The Atlantic Neptune Project and the American Revolution

In the history of mapmaking the Eighteenth Century is without doubt one of enormous progress in the techniques of cartography and equally enormous significance in the importance played by maps in the areas of exploration, colonisation, and ultimately war.

Beginning in September 2020 we have looked in some detail at this process, as it concerned Ile Saint Jean, in five separate blog posts, and now we are beginning our last quarter of the century. It will lead us to the disappearance of the Island of Saint John as a geographical entity, to be replaced on the maps as Prince Edward Island.

The last quarter of the Eighteenth Century, far from witnessing a cartographical miracle that would record British interests in the Western Hemisphere, saw instead the disintegration of its older, richer colony in New England and the birth of the new colonies being established, with the greatest difficulty, in New France.

This period witnessed the American War of Independence that drained land and resources that could have been invested in the new colony that would become Canada. Instead, there was an ugly war that depleted the resources with which this future could be built, and hostilities, ready to flare up at any moment between the American states and Canada, carried on into the early Nineteenth Century.

In the midst of this extended disaster, maps continued to be in constant demand both by the British and the Americans but also France, who had a stake in what was going on, and sought revenge for the loss of New France by giving help to the Americans. These maps were weapons of war.

At the beginning of this last quarter of the century Robert Sayer, who had inherited Thomas Jefferys’ copper plates at his death in 1771, continued to use them well into the 1770s, updating them constantly to account for changes in territorial boundaries brought about by the war. As part of an atlas publishing project, Sayer prepared this revision of Jefferys’ plate showing the disposition of land on the eve of the American Revolution. Canada is vaguely set aside as the area north of the Saint Lawrence River while Nova Scotia stretches from Eastern Quebec, across New Brunswick, down to Nova Scotia itself.


1775/76, Thomas Jefferies (before 1771), A New Map of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island with the adjacent parts of New England and Canada Composed from a great number of actual surveys; and other materials regulated by many new Astronomical Observations of the Longitude as well as Latitude, by Thomas Jefferys, Geographer to the King, Printed & sold by R. Sayer & J. Bennett, From The American Atlas of 1775. 47 x 61 cm. Harvard Map Collection, Leventhal Map and Education Centre, Boston Public Library.

The map contains important information about how the world of northeastern North America was perceived by all the interested parties at that time and so I insert a pdf file of it for your study.

1776 Jefferys – A New Map of Nova Scotia – BPL

The cartouche of the map has evolved in design and it is interesting to compare it to its Rococo contemporary on the Jefferys/Sayer map of the Island of Saint John. This map has abandoned the Rococo undulating outline and is contained in a rectangle, but one whose upper corners echo those design elements found in interiors, furniture and decorative objects produced in the Neoclassical period that appeared in the 1760s. What is interesting to note, and what links the old-style cartouche with the new, is that the lower corners repeat details of cut forest and fishing nets found in Jefferys’ Island map. These design clues, along with the large shell motifs, in the lower corners of this cartouche lead me to believe that the same hand drew both the old and new style cartouches. Art evolves sometimes slowly and reluctantly, even among cartographers.

It comes as a shock to see a regional map with the Island of Saint John drawn according to Samuel Holland’s outline of 1765 – the very outline with which we are familiar today. Only a few place names have been inserted in this tiny detail of the whole and it is very interesting to see that on the Island the only vestige of the French Regime that remains – Port Joy, is placed below the new capital of Charlotte Town.



The American Revolution

By the beginning of the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century things had gone from bad to worse as the American colonies prepared for revolt. On December 16, 1773, at a wharf in Boston, American colonists, enraged beyond all enduring, seized 342 chests of tea imported by the British East India Company and dumped them into the water because they were unwilling to continue paying taxes to the British Crown without suitable political representation.

In their extreme anger and frustration some settlers resorted to a very barbaric Mediaeval form of civil disobedience by indulging, starting in the 1760s, in seizing officials, pouring liquid tar on their bodies and then covering them with feathers, then usually throwing them into the water. The victims were tax collectors and we have a vivid picture of what was involved in tarring and feathering in the always up-to-date publisher Robert Sayer’s engraving of what happened to John Malcolm, the Boston Commissioner of Customs twice, in 1773 and ‘74. The print is attributed to the English artist Philip Dawe (?1745–?1809) and is in the collection of John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence.

It would not be long before the first step of the final break took place. On July 4, 1776, the American Colonies issued the Declaration of Independence.



What sorts of valued and valuable things did Britain lose in the Revolution?

Let us look at real estate – the physical presence of England in America. Most of us tend to pass over the subject as insignificant. Many of us imagine a typical British American home at the time of the Revolution as looking perhaps something like this 1840s woodcut that was part of the illustrations of a sentimental, but highly accurate, memoir by the American publisher Orsamus Turner.

And indeed, we would be right as far as the progress of new settlement was concerned. But there was a much older tradition of the finest, most elegant architecture spread all along the Seaboard that dated back to the late 1600s.

George Washington inherited a family plantation called Mount Vernon in Virginia in 1761 and over the next four decades, he renovated the house into a 11,028 square foot stately home with twenty-one rooms and a large veranda. It was set in vast Picturesque gardens that were the fashion in England. Even as he was involved in the War of Independence, he still supervised all the work on the house. Built of wood, he used grooved siding that when covered with sanded paint looked like stone French rustication. This is what it looked like in the1820-1839 period.

Seventy-five years later at Government House in Charlottetown, the same technique was used to achieve the effect of stone walls. It was a continuation of the exact same Georgian tradition that had begun in the early Eighteenth Century. The style was so satisfying, and representative of the English world order of the time, that it persisted in the New World for over a hundred years. In Charlottetown in the 1830s, an estate in the Picturesque style, along with a large formal garden, was created on the edge of the city overlooking the mouth of the harbour. Like Mount Vernon, with which it has so much in common – even a veranda! – it still survives and is a greatly treasured symbol and architectural monument linking us with our British Colonial past.

These were the values of the English colonists in the New World. The symbolism of planting England in America was powerful, and in practical terms the process of collecting an enormous amount of tax revenue for the British Treasury was a vital aspect of this activity. When the Revolution came this, among so many others, was one of the most painful losses because of its high visibility and British identity. Architecture of the highest quality, and the wealth associated with it, was to be found all along the American seacoast settlements.

Take this house for example, a fine Georgian style manor house called Hope Lodge, in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania. It was built in 1750.

The house has all the characteristics of British Palladian architecture – strictly symmetrical with a basement storey, two floors and dormers that in a grander house would be replaced by a dome. There were hundreds such houses, the pride and joy of British settlers in America who had been successful in politics or in business. These buildings rank among the great architectural treasures of the world.

The interiors of these houses reflected exactly their prototypes at home. English architects often provided the plans for these buildings. Take this dining room in the c1745 Capers Motte House, in Charleston, South Carolina. It is like the interior of a classical temple with elegantly framed windows and a cornice based on ancient mouldings. It is Georgian English in every way.

These kinds of houses were typical of the English in America and were worth a great deal. The tax revenue they generated in construction and maintenance was significant, and their loss an agony for the British treasury.


Another Significant French Map

The French, under the direction and very watchful eye of the Comte de Sartine, who was in charge of the French Navy as well as being a Councillor of State, using the information gathered earlier by the mapmaker Nicolas Bellin and taking whatever suited him from the most up to date Jefferys-based maps produced by Sayers and Bennett, published this quite astonishing map of the region in 1780, with everything as up to date as possible in the new distribution of territorial claims. It is a very handsome map that attempts to show the topography of the region where information was available, and to invent a plausible lay of the land where information was lacking. The map is very elegant and clean, and there is a strong sense of space emphasised by the diagonal placement of this great land mass below the Saint Lawrence River.


1780 – Ordered by M. de Sartine, Carte Reduite des Côtes Orientales de L’Amérique Septentrionale. Contenant Celles des Provinces de New York et de la Nouvelle Angleterre, celles de l‘Acadie ou Nouvelle Ecosse, de L’Īle Royale de L’Īle St. Jean, avec l’interieur du Pays. Dresée au Dépôt Général des Cartes, Plans et Journaux de la Marine. Pour le Service des Vaisseux du Roi. Par Ordre de M. de Sartine, Conseiller d’Etat, Ministre et Secretaire d’Etat ayant le Départment de la Marine. 1780, BNF.

1780 Sartine – Carte reduite … BNF

The cartouche – or here more properly the label – is placed in the upper left corner and has no border or decoration, only the impact of a sort of official declaration. It is powerful.

In his depiction of Saint John’s Island, which Sartine’s cartographer still insists on calling Ile St. Jean, there are the topographical elements of the interior of the island, just like in his first map of 1778, which is found in the previous post. For the most part the French cartographer working for Sartine uses names from Holland’s map although he still indicates the position of Port la Joye.

Just the next year, in 1781, this map of Saint John’s Island appears on the scene. It is a detail of a larger one that shows the mainland connections. It contains more soundings than the Sartine map, but significantly, for the first time, an English map tries to depict the topography of the interior of the Island.

This detail is taken from one of over 120 maps of coasts of the British colonies of North America. It is found in the most ambitious atlas of the region ever produced, called The Atlantic Neptune, which consisted of four huge folio volumes assembled and created by Colonel Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres (1721-1824), an army officer, military engineer, surveyor, coloniser and eventually Governor of Prince Edward Island. Here we see him in a studious mood in this small painting in Library and Archives Canada (MIKAN 2895902).

He was born of a Huguenot family, either in Switzerland or Paris. He received a brilliant education in science and mathematics and received extensive training in the theory of fortifications, surveying and drafting. He turned his attentions to North America and was soon serving as siege engineer at the siege of Louisbourg. His abilities as a surveyor got him the job of preparing a chart of the St. Lawrence River to guide Wolfe in the siege of Quebec. After that he worked on other surveying projects, one in Newfoundland with James Cook.

A most important moment in Des Barres life was when Commodore Richard Spry arrived in Halifax in 1762 to become commander of the Royal Navy in North America. Spry urgently wanted a coastal survey of Nova Scotia to assist in the difficult navigation of that most difficult and complicated shoreline. Des Barres received this assignment which conflicted with the other great survey that had been planned, the one employing Samuel Holland to survey the interior of the territories of Saint John’s Island and Cape Breton, so that ordered, and utterly controlled, colonisation could take place. Des Barres and Holland were pleased at this separation of tasks because they were not fond of each other.

In May 1764 Des Barres began his Nova Scotia survey in a highly organised manner and with extensive crews of assistants and workmen. He was determined to make his atlas outstanding and to that end became familiar with all of the latest techniques that had been invented that changed the old copper plate into a tool capable of infinite variations in delineation, texture and shading. The maps he began to produce were like nothing else seen before. His designs were amazing for the times, with a deceiving informality that made them appear like a work in progress.

Take for example his 1780 map of the Atlantic coast, from Labrador down to the lower New England states. Gone are the outlines of the old maps that depended on hand applied watercolour washes to give them texture and vitality. Here this is all done in combinations of engraving, stipple engraving and mezzotint.



1780 – The Coast of Nova Scotia & New England, New York, Jersey, The Gulph and River of St. Lawrence. [;] The Islands of New foundland, Cape Breton, St. John, Antecosty, Sable &c. [;] And Soundings thereof; [.] Published for the use of the Royal Navy of Great Britain, under the Authority of the Right Honble the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, by Jos. F. W. Des Barres Esq. MDCCLXXX.

1780 Des Barres – Coast of Nova Scotia … BPL

This detail of Saint John’s Island is an example of how he handled elevations in his topographical representations. He would have known something of the Island’s topography from various sources and possibly because of his interest in setting up groups of rangers who would go inland to record the elevations while he worked on the shorelines. Perhaps he employed inland observers on Saint John’s Island. It must be admitted however that the topographical details are not articulated very clearly. There is no vividness. But then, what can a topographer do with a territory whose highest point of elevation is 152 metres?


In 1781 Des Barres produced a closer map of Saint John’s Island and Cape Breton, with a bit of the mainland below. It is easy to see that he is creating finer detail and including much more information about topography into this map than the one made the year before.


1781 – A Chart of Cape Breton and St. John’s Islands &c. in the Gulph of Saint Lawrence. From the Atlantic Neptune 1777-1781. Boston Public Library, Leventhal Collection.

The Island of St. John is very finely articulated with a reasonable scattering of Holland place names, so as not to clutter the general effect of clarity, and with the underlying grid of township divisions. Soundings along the coast appear in abundance.

A close-up of this detail shows precisely how he dealt with the township grid, the suggestions of landscape elevations, the precise locations of settlements and the numerous coastal soundings for navigators. There is a stronger suggestion of hills, valleys and plains – within the 152 metre limit – and for the most part, they seem to agree with the actual topography.


Des Barres also included in his atlas some big scale portions of parts of St. John’s Island. In these the effect is ever more macro, and it is as if we were looking at something under a magnifying glass. This general effect is seen in the  best plates of the Atlas.

An examination of the area of Charlottetown Harbour has an exaggerated sense of vertical perspective in that the actual elevations are increased for spatial effect.

The cartouche, typical of his new style of design, looks like a card thrown on the surface of the finished map, but landing at an angle.

It is Neoclassicism at its most austere – a box outlined.


Des Barres worked at this project from May 1764, sending out field crews in the summer and in winter retreating to his headquarters to work up the field drawings into maps. There were many disagreements with the authorities about the scope of the survey. The Government wanted only the Atlantic coastline charted but Des Barres wanted the entire regional coastline charted in order to correct everything that had come before to produce a map as perfect as possible. He did not have his way but the survey was completed in 1773. He then returned to England to have his charts and the many views produced by artists made ready for engraving in his great work, The Atlantic Neptune. It was published by him on behalf of the Admiralty and appeared spread out over a ten year period from 1774 to 1784. By then Britain had been at war with the American Colonies for six years. Here is the title page of the first volume.

In his preface Des Barres acknowledged the work done by Holland, unlike Montresor some time before. The charts combined the greatest accuracy possible with a new aesthetic standard never before seen. They were so accurate that they continued to be used up to the middle of the Nineteenth Century until Captain Bayfield began his massive hydrographic survey of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in 1841.

If you want to look through the four volumes of the Atlas at any scale you care to, then this site created by the Boston Public Library, permits you to do that and to download, full-size, any of the maps in the set.


In this brief account I have only touched in the most superficial manner on the depth and scope of this great achievement so you could get a quick idea of what was involved. If you want the complete story, beautifully written and presented, then get a copy of this book by Stephen J. Hornsby. It will delight you.


Of course, the Atlantic Neptune would be copied by other mapmakers in other nations. It was the best there was. Here is the very lengthy publication data and an image from the Atlas adapted from Des Barres by Gerard Hulst van Keulen, a cartographer in Amsterdam. On the lower left it has an inset of the city of Quebec. Note that Des Barres’ idiosyncratic design has been retained although all the carefully articulated detail that invited you to drop down into the actual landscape because the cartographer could not, or would not, spend the time and money to achieve that effect. It is now purely linear.


1783 – The Coast of New Schotland, New England,/ The Gulph and River of St. Laurence,/ The Islands of/ New Foundland, Cape Breton, St. John, Anticosti,/ and Soundings thereof,/ These Charts are followed, according to them Executed by order/ of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty in England/ to be Sold at Amsterdam, by Gerard Hulst van Keulen/ Anno 1783./ In these Charts is to be found Quebeck, as also the other Places/ Situated on the Longitude, which is according to the Latest/ Observations of the English and French Academy’s/ but in the English Charts which are Executed by order of/ the Admiralty, Quebeck and all other Places lay/ à bout 1 1/2 Degree Westerley. Adapted from Des Barres, J. W. F., The Atlantic Neptune by Gerard Hulst van Keulen, cartographer, Amsterdam. 60 x 128 cm. Library of Congress G3407.C6P5 1783. K4

The detail of the Island of Saint John is correctly transcribed but is lost in a network of wind direction lines from the compass rose placed just to the west of North Cape. The fine detailed articulation of topographical details is missing completely.



The Americans Produce their First Map.

In 1784 the Americans printed the first map of the American nation. A private collector has allowed the Library of Congress to share his copy of the map for a number of years. It is considered to be the one in the best condition of the very small number that have survived.

The map was engraved by Abel Buell was published only six months after the second Treaty of Paris signing on September 3, 1783 that ended the Revolutionary War. Buell was a goldsmith and also an innovator in producing typefaces for printing presses. From all accounts he was also a scoundrel. For the first time the American boundaries are clearly depicted and outlined in colour, although with some patriotic distortions. It is engraved on four joined sheets, creating an image that is 1094 x 1228 mm (43 x 481/4 inches). As was often the practice in those days, Buell stole his map information from the best maps available – think of Sayer’s output – and modified it to suit his propaganda needs. The significance of this map is not because of its cartographic glory, but that it shows the Stars and Stripes flag for the first time on a map of the new nation. It was also the first map created by an American to be copyrighted in the United States. The state boundaries are very different from those today.

At this site you can study the map in the greatest detail possible.


1783 – Abel Buell, A New and correct Map of the United States of North America Layd Down from the Latest Observations and best Authorities agreeable to the Peace of 1783[.] Humbly Inscribed to His Excellency the Governor and Company of the State of Connecticut By their Most Obedient and very humble servant Abel Buell [,] Newhaven Published according to Act of Assembly. On deposit to the Library of Congress from David M. Rubenstein.

In a fit of American arrogance the map boldly departs from the other maps of the time, making the prime meridian run through Philadelphia and not the usual places in France or England or the East Atlantic islands.


The Extraordinary Cartouche

I am always drawn to a cartouche in a map because in times of crisis or emotion it may tell you a great deal about the sentiments of the time. The design is clearly derived from Rococo sources with the abundant leafy decoration springing out of what seems to be a wooden enclosure that forms the base. It is old-fashioned too in its elaborate iconographic detail. Perhaps as a nostalgic gesture to the time of the Founding Fathers, there is, seated on a rustic throne next to a war-blasted, but still leafing tree, a symbolic figure of a woman, most probably Libertas personified, classically draped and holding a Phrygian cap on a lance. This hat, based on the felt cap of the freed slaves in Ancient Rome, had already become a symbol of freedom. In the French Revolution of 1789, its importance would reach fanatical levels. In her left hand she holds a small globe where one can barely discern a coastline and “America” written across the surface. At her foot is an overturned jug, and this is also a symbol taken from Roman art which, in depictons of river gods, represents the proximity of a specific river, maybe at this time the Delaware River since Philadelphia was one of the early capitol cities. However, there is some confusion in this interpretation caused by the introduction of powerful Connecticut symbolism at the top of the design.

At the very top is the American flag itself – the Stars and Stripes, apparently supported by a cloud, flagpole and all. It is heralded by a winged messenger blowing a trumpet and carrying a laurel wreath – again, an ancient symbol – to present to the American victor. To the right of the flagpole is another winged messenger carrying the seal, granted in 1711, of the colony of Connecticut. It consists of three grapevines representing either the colonies of Connecticut, New Haven, and Saybrook or the first three area towns established by Europeans – Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor.

Over this whole complicated scene, dripping with symbolic elements, a sun shoots out long stiff rays, rather in the manner of Masonic iconology (is one surprised?). And above it all it’s the Stars and Stripes Forever.

Buell may have stolen the map data, but this cartouche is the result of carefully focussed planning to tell, with as many symbols as possible, the triumph of America, and is generally believed to be Buell’s own work. This cartouche is arguably the most important one to appear on Eighteenth Century maps, first to provide the vital map information, but most of all to make a very powerful political statement announcing the birth of a new nation based on criteria found in the Ancient Roman Republic.


Buell kindly includes Saint John’s Island in his map, and well he should. He may have been familiar with the incident in 1775 when American pirates attacked and occupied Charlottetown, stealing everything of value, including the great silver seal of the colony, and even vestments for the Catholic Church sent from Quebec. They also stole all the food they could find. They kidnapped the Colonial Administrator Phillips Callbeck, taking him away from his pregnant wife, and took him to Boston where George Washington, unable to see anything of any value in such a place and such a person, sent him back to Halifax in a dirty scruffy boat.

This little detail from the big map does not tell us anything of value about the Island. It looks like something taken from one of the 1730-40 French regional maps.


The End of the Century

After the death of the great mapmaker Robert Sayer, Robert Laurie (ca. 1755-1836) and James Whittle (1757-1818) set up their Fleet Street firm in 1794. Sayer’s health had been failing for some time and Laurie and Whittle had begun to help with the management as early as 1787 but took over in 1792.

Sayer left Laurie and Whittle very favourable lease terms for his premises and they gradually purchased all his printing machinery and other assets. They continued to print maps and updates of atlases such as The American Atlas under their own imprint.

The firm has survived into our time under another name, and they now specialise in publishing yachting charts.

This beautiful and comprehensive map published at the end of the century by Robert Laurie and James Whittle is a valuable summary of the ultimate results of the Seven Years’ War. Boundaries have been set, the American States separated from the British colonies in what was New France, and a very significant effort made to identify clearly the land occupied by the aboriginal tribes. Cartographic standards were very high at this time and the map provided the best information available in an outline more accurate than ever, based on the very extensive re-surveying that had been going on since the 1760s.

1794 – Robert Laurie and James Whittle, A New and correct map of the British colonies in North America comprehending eastern Canada with the province of Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Government of Newfoundland : with the adjacent states of New England, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey,/ London. Published by Laurie & Whittle, 53 Fleet Street, 12th May, 1794. Map hand coloured, 46 x 66 cm,  Appears in Laurie & Whittle’s New and Elegant Imperial Sheet Atlas, 1800.  Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection, Boston Public Library, G3300 1794 .N4.

The Isle of St. John has the new Holland profile and some of the new English names are included along with a few of the French Regime names of Bedec, Cape Bear and Wood Islands. Something that is extremely important for students of the fate of the aboriginal tribes is the attention these cartographers give to what they believe is the precise locations of their territories. There is an interesting detail that concerns Saint John’s Island and that is the presence of the Mi’kmaq in the area of Chignecto and the Souriquois on the east coast of New Brunswick. There has been much discussion about the relationship between these tribes. In the Seventeenth Century the Mi’kmaq were called the Souriquois, but there is evidence that in time they merged with a related group, the Mi’kmaq we know today, and the older name vanished.

1794 Laurie and Whittle BPL

The Century ends with this very handsome cartouche, still with traces of Rococo garlands but topped by a healthy plump beaver in his swampy environment. The New World is asserting itself every way it can.



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