Surveyors of Empire. Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the making of the Atlantic Neptune. Hornsby, Stephen J.  2011

Surveyors of Empire. Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the making of the Atlantic Neptune. Hornsby, Stephen J. 2011

Hornsby, Stephen J.  
Surveyors of Empire. Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the making of the Atlantic Neptune
McGill-Queens University Press.  
ISBN 9780773538153.

When James Cook was appointed Surveyor of Newfoundland in April 1763 his surveying activities were in fact part of a large-scale undertaking.  Two months earlier the Treaty of Paris had concluded the Seven Years War.  France was defeated and Britain had acquired almost all of her territories.  Britain also acquired Florida from Spain.  The British North American lands of King George III thus covered an area stretching from Labrador to the Gulf of Mexico.  A detailed survey, description and mapping of all these newly acquired territories were urgently needed, and ordered.

Between 1764 and 1775 Britain was engaged in one of the largest and most demanding surveying expeditions in her history: the mapping of the Atlantic coastline from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico.  The work was done by the best men available.  New high standards were set confirming Britain’s leading role in the scientific world.  Most of the maps, accompanied by sailing directions, coastal profiles and descriptions, were later engraved, printed and published as The Atlantic Neptune.1  This four-volume atlas is generally considered to be the greatest maritime atlas of the 18th century.  

The mapping of the Atlantic coast and coastal areas was the work of hundreds of people, ranging from the surveyors and their teams to the military and the imperial authorities, but two names will forever be associated with the Neptune: those of surveyors Joseph Fredrick Wallet Des Barres (1729- 1824) and Samuel Holland (1729-1801).

In Surveyors of Empire Hornsby, professor of Geography and Canadian Studies at the University of Maine, describes the process that eventually led to the compilation of the atlas.  The title might suggest that his book deals with surveying, topographical mapping and the world of 18th century engravers, printers and publishers.  Of course it does, but it’s only in the last chapter that the author focuses on the production and publication of the atlas itself.  

Surveyors of Empire is far more than a “making of” book, and it is this quality that makes it such a fascinating work.  It thoroughly examines, for instance, the intriguing manner in which science and Empire were intertwined.  For surveying and mapmaking the government relied on the army and navy.  Maps were essential for the exercise of power and control.  They were needed to settle boundaries.  In times of unrest and war they were of the utmost importance.  Most of the maps were produced between the conclusion of the Seven Years War and the American Revolutionary War.  They played a significant role in the establishment of the American Empire and - much sooner than expected - the protection of it.  Surveyors of Empire is also, therefore, a story of British imperial power, in a military, political and scientific sense. 

In more than 200 pages (introduction, six chapters and epilogue) we follow Holland and Des Barres and their teams.  Their personal life is only lightly touched upon; the focus is on their work.  The many quotations from the official correspondences (personal journals have not survived) bring their world to life.  Much attention is paid to Holland’s famous survey and description of Saint John’s Island (nowadays Prince Edward Island) and Cape Breton Island and to Des Barres’
survey of Nova Scotia.  

The book contains not only beautiful maps, details of maps, portraits and paintings, but also many fine explanatory figures showing the movements of the surveyors around the territory.  They add greatly to the understanding of what the General Survey was all about, and the magnitude of the whole enterprise.

Hornsby is a master of his subject.  A good example is in the fourth chapter “Plans and Descriptions”, when he examines the naming of St. John’s Island by Samuel Holland.  He writes, “Almost like Gulliver towering over Lilliput Holland gazed over his paper island and systematically allocated names to civil divisions, town sites and geographical features.  What had been blank spaces on the map became identifiable places”.  

Hornsby makes interesting comparisons to the way Cook used to name his discoveries: “Cook named features as he encountered them along the coasts...  The result was a mixture of names of prominent people and those reflecting the contingencies of the voyage.  For every Mount Egmont and Queen Charlotte Bay was a Cloudy Bay and Cape Turn Again...  He was never able to step back from the entire landscape and fix a hierarchy of names onto a rank order of physical features.  Holland’s experience was entirely different.  He was not venturing along unknown coasts, assigning names... as he encountered them, but standing in front of an entire survey of Saint John’s Island.  He could thus apply a rank order of names... in much the same way that he had divided the island into a hierarchy of different-sized spaces.”  The Board of Trade appears to have given Holland “carte blanche” in assigning names.  What follows are about five pages of names of 18th century British Royalty, imperial figures, authorities and benefactors, all explained by the author and put into context.  “His systematic practice of naming should be seen as the beginning of the comprehensive British imperial naming of colonial possessions that so flourished in the late 18th and 19th century”.  

The book has many levels.  It is about surveying, and the men of science in and around the field.  It describes the emerging of Britain as a global military and scientific power, the interactions between science and empire, the roles of the Board of Trade and of the Admiralty, the chains of command, even the ways of communication between surveyors, their teams and their superiors.  Letters sent from Halifax to London, from Louisbourg to Quebec, etc., by ship, small boats and horses.  A whole chapter deals with the role of Des Barres and Holland as land proprietors.  The book contains such a wealth of information that one can only admire the manner by which the author has approached the subject.  Some authors drown in details, but Hornsby knows how to tell a good story.  In his style of writing details serve a clear purpose and that is one of the reasons why his book is such a good read.

Studying the life of Samuel Holland for some years now, I was eager to see if Hornsby would come up with new material and fresh insights.  He does.  The many quotations from Holland’s unpublished letters - well hidden in archives and libraries in Canada, the Unites States and England - clearly reveal the major role he played alongside Des Barres in the development of The Atlantic Neptune.  I was excited to see some of his General Survey maps to be published for the first time.  Despite the great importance of these two people for the development of 18th century surveying and cartography (think only of their introduction of Cook into the professional realm of surveying), both Holland and Des Barres still wait for a full-scale biography.2  Hornsby is currently working on a historical atlas of Maine.  I suggest an annotated Collected Letters of Holland and/or Des Barres as his next project.

In his introduction the author states that “despite their importance the surveys have largely been overlooked by scholars.  In American and British historiographies, the 1760s and 1770s are dominated by the run-up to the American Revolution and Cook’s opening of the Pacific, rather than by what was going on during the same years in what is today Eastern Canada”.

If that is true, the author has filled that gap.  His book is an impressive tribute to The Atlantic Neptune and its creators.  The research has been undertaken at the highest level.  The three appendices deserve a special mention.  They contain a Cartobibliography of the extant manuscripts and charts related to the survey of Holland and Des Barres, Holland’s “List of Plans sent to the Government” and a catalogue of the Henry Newton Stevens Collection of The Atlantic Neptune at the National Maritime Museum.  The many illustrations and figures make it a treasure for every (Cook) library.  Surveyors of Empire is a must read. And a must have.

Diederik van Vleuten


  1. The Atlantic Neptune can be viewed online: .
  2. Partial biographies include: Uncommon Obdurate: The several careers of J.W.F Des Barres by G.N.D. Evans (1969), which contains 98 pages.  The life of Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres by J.C. Webster (1933) has 70 pages.  The article “The life and times of Major Samuel Holland” by Willis Chipman (1924) has only 79 pages.  .

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 25, volume 34, number 4 (2011).

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