. The two ships played an active role in the fighting, undertaking surveys to support the fleet’s operations and ultimately the success of the battles and the ceding of Hong Kong to Great Britain.

Following British success in the fighting and control of the Pearl River, the Convention of Chuenpi was drafted and concluded on the 20th January 1841, establishing diplomatic rights, the release of kidnapped British citizens, the reopening of trading in Canton, a payment of six million silver dollars, and the cession of Hong Kong Island in exchange for the captured island of Zhoushan.

Six days later on Monday 25th January 1841 at fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, Commander Edward Belcher along with his officers landed on Hong Kong Island at what would be called Possession Point, drinking to Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s health with three cheers. The leader of the British expeditionary force, Commodore Bremer would arrive the following day to formally raise the British flag on the new colony.

On his return to Britian, his crew once more complained about conditions on the Sulphur but Belcher was once more exonerated. He was given another ship, Samarang and in January 1843, left England to continue his survey of the South China Sea. Belcher’s reputation was renowned, with Lieutenant Collinson of the Royal Engineers (more of him in the next article) writing in a letter of 1845, “Sir Edward I need not say, has come on a court martial business; he has accused his 1st Lieutenant of neglect of duty”[8].

Upon returning to England on the last day of 1846, the Admiralty was reluctant to send him back to sea. However, in 1852 he was put in charge of an expedition of five ships to search in the Canadian Arctic for the missing ships and the men of Sir John Franklin who had not been heard from since 1845. The ships became trapped in ice and Belcher ordered their evacuation and abandonment with his men returning home on transport ships.

On his return, he was court-martialled once more but was acquitted as his orders gave him full discretion. Upon retirement he devoted his time to writing and scientific enquiry, and with his advancing age and seniority, he was promoted to rear admiral in 1861 and vice admiral in 1866, and made a knight commander of the Order of the Bath in March 1867, finally rising to the rank of admiral in October 1872.


After spending most of his life at sea, at the age of 32 he met Diana Joliffe, six years his junior in Southsea in June 1830. Diana was the stepdaughter of Captain Hayward, a midshipman on the famous HMS Bounty. Edward and Diana were married three months later on the 11th September 1830 at Saint Pancras Church in London[9]. As a good military man, Belcher only took a 48 hour leave to get married and returned to his post in Portsmouth the day after the wedding.

The couple were together until the 18th October 1830 when Belcher departed with his ship Ætna which had completed her repairs and was ready for sea, not to return until twelve months later on the 19th August 1831. While away, Mrs Belcher fell ill, as she had contracted a venereal disease from him.

Lady Diana Belcher

On his return, Diana was reluctant to join him, but by the end of August 1831 she joined him in Portsmouth for four months while Belcher participated in several court martials of his crew, including his own. He was acquitted. On the 28th December 1831, Belcher departed on his ship Ætna to resume his exploration of the African coast, and he would not return until the 19th August 1833. Upon his departure, Mrs Belcher once more found herself infected with a venereal disease, and it was clear he was a risk to her life. She wrote to him on 28th June 1833, “having twice been a sufferer in health, as you well know, I cannot, a third time, become the victim of disease, the dread of which is so great in my mind that I must express my determination of preserving myself from a repetition by not living with you”. After some discussion she would not re-join him and on the 19th November 1833, a citation was taken out by Belcher to force his wife to restore his conjugal rights.

At the time, women ceased to exist as legal individuals after marriage, as spouses became one entity but with the husband in a dominant position. Wives belonged to husbands and husbands represented all of their interests. A husband had the right to insist his wife live with him, against her inclination, unless she could prove grounds for separation. Under ecclesiastical law, spouses could petition on only three grounds: adultery, sodomy, and physical cruelty, but the procedures were fantastically expensive with absolute divorce being the preserve of the wealthy[10]. She tried to demonstrate that his transmission of an infectious disease amounted to physical cruelty, but the judge did not agree and on the 6th June 1935 he found “I pronounce that Mrs Belcher has failed in the proof of her allegation, and that she cannot be released from the obligation of returning to her husband”.

It would seem that she did not return to his bed, leading a separate and independent life in London, embracing writing, the arts and supporting worthy causes. When in 1843 Belcher was honoured with a knighthood for his gallantry in the Chinese wars, she adopted the title, Lady Belcher. Using documents and letters from her stepfather and colleagues, she published the well-received book on the Bounty mutiny[11]. Following her death in 1870, a biography of her life was published by a close friend but to poor reviews[12].

At the time, there was no cure for venereal disease, only treatment for the symptoms. It is now known that certain STDs can affect people’s personality (the basis of a sub plot in House MD Season 4 Episode 13), so could this be a cause of Belcher’s arrogance and belligerence?


As a Commander and then a Captain, Belcher maintained detailed records of his travels and published many books about his travels, but in 1835 he published a technical manual on hydrographical surveying with the catchy title; “A Treatise on Nautical Surveying: Containing an Outline of the Duties of the Naval Surveyor; with Cases Applied to Naval Evolutions and Miscellaneous Rules and Tables Useful to the Seaman Or Traveller”. This would be the standard document for marine surveyors for the next 50 years.

He published a two-part volume of his experiences in command of HMS Sulphur in 1843 with the extended title of “Narrative Of A Voyage Round The World, Performed In Her Majesty’s Ship Sulphur, During The Years 1836-1842. Including Details Of The Naval Operations In China, From Dec. 1840, To Nov. 1841.” Further catchy titles would follow.

It is interesting to note that the entry in his narrative of his experience in the South China Sea, two paragraphs are devoted to the possession and survey of Hong Kong between the 25th January and the 18th February 1841. A year earlier, in October 1841 the Sulphur and Starling had visited Manila, and the experience is described over four pages mentioning that “In the evening we attended the ball, and were introduced to the beauties of Manila. The evening passed off agreeably.”[13] Unfortunately for his crew, they were not allowed ashore due to strict quarantine requirements.

He was a founding member of the Royal Geographical Society in 1830 and contributed to “the pursuit and cultivation of science and knowledge”. On his death on the 18th March 1877 the Society obituary described him as “A student of science from his boyhood, he has left his mark on many branches of it, and his works will long survive him”[14]. So, to the chart that bears his name.

Chart Preparation

Details of how the chart was prepared have been lost to time, although we can be sure it was created in accordance with his Treaties on Nautical Surveying of 1835. Unfortunately, no one has scanned the book for me to read, but a later book from 1882 on Hydrographical Surveying[15] was described as an update to “Belcher’s, the former standard work”. This provides the template for the survey.

The Admiralty provided guidance on the preparation of charts to ensure consistency and to provide all the information needed for a mariner[16], andthis included:

  • Nature of the shore, such as cliffs, marsh, cultivated etc.
  • Locations of water, wood and coal
  • Alluvial deposits that indicate sand bars or mud flats
  • Topographic features including, hills, rivers and villages
  • Soundings to establish the depth of water and quality of the sea bed
  • Tides and currents
  • Magnetic observations

All of these observations can be seen on the Belcher chart.

The first task in the preparation of a chart is to establish a series of survey stations to be used by land surveyors and the survey ships to locate their position. Then working from the survey ship, the coast-line, water depth and topography can be captured and the chart plotted.

The original chart drawn by Belcher in 1841 has been kept by the Admiralty and a close inspection reveals many details, and these include:

  • The coordinates of a headland on the north coast, later to be called Point Albert, is recorded as latitude 22° 16’ 27” and longitude 114° 10’ 48”;
  • There are no names or levels, these would have been recorded separately in a survey field book;
  • The survey extends to the surrounding islands and Kowloon, although that territory had not yet been ceded to the British, but the details are poor and inaccurate;
  • A few villages are shown on Kowloon peninsula, at Stanley, Shek O, Happy Valley, Chai Wan, Aberdeen and Yung Shu Wan on Lamma;
  • Loading piers in Aldrick Bay / Sau Ki Wan, probably associated with quarrying activities;
  • Quarries are indicated at Quarry Bay and on Stonecutter’s Island;
  • Fourteen set of concentric circles are shown in prominent locations, possibly indicating survey stations;
  • The map has been drawn in a style popular at the time, where topography is shown through the use of hachures or short pen strokes along with soundings indicating the depth of water; and
  • Fields are indicated in Kowloon Bay, Shek O and Wong Chuk Hang.

At Point Albert two concentric circles along with a vertical north line indicate the survey station where the latitude and longitude were established. To the south a second survey station is indicated 182m on a low hill, later to be named Morrison Hill. These two survey stations are likely to have been the baseline established for the main survey and used to locate the remaining survey station or trig point using triangulation.

A black and white photo of a telescope Description automatically generated

Triangulation is the process of establishing the location of a point, by measuring the angle from two known points using a theodolite and using simple trigonometry to solve a triangle knowing two angles and the length of one side. The accuracy of this approach is dependent on the length of the baseline. For the first survey of England, the baseline was 8,352.7m and the surveyor Magor General William Roy used glass rods to minimise the effect of temperature change.

A baseline of at least 300m is recommended for a survey of a small area[17], but it would seem that Belcher adopted a baseline of 182m, an understandable compromise given the hilly terrain.

Probable Survey Baseline for the 1841 Survey

Establishment of the baseline requires careful measurement of distance and bearing between the two stations. On flat land this would be undertaken using a measuring chain, a series of steel or bronze links each one foot long to form a chain 100 foot long. Given the 60m difference in level between the two stations, an alternative approach using triangulation is likely to have been adopted (for longer baselines, typically around 5km, sound was often used, measuring the time difference between a gun flash and the sound arriving).

In this case, it is likely that a ‘Ten Foot Pole’ or possibly longer was adopted. The pole would be positioned at one station and using a theodolite, the angle between the two lines is measured. Knowing the distance between the lines is 10’, the distance can be calculated. To minimise errors, the distance would have been measured in both directions, noting temperature and humidity. The distance would then have been calculated using trigonometric tables and simple arithmetic, and this remained the case until the invention of the modern calculator in the 1980s.

A close up of a paper Description automatically generated

Surveyors 10’ Pole

While the baseline was being established, other members of Belcher’s crew would have been exploring the coastline and hills, looking for suitable trig points. The locations would need to be visible from at least two other stations and visible from the sea. The site would be cleared, and a marker established to identify the location using a wooden peg or other semi-permanent marker. To allow the marker to be seen from the other trig stations a flag or signal would have been erected above.

A drawing of a flag and a pole Description automatically generated

Survey Station Marker

To aid identification of the marker and allow simple communications, a Heliostat would have been adopted. This simple machine consists of a mirror mounted in gimbals, allowing the operators to ‘flash’ each other. Experienced surveyors used this to locate the stations and to send each other simple messages.

A drawing of a device Description automatically generated

Surveying Heliostat

With the baseline established, the survey stations at Sheung Wan and Stonecutter’s Island would have been sighted from the baseline and located allowing the process to be repeated around the island.

Possible Hong Kong Island Triangulation of 1841

There would appear to be limited coverage in the south-east part of the island, suggesting that there must have been an additional trig station (but not yet identified) to ensure the consistency of the cartography.

With the coordinates for each station calculated, the positions would then have been plotted onto the chart paper at the desired scale. In the case of the Belcher map, the plotting sheet was 1200mm high by 1700mm wide giving a scale of 4 inches to 1 mile or 1:15,840.

With the main triangulation plotted, the team would then fill in the details such as the coast, topography, soundings and other details. It is likely that HMS Starling focused on soundings and the survey of the islands, while HSM Sulphur concentrated on the survey of the Island.

For the Island, a surveyor would have walked the shoreline, noting features and using a compass to record the direction of valleys and rivers. The survey boat would anchor offshore allowing the surveyor to locate its position using a sextant to measure the angle between two or more trig stations. While members of the crew are monitoring tidal conditions and sampling the sea-bed, a surveyor would record details of the coast, measuring bearings and distances to key features. To establish distance, crew members would position a ‘ten foot pole’ on key features or changes in the coastline to be surveyed using a sextant from the anchored vessel.

Sketches would also be drawn of the hills and valleys to assist with the production of the chart and assist in the identification of objects and features.

A compass with a telescope Description automatically generated

For the outlying islands and seabed soundings, a running survey is likely to have been adopted. As the name suggests, in this approach the survey vessel does not stop but records the relevant details while in motion. The survey starts with the vessel establishing its position using the land based trig station while assistants record position, water depth and coastal features at regular intervals. This approach is fast but has its limitations, as the example of Po Toi Island shows!

A map with red lines Description automatically generated

Beaufort and Po Toi Island

The survey was completed within 24 days, with just the two sailing ships and rowing boats. On completion, Belcher departed Hong Kong for Macau before visiting Manila on the home journey to England. However, Captain Belcher was called upon to respond to ongoing fighting in the Pearl River and further north. HMS Sulphur would not return to England until July 1842 and Belcher would be honoured for his contribution to the fighting.

The Engraver

To allow the map to be printed, it had to be transcribed by an engraver on to a copper plate for the printing press. The engraving process required great skill and understanding of both geography, printing and style, so was very much a niche industry. One of the most famous engravers was John Walker (1787 – 1873) of J & C Walker. John was a well-respected cartographer and worked with his brother Charles. John had been a hydrographer to the India Office for many years, working on the great Indian Atlas[18] and was responsible for producing 87 of the 177 plates. He also produced over 200 maps for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a group devoted to adult education[19].

He was employed by the Admiralty to produce many of Belcher’s maps, and his initials can be seen in the map footer along with the chart number.

A close-up of a book Description automatically generated

John was not a great businessman, as he would pay for all the expenses for the engraving and printing upfront, invoicing only after completion of the work. In the case of the India Atlas, he did not receive any funds during the ten years of development, and died before it could be completed and invoiced! Shortly after the death of John, his brother Charles also passed away, leaving no one to complete the India geographical work, and so the copper-plates and geographical materials were collected together and returned to the India Office.

Chart 1466

The chart that Belcher prepared was published on the 1st May 1843 and was given the number 1466. The new chart included the latest infrastructure information, including a coastal road, buildings and the names of the hills along with some additional coastline information for the islands.

Chart 1466 1843 Edition

Some of the names did not last long, and a new edition was published in 1845, but confusingly it maintained the same revision date. Some of the notable changes include Mt Possession being renamed Victoria Peak, Mt Handsome being renamed Mt Kellett, and Observation Point becoming Point Albert.

A further revision in 1846 included the same infrastructure information as the 1845 edition but included additional revisions to the surrounding islands from a subsequent survey.

Chart 1466 1845 Edition

The chart continued to be updated every few years, correcting the advancing shoreline, the dredging of the harbour and the new marine facilities from surveys in 1891, 1893 and 1902. In the early 1920s it was evident that the original topographic details needed to be refreshed to reflect the latest surveys and a new engraving was prepared for the 1927 edition, the 44th version of the map. Updating of the chart continued until the final edition of 1969, the 65th issue.

Next Up

Commander Collinson was both an engineer, surveyor and artist. He would be responsible for the preparation of the first topographic map of Hong Kong Island and some of the early sketches of the territory. One of his trig stations from his 1845 survey was recently re-discovered, and others are no doubt still out there.


  1. UK Hydrographic Office Archive, Admiralty
  2. 200 years off Admiralty Charts and Surveys, Roger Morris, the Mariner’s Mirror Vol 82 No 4, 1969
  3. Edward Belcher, Dictionary of Canadian Biography,
  4. Admiral Sir Edward Belcher of the British Royal Navy,
  5. Obituary. – Sir E. Belcher, R Alcock, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 21, No. 5 (1876 – 1877), pp. 410 – 416
  6. Admiral Sir Edward Belcher of the British Royal Navy,
  7. The Admiralty Chart, British Naval Hydrography in the Nineteenth Century, Rear Admiral G S Ritchie, 1967
  8. Letter 20 Sep 1845, Transcripts of Correspondence of Lieut Thomas Bernard Collinson RE, HKMS 140-1-1
  9. A report of the Judgment delivered on the sixth day of June 1835 by Joseph Phillimore DCL, Commissary of the cathedral church of the dean and chapter of St Paul, in the cause of Belcher, the Wife against Belcher, the Husband.
  10. British Family Life, 1780–1914, Volume 2, Robert Joseph Phillimore, 2013
  11. The Mutineers of the Bounty and their descendant in Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands, Lady Belcher, 1870
  12. Lady Belcher and her friends, Rev. A.G. L’Estrange, 1891
  14. Obituary. – Sir E. Belcher, R Alcock, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 21, No. 5 (1876 – 1877), pp. 410 – 416
  15. Hydrographical Surveying, A Description of the Means and Methods Employed in Constructing Marine Charts, Captain W J L Wharton RN, 1882
  16. General Instructions for the Hydrographic Surveyors of the Admiralty, 1877
  17. Hydrographical Surveying, A Description of the Means and Methods Employed in Constructing Marine Charts, Captain W J L Wharton RN, 1882
  18. Memoirs of Hydrography, Part 1 1750 to 1830, Commander L S Dawson, 1883
  19. The Maps of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge: A Publishing History, Mead T Cain, Imago Mundi, 1994

This article was first posted on 23rd February 2024.

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. Mapping of Hong Kong Part 1 – Where Are We?


One comment

  • Stephen Davies

    My sense, given the remarkable speed with which the survey was completed (it started on 26th January and by 19th February, Belcher was in Macao finalizing results – for him to have ended the survey and got to Macao will probably have taken him more than 24 hrs) is that Belcher and Kellett may NOT have triangulated this first survey, but may, rather, have employed a closed traverse. This would have been quicker and, from contemporary surveying manuals including Belcher’s, was not thought to be significantly less accurate if there was no time for a full triangulation.
    The problem with the concentric circles theory for the baseline (for someone of Belcher’s thoroughness, far too short) is that on the 1841 first plan, a very large number of hilltops (including on Sung Kong) are marked by either a clearly, or a closely similar conventional mark. It is possible (and compatible with running a closed traverse) that seamen with survey poles were sent ashore to the relevant high points, but not entirely probable since it would have made much more sense to station them as close to the shore as possible.
    The lines of soundings are what suggest the plausibility of a closed traverse with the main soundings taken ‘running’ as the ships or ship’s boats tacked or ran depending on the wind. My sense is that the Sulphur would have been working the traverse whilst Kellett, the markedly smaller Starling and the ships boats were used for shoreline work and work in the tighter bays. Clearly the main bays were sounded using ship’s boats more or less throughly. We can see the clear tracks of boats working upwind into Deepwater Bay with only one pass, working north up Po Chong Wan in Aberdeen Harbour to Deep Pass, and then running back southwards, and making a separate foray to Deep Pass tacking in through the western entrance to Aberdeen Harbour, but seemingly not sounding on the way back out. Interestingly no sounding is given for Deep Pass, just the inference from the 5 fathom lines that the depths exceeded 5 fathoms throughout.
    It is worth noting that Belcher had already got quite a lot of information. Daniel Ross’s 1810 EIC chart (based on his 1807 triangulated survey of the entrance to the PRD) had had an uncertain number of updates (I think I’ve identified one for 1818 and it seems like there may have been some 1820s amendments from other sources (particularly the bathymetry off the NE coast of Lantau around Peng Chau, Siu Kau Yi Chau and Kau Yi Chau). Belcher himself had had a hand – how I have no clue – in further updating it for First Opium War use before it was published by the UKHO in 1840. Ross’s original had showed Apleichau as a peninsula (my own theory is that it was a deliberate ruse), but the 1840 update gets the shape of Aberdeen Harbour right.
    In some respects therefore, Belcher could have got away with a closed traverse anchored to a closely observed starting datum, because he was correcting an already reasonably accurately known shape. Your 1810 Steel’s chart (actually an updated but little changed 1780 chart) on your truly excellent HK Historic Maps website) could usefully be replaced by that of Ross (a very hi-res version is available from the Library of Congress).

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