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With the conclusion of the French-Indian war in 1763 the British government, already cognisant of the lack of good maps and charts of not just Canada but the whole of North America decided to act. The war had shown benefits of accurate maps, charts and plans, made by trained military surveyors such as Samuel Holland, John Montresor, Patrick McKellar, J.F.W. Des Barres amongst many others.


On a larger scale, with the hard fought victory had come the realisation that Great Britain was woefully ill-equipped to command effective control of the vast territories it now possessed on the North American continent; to colonise, defend, farm, mine, fish and exploit. The absence of accurate charts of the coasts and harbors along the coast of their territories, was a major problem. Put simply, in order to control and defend their territories which, broadly, stretched from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Caribbean. For effective control the British needed a military presence in all regions which could best be supplied by sea. Without knowledge of deep water ports and harbors, the treacherous coastline (especially in the north east) presented a significant obstacle to the Navy and therefore the transportation of the Army. Further to that control of the coastline could no longer be, solely, in the hands of local pilots.

According to Brown [1]  ‘Complaints regarding this lack of good maps and charts came from two general sources. The military engineers in charge of fortifications and land communications, all of whom had served in the late campaign under Wolfe, submitted detailed reports to military headquarters. These eventually found their way into the hands of the Lords Commissioners for Trade and Plantations. Meanwhile the Naval officers operating on the Atlantic station complained to Rear Admiral (Sir Richard) Spry, who in turn addressed his recommendation for new surveys to the Admiralty.’

The proposed answer to this problem was for the initiation of two independent surveys. The first was a land survey, divided north and south, to be led by Samuel Holland and John Gerard William De Brahm under the auspices of the Lords of the Board of Trade and Plantations. The other, a hydrographic survey led by Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres supported, in part, by the Royal navy under the auspices of the Board of the Admiralty.

J.F.W. Des Barres’ hydrographic survey and Holland and Des Brahms’ land surveys (Holland’s Northern surveys in particular) although separate, did share information, albeit on a begrudging and one-sided basis for a number of years [2]. When combined, by Des Barres, upon his return to England in late 1774 the combined surveys ultimately produced over 260 separate plates for inclusion in the Des Barres’ four volume atlas ‘The Atlantic Neptune’. The ‘Neptune was produced in 1777, 1780, 1781 and 1784 each in four volumes, although individual prints or sheets were released for purchase on a stand-alone basis as they were finished. The content of each of the volumes varied greatly mainly as they were issued to naval Captains each of whom had different chart requirements. As a result, title pages in each volume rarely matched the charts included.

Des Barres has been criticized for, amongst other things, being very sparing in his acknowledgement of other surveyors who’s material he assimilated in the making of his charts [3]. 

Amongst other notable aspects of the production of the Atlantic Neptune are the following:


Many of the plates for the ‘Neptune were reworked (re-engraved) on a regular basis in an attempt by Des Barres to keep them up to date, or simply to make them more attractive. 

In the first edition of the Atlantic Neptune artistic views of the coastline and harbors around Nova Scotia and Halifax in particular, drawn by Des Barres and other artists were included to compose a 5th volume of the ‘Neptune, but thereafter they were included amongst the other charts in the first four volumes.

J. F. W. Des Barres was an Army officer in the employ of the Navy and in his Recapitulation of a Statement of he cited the time spent on producing the ‘Neptune for the Admiralty directly impacted his progress and promotion in the Army.

The Admiralty, who was effectively paying the costs of production of the Atlantic Neptune allowed Des Barres to retain ownership of the copper plates and effectively publish each sheet and volume privately. Considering the fact that the Royal Navy was far and away the largest customer for the Atlas that, in itself is quite remarkable. Add to that that Des Barres received a ‘salary’ for his efforts makes his perpetual grievance that he was out of pocket even more remarkable [4]. 

As Hornsby  points out in his excellent book ‘Surveyors of Empire’, publication of the Neptune ‘demonstrated the power and influence of the Admiralty in British political and military affairs. Des Barres’ part in this is undeniable, whatever his shortcomings.

For far more exacting information and background to the Atlantic Neptune please see the following:

Surveyors of Empire by Stephen Hornsby [5]

The New Map of Empire by S. Max Edelson [6]

The Uncommon Obdurate by G.N.D. Evans [7]

The First Mapping of America by Alex Johnson [8]



[1] Brown, Lloyd A. “The Atlantic Neptune.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 67, no. 4 (1943): 377–81.

[2] Samuel Holland to J. F. W. Des Barres Kittery, Pisquataqua River, May 27th 1771. Heritage Canada, Des Barres Papers, Series 5 (MG23F15, Vols 1-2, p85)


My Dear DesBarres,… I have wrote to you so often hence my arrival here that I was most determined not to trouble you any more with my servants(?) but some of your friends / I met at Boston last week, assured me you had arrived by the Beaver so that your letters are going to the West Indies. It would have me made very happy to have received an answer on the large paquet I sent you by the Canceaux or on the letter Mr Derbage inclosed on his to Mr Scott. Mr Derbage has received answers on all his letters, but I never a line from you as the first was a Plan or proposals for the mutual advantage of our operations in our Survey, an exchange of Plans, your answer would have been of service to have negotiated this Summers Surveys & other matters concerning the service the Canceaux could perform in soundings etc* as I cannot survey on the East coast before the return of the Canceaux for want of boats & seamen, I am employed with inland surveys of Rivers, Bays etc During last winter we have been employed in Surveying Lakes, Rivers and Roads, the Connecticut River is along(?) the Boundary line between New Hampshire and Massachusets Provenceto its source, I am just setting out on a new Survey, & as I would not this opportunity. I have onlay time to assure you that I sincerely am my Dear Des Barres your Humble Servant & friend S: Holland.  Madam Holland begs to be remembered to her … Monr Des Barres.  *All underlining is Holland’s


[3]  Men such as; Holland, Charles Blaskowitz, George Sproule, Thomas Wheeler, Thomas Wright, Thomas Hutchins, Philip Pitman, Gerard DeBrahm, George Gauld and John Hunter among them.

[4]  Jones, J. Recapitulation of A Statement Submitted by Lieutenant Colonel Desbarres. For Consideration. Respecting His Services, from the Year 1755, to the Present Time in the Capacity of an Officer and Engineer During the War of 1756. ... Chapel Street, Soho, 1796

[5] Stege, Hope., Hornsby, Stephen John. Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.W.F. Des Barres, and the Making of the Atlantic Neptune. Ukraine: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011.

[6]  EDELSTON, S. MAX. The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence. Harvard University Press, 2017.

[7]  Evans, G.N.D. Uncommon Obdurate: The Several Public Careers of J. F. W. Des Barres: Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts & University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada. 1969

[8] Johnson, Alex. The First Mapping of America: The General Survey of British North America: I.B.Tauris, 2017

The atlantic neptune

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