A biography of Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres, one of the people prominent in Nova Scotia history in the mid-1700s, on the occasion of the 2010 Celebration of the New England Planter migration to Nova Scotia in the 1760s.

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Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres


DesBarres, Joseph Frederick Wallet, (baptized Joseph-Frédéric Vallet Des Barres), army officer, military engineer, surveyor, colonizer, and colonial administrator; born November 1721, either in Basel, Switzerland, or in Paris, eldest of three children of Joseph-Leonard Vallet Des Barres and Anne-Catherine Cuvier; with Mary Cannon he had six children and with Martha Williams eleven; died 27 October 1824 in Halifax.

        The many fields of interest of Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres have made him a unique figure in the early history of the Maritimes, and the length and vigour of his career still elicit admiration.  A member of a Huguenot family that originated in the Montbéliard region of France, DesBarres received his initial schooling at Basel, where he obtained a thorough grounding in science and mathematics.  In 1752 or 1753, under the patronage of the Duke of Cumberland, he entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich (London), England, and there immersed himself in the study of fortifications, surveying, and drafting.  DesBarres broke his ties with Europe in 1756 when he left for North America to begin a military career as a lieutenant with the Royal Americans (62nd, later 60th, Foot).  Within two years he was serving as an assistant engineer at the siege of Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island).  His ability there impressed his superiors, and he was commissioned to prepare a chart of the St. Lawrence River, which was used by James Wolfe.  His success led to further surveys in the Quebec area while he was participating in the campaigns of 1759 and 1760 as an assistant engineer, followed in 1761 by work on the Halifax defences under the supervision of John Henry Bastide.  The next year DesBarres acted as an assistant engineer at the recapture of St. John’s [see Charles-Henri-Louis d’Arsac de Ternay], and after the French surrender carried out surveying tasks in Newfoundland in conjunction with James Cook.

        In October 1762 Commodore Richard Spry arrived in Halifax to become commander of the Royal Navy in North America.  Soon afterwards he suggested to the Admiralty that a coastal survey of Nova Scotia would aid in settlement and improve “the safety of Navigation,” and he recommended DesBarres, who had volunteered his services for the task.  A year later, Spry’s successor, Rear-Admiral Lord Colvil, brought instructions from the Admiralty to have DesBarres make “accurate Surveys and Charts of the Coast and Harbours of Nova Scotia.” This project was one of several approved about this time by the Board of Trade and by the Admiralty for the survey of parts of Britain’s North American possessions, and it reflected the bias of its sponsor: whereas the board’s main interest was in land surveys, the Admiralty was most concerned with sea-coasts and harbours.  In part because of this divergence of interests, DesBarres was to have only limited contact with Samuel Johannes Holland, who in 1764 began a survey of the northern colonies for the Board of Trade.  DesBarres was undoubtedly happy with this arrangement since he resented Holland, perhaps because of the latter’s seniority and better connections; indeed, he may have suggested the Nova Scotia survey to Spry in order to avoid working under Holland.  DesBarres’s tendency to think of new projects is illustrated by his suggestion at this time for the establishment of a corps of pioneers which would construct roads in Nova Scotia.

       Do you like to try your luck? Go to our website and play lucky pharao online kostenlos. Increased odds for winning! By May 1764 DesBarres had commenced the survey, which gave full rein to his surveying and artistic genius.  Previous maps of inshore waters had been poor, inadequate in scale and unreliable in detail.  Thanks to his painstaking methods, however, DesBarres was able to refine existing techniques of surveying and adapt others.  Each summer he worked with a staff of assistants, usually numbering about seven, some 20 to 30 labourers, and small vessels detached from the naval establishment.  During the winter he prepared rough drafts of the maps.  The tortuous nature of the shore line was a major problem; DesBarres commented, “There is scarcely any known Shore so much intersected with Bays, Harbours and Creeks as this is, and the Offing of it is so full of Islands, Rocks and Shoals as are almost innumerable.”  In addition, conditions were sometimes harsh and occasionally dangerous – in 1767 he narrowly escaped drowning when landing on Sable Island.

        Other problems were administrative in nature.  In 1766 DesBarres and Colvill had a disagreement about the scope of the survey, Colvill believing that only the Atlantic coastline should be charted and DesBarres holding out for the entire coast followed by a review of all work undertaken before it was incorporated in “an accurate and perfect Map.” DesBarres apparently carried his point with the Admiralty, but that body was not as accommodating about expenses.  Initially only the cost of hiring a vessel was allowed, there were disputes over the wages of the labourers, and DesBarres’s own expenditures were not fully reimbursed.  Nevertheless, the survey continued steadily until its completion in 1773.

        After returning to England in 1774, DesBarres toiled for some years to produce his charts and views in a finished form. They were eventually incorporated in The Atlantic Neptune, a large collection of charts and views produced by DesBarres.  The Neptune was published by him on behalf of the Admiralty, and appeared between 1774 and 1784.  It consists of four series of charts covering Nova Scotia, New England, the Gulf of St. Lawrence including Cape Breton and St. John’s (Prince Edward) Island, and the coast south of New York, accompanied by “various views of the North American coast.” Although DesBarres was indebted to Holland and his assistants for many surveys, a fact which he acknowledged, his own contribution is not negligible.  Moreover, it is in their artistic quality that the charts and views especially shine, since their accuracy is combined with an aesthetic character that places DesBarres among the more notable of the century’s minor artists.  The Neptune does contain some inaccuracies, but these are probably accounted for by the fact that DesBarres had rushed production in response to the mounting pressure for publication, unrest in the Thirteen Colonies having created a demand for accurate naval charts.  Nevertheless, DesBarres’s charts served as standard guides for navigation until the work of Henry Wolsey Bayfield and Peter Frederick Shortland well into the 19th century.

        While in Nova Scotia, DesBarres became convinced of the great potential of the Maritime colonies for settlement.  He began to obtain land by grant or purchase, and eventually came to own property in the Tatamagouche region, Falmouth Township, and Cumberland County in Nova Scotia, as well as tracts between the Memramcook and Petitcodiac rivers in present-day New Brunswick.  These acquisitions, which made him one of the greatest landowners in the Maritime colonies, were procured relatively cheaply, partly because he was friendly with Nova Scotian officials.  The Tatamagouche grant, for example, came to him as the result of an association with Michael Francklin, Richard Bulkeley, Joseph Goreham, and others.  In addition, DesBarres looked after the interests of other Nova Scotian landowners such as Frederick Haldimand.  DesBarres’s dream was that rents would provide money for his chart-making activities, which were always in need of support.  Some time before 1768 he built a headquarters in Falmouth Township known as Castle Frederick, and there worked on the surveys during the winters.  When he returned to England he left his mistress Mary Cannon, whom he had met in 1764, in charge of the Castle and his estates.  On her appointment as his agent in 1776 she was given power of attorney in land transactions, and was to consult him only for final decisions.

        DesBarres began submitting bills for the Neptune in 1775, but the Admiralty decided that, given the high costs, parliamentary approval would be needed before payment could be made.  This decision initiated proceedings that dragged on until 1794 and were never satisfactory to DesBarres.  The confusion in his records – the result of an unusual arrangement whereby he was permitted to receive the profits from the sale of charts while working for the crown – makes them almost impossible to interpret.  But in October 1782 the Admiralty reported favourably on his requests for compensation, thus vindicating his honesty and confirming the value of the Neptune.

        Deeply involved with the war in North America and its aftermath, the government did not act on DesBarres’s case immediately.  However, the need to establish refuges for the loyalists came to DesBarres’s assistance, since in May 1784 it was decided that Cape Breton would be separated from Nova Scotia and made an independent colony for that purpose.  One of the few persons with an intimate knowledge of the island, DesBarres had been consulted when discussions about its future were under way, and he had been enthusiastic, claiming that the fisheries could be developed as they had been under French rule and that the coal mines could pay for the operation of the government.  He was quick to make a case for his appointment as lieutenant governor in partial compensation for the 20 years spent on surveys and the Neptune, which he claimed had cost him money and military promotion (he had become a captain only in 1775).  Thanks in part to his knowledge of the island, he received the appointment, his commission being dated 9 August 1784.  Governor John Parr of Nova Scotia was supposed to exercise some supervision over him, but in practice DesBarres corresponded directly with London.

        The new colony was not a particularly appealing place.  Since its cession to Britain in 1763, Cape Breton had remained undeveloped because of indifference in Halifax and the unwillingness of the British government to see the island’s coal compete with the home product on the North American market.  As a result there were only about a thousand inhabitants, mainly Acadians and Micmacs, in scattered locations.  During 1783, however, Abraham Cornelius Cuyler, a former mayor of Albany, New York, had begun to plan for the immigration of loyalists from Quebec, and 140 arrived in October 1784 at Louisbourg and St. Peters.  DesBarres had also been gathering settlers, mostly poor Englishmen and disbanded soldiers, and 129 persons landed from the Blenheim at Spanish Bay (Sydney Harbour) one month later.  DesBarres’s settlers were joined by some of Cuyler’s group, and the lieutenant governor himself arrived at Spanish Bay on 7 January 1785; by spring the colony’s capital, named for the home secretary, Lord Sydney, had been founded.  DesBarres laid out the town along typically Georgian lines, intending that it should have the advantage of controlled development.  The proposal was unusual for its time, and a later commentator has claimed that, had it been fully carried through, it would have resulted in “the only imaginative planned project in 18th century Nova Scotia.”

        But while DesBarres shone as a planner, he failed in human relations.  More accustomed to military discipline than to the compromise needed in civilian government, he rashly tried to impose his will on others and earned their enmity and opposition.  The chief source of controversy was the shortage of supplies.  It soon became evident that, thanks to a lack of planning in Halifax and Britain, there were inadequate provisions to support the settlers and garrison of Sydney.  Moreover, when government supplies became available, they were allotted only to the troops and loyalists.  The settlers sponsored by DesBarres were thus placed in an unenviable position.  DesBarres claimed that as lieutenant governor he alone had the right to distribute these supplies, but Lieutenant-Colonel John Yorke, the garrison commander, insisted that he had been ordered to take charge of them.  The acrimonious debate between the two men lasted from late 1785 well into the spring of 1786, and was accompanied by several confrontations between DesBarres’s supporters and the troops.  The tiny society of Sydney was divided by the dispute, which slackened to some extent when DesBarres obtained control over some supplies by seizing those he found in a ship wrecked off Arichat.  Yorke had been willing to distribute supplies to the non-loyalist settlers, but DesBarres’s refusal to compromise about control drove him to ally himself with members of the Executive Council who had already begun to rebel against DesBarres’s strict control, notably Cuyler and Attorney General David Mathews.  Cuyler, Mathews, and others sent petitions to the British government condemning the conduct of DesBarres and his supporters such as Chief Justice Richard Gibbons and demanding his recall.

        Unfortunately for DesBarres, by the time the petitions reached London in the late summer of 1786 his position was less than secure.  In April Lord Sydney had reprimanded him for attempting to promote one of his favourite schemes, the establishment of a whale fishery, by encouraging whalers from Nantucket Island and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, to settle in Cape Breton.  Sydney had reproved Parr for the same activity.  He was also disturbed by DesBarres’s failure to wait for instructions before entering into agreements with whalers, and his expenditure of money without prior approval on such items as barracks.  The arrival of the petitions and supporting letters from Parr apparently decided Sydney to recall DesBarres to explain his conduct.  In spite of DesBarres’s sending Gibbons to London to present his case, Sydney ordered him to Britain in November 1786.  Just under a year later DesBarres handed over power to his successor, William Macarmick, and left Cape Breton.

        There were several reasons for DesBarres’s failure.  Cape Breton had a low priority with British officials and there was no patience with disputes in a minor colony.  Moreover, a conservative Home Department showed no imagination about cooperation in the implementation of DesBarres’s far-reaching schemes.  Then too, ambitious loyalists such as Cuyler and Mathews were unwilling to submit to DesBarres’s control, and were prepared to use their influence in Britain.  And lastly, Nova Scotian officials resented losing Cape Breton and were jealous of a contender for government support; they would hinder the development of the colony as much as possible.

        DesBarres’s career in Cape Breton complicated his claims for compensation even more, since he had been compelled to purchase £3,000 worth of supplies.  To pay the bills, he had to pledge Neptune plates and mortgage some of his estates.  For the next several years DesBarres’s confusing financial records were examined, while he demanded every penny he felt was owed him in numerous lengthy petitions which reveal the singularity of purpose that characterized his whole life.  The government agreed to pay some of the £43,000 that formed his total claim, but most of the amount was still outstanding when in 1794 his friend William Windham became secretary at war.  Although not all of the Neptune claims were accepted, apparently because the plates were considered to be DesBarres’s property and therefore profitable to him, most were approved.  In addition, his expenses arising from Cape Breton were paid, and he was even granted half the salary of lieutenant governor from 1787 to 1793.

        DesBarres was 72 in 1794 and the settlement of his claims should have spelled the happy end of a long career.  It did not: he wanted recognition that his errors in Cape Breton had not been great enough to deny him another colonial appointment.  He remained in England pressing his case and was not satisfied until May 1804, when at the age of 82 he was appointed lieutenant governor of Prince Edward Island, to succeed Edmund Fanning.

        During Fanning’s tenure the absentee landlords, who owned most of the land on the Island, had become suspicious of certain developments, notably the movement for escheat for non-fulfilment of obligations.  Since the landlords feared that they had not exercised great influence on the administration of the Island, DesBarres was instructed by the British government to investigate the situation and make reforms, especially in the judicial system, which had been the subject of complaints from several quarters.  DesBarres experienced great difficulty in reaching the Island, and it was not until July 1805 that he arrived in Charlottetown.  He brought with him his tendency to propose imaginative plans but, tutored by the Cape Breton experience, showed greater tact and willingness to compromise.

        DesBarres was concerned to discover the state of the Island’s economy, and by the end of 1805 he had forwarded to London both a census and a detailed account of the crops and livestock in the colony.  The relatively backward condition of the Island prompted him to attempt changes, and he planned to create a more prosperous future by erecting public buildings and improving communications.  To accomplish his aims, he adapted the militia organization to fulfill the statute labour laws; by 1810 new roads were being opened and public buildings planned [see John Plaw]. DesBarres also devoted much time to questions of defence, organizing the militia on a proper basis and trying to interest both local and British politicians in improving the Island’s military position.

        At the same time, the lieutenant governor was involved with a complex political situation.  On his arrival DesBarres had found that Fanning’s supporters dominated the public offices, and he was therefore forced to turn to one of the few unattached residents, James Bardin Palmer, for advice.  Palmer’s appointment to the Council and to a number of minor positions raised suspicions among the Fanningites, or “old party” as they were known, about his influence with DesBarres.  Palmer was already in ill favour with them, and he became even more so in 1806 when he and some others founded the Loyal Electors, a society which opposed the “old party” and aimed at control of the House of Assembly.

        The Loyal Electors and the “old party” maintained a strained relationship during the following years, one marked by increasing hostility on both sides.  In 1810 matters came to a head when Attorney General Peter Magowan died.  DesBarres, who had hitherto been successful in staying out of political quarrels, recommended Palmer for the position, but the proprietors, led by Lord Selkirk [Douglas], distrusted Palmer and succeeded the following year in having their candidate, Charles Stewart, appointed.  In 1811 as well accusations were made that a secret committee had been formed to control the Loyal Electors.  Members of the society refuted the charge in affidavits to DesBarres which were highly critical of Stewart, Chief Justice Caesar Colclough, and two other judges.  When the judges learned of the attacks they demanded and obtained permission from DesBarres to examine the affidavits, which they then used to start legal proceedings against some of the Loyal Electors.

        After a fiercely contested assembly election in 1812 the Loyal Electors increased their representation.  When the “old party” supporters boycotted the house in September, a rump composed mainly of Loyal Electors requested from DesBarres an explanation of his role in the affidavits affair.  The lieutenant governor denied that he had authorized the use of the affidavits for legal proceedings, and the assembly thereupon condemned the judges’ actions.  Shortly thereafter DesBarres took the opportunity to suspend Colclough, with whom he had been on bad terms for some time.

        But these events had been overtaken by others in Britain.  The proprietors, alerted to the controversy by Colclough and others, had attacked DesBarres for being under the domination of Palmer and had attacked the Loyal Electors as sympathetic to the Americans.  Lord Bathurst, the colonial secretary, was sympathetic to their arguments and in August 1812 recalled DesBarres; Palmer was stripped of his public offices.  DesBarres was almost certainly not as heavily influenced by Palmer as was alleged, since he was percipient and headstrong enough not to be led by advisers.  It seems likely that the Colonial Office, quite apart from the proprietors’ lobbying, felt that in wartime a younger, more militarily active man was needed to replace one of 89.

        After his supersession DesBarres left Prince Edward Island for Amherst, Nova Scotia, where he lived until he moved to Halifax in 1817.  His vitality was far from exhausted, for he continued trying to prod the British government into paying more of his claims, and spent a great deal of time on his land problems.  It is reputed that he celebrated his hundredth birthday by dancing on a table top in Halifax.  There he died one month short of 103 and was buried beside Martha Williams.

        Over many years his problems with his lands had grown more and more complicated, and they had become inextricably involved with his personal relationships.  Mary Cannon had remained in charge of his estates and during his tenure in Cape Breton had sent timber and produce to Sydney.  Their relationship deteriorated, however, after the arrival at Sydney late in 1785 of Martha Williams and two of her children by DesBarres.  Williams, a native of Shrewsbury, England, is a shadowy figure.  It is not known whether DesBarres had bothered to marry her before she arrived in North America, but thereafter he remained loyal to her and severed personal connections with Cannon, who continued to defend his land titles in the courts against creditors and against tenants increasingly seeking to own their own property.

        During the years in Cape Breton and England DesBarres had had scant time for his estates.  In 1794, however, when prospects brightened for the settlement of the Neptune and Cape Breton claims, he had taken a renewed interest in the properties.  Claiming that he could not obtain information on them from Cannon, he appointed Captain John MacDonald of Glenaladale as agent in her place.  MacDonald discovered that Cannon had run up £4,000 worth of debts in DesBarres’s name and feared that she would sue DesBarres for that amount; he also found out that she was having an affair with an Irish labourer at Castle Frederick.  DesBarres acted coolly, remaining in England and ignoring the estates, but not making any provision for Cannon and their children.  By about 1800 one of their daughters, Amelia, had taken charge of the estates; like all his children she was loyal to him and tried to enforce payment of rents.

        When DesBarres was appointed to Prince Edward Island in 1804, he replaced Amelia with a son-in-law, James Chalmers.  However, Chalmers’s heavy-handed approach to collecting rents drove some lessees to sell out and move.  By this time DesBarres had lost contact with agricultural and settlement conditions on his estates, and no manager could satisfy his final visions of landed wealth.  Believing that Cannon had “fraudulently and corruptly betrayed [his] trust and confidence” in her management of his land, in 1809 he went so far as to take her to the Court of Chancery in Halifax, but the case was still unresolved at his death, when it was presumably closed without any decision.  Meanwhile he was unable to divest himself of his land since disputes with tenants over land values had prevented prices from being set on his holdings.  His children by Martha Williams inherited the problem, eventually squabbling among themselves and gaining little.  Cannon and her family were totally excluded from his  estate.

        The long career of Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres unfolded during the pioneer period of four Maritime colonies.  There can be no dispute that his greatest contribution is the Atlantic Neptune, which stands as a landmark in Canadian cartographic achievement.  His enthusiastic visions for Cape Breton were not realized and his impatience with government and opposition spelled failure to his efforts.  In Prince Edward Island his administration was more successful and saw the formation of what has often been called the first political party in the colony.  Difficulties over land resulted in a time-consuming waste of energy which soured his later years.  DesBarres’s private life was not altogether unusual in so far as colonial officials in the 18th century often had families on both sides of the ocean.  However, it must be said that in his treatment of Mary Cannon and her family he showed callousness, ingratitude, and suspicion.

        For himself he demanded complete justice, and he showed “Ingenuity and Contrivance” in obtaining it during the years of subtle battles over his Neptune and Cape Breton claims, his personality “never demonstrated an abundance of the pleasing traits,” according to a recent biographer, Geraint Nantglyn Davies Evans, and could hardly have been agreeable.  Yet his enthusiasm and sheer breadth of vision appealed to women, politicians, and officials alike.  These characteristics brought DesBarres his successes but the attention to detail he showed as an artist brought a certain pettiness to his personal affairs and led to his failures.

—  Robert J. Morgan, Director
Beaton Institute
University College of Cape Breton
Sydney, Nova Scotia

Source: Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres (the original article)

Note:  In the version above the text is the same as the text in the original article, but several improvements have been made in the formatting.  This version will work properly with whatever typeface may be available in the viewer’s computer – in contrast to the original version that requires the viewer to download and install a special rarely-used typeface.  In this version the numerous non-standard characters, that appear in the original, have been eliminated; they have been replaced by standard characters that will display properly in many more browsers than the original version.  This version adheres to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards for HTML documents; that is, it passes the W3C validation test while the original version does not; the practical effect of this is that this version will display properly in any standards-compliant browser.

J.F.W. DesBarres' Atlantic Neptune map showing the Annapolis Basin - detail
Detail of J.F.W. DesBarres’ Atlantic Neptune map
showing Annapolis Royal and the Annapolis Basin.
Source:— National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England
Coastline Map by J.F.W. DesBarres
View the complete map sheet

J.F.W. DesBarres' Atlantic Neptune title page
J.F.W. DesBarres’ Atlantic Neptune title page
Source:— National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England
View the Title Page

Watercolour showing Castle Frederick, Falmouth, Nova Scotia, by Joseph Frederick Wallet Desbarres, 1722-1824
Castle Frederick, Falmouth, Nova Scotia
Watercolour over pencil on wove paper
Artist: Joseph Frederick Wallet Desbarres, 1722-1824
Source:— Library and Archives Canada Acc. No. 1959-4-1

Castle Frederick: recent photographs

Narrative of the Motives of Lieut Govr DesBarres Appointment to Cape Breton, and of the Circumstances of the Expenditures for the public Service there, with Remarks…

… money ceased to be issued to my Agent – even an Amount of £ 7000, which had been recommended for allowance… This brought upon me at once an Inundation of protest Bills, damages and expences.  I endeavoured to arrest the progress of the evil by paying them as far as I could from the fund of all my own ressources; I even converted the Impressions and plates of the Atlantic Neptune into a pledge for a part, to that, upon the whole, had the £ 7000, alluded to, been issued to the Agent, my Credit would have stood…

Seizure of my Estates for supplies and provisions to Loyalists &ce. at the [several?] suits of John Joduit – Tremain & Co – Nul Robertson – Hall & Co – Samuel Sparrow, &ce &ce; respectively, which Estates I had purchased and settled about thirty years ago.  But as it was twenty Months after the Stoppage, and the determination to recall me, before my successor arrived, I was entirely cramped in my exertions of Settlement with the Creditors.  Severals took the Advantage of trumping up exorbitant Claims’ Estates Estates which I had formed in the Province of Nova Scotia, and had for many years before returned to me from twelve to fifteen hundred pounds a year were attached; As Instances of the devastation upon this occasion about two hundred heads of Cattle which had been leased with the Land on one of my Estates, were brought to the hammer upon an execution for a Bill of £ 209; and Others in proportion; for Bills not exceeding a thousand Pounds, Judgement was taken to the Amount of £ 2000, and an Estate, in a flourishing [?rogress] of Settlement, seized for which it was prosessed to refuse £ 6000…

… Man dismissed for public misconduct from being my private Secretary, was actually pumped for Information by an Official Gentleman, who had recommended him to me for that office as a Friend & client of his own…

…I arrived safe in white hall, in April 1788 …

The Maritimes – Cradle of
Canadian Hydrography

Hydrography: The measurement and study of water depths and currents in open seas, estuaries, harbours, rivers and lakes; the surveying, sounding, and charting of bodies of water; the measurement of tides or currents to aid navigation; the measurement of flow and investigation of behavior of streams, especially to control or utilize their waters.

…After the fall of Quebec (in 1759), Captain Cook returned to the coast and was given the task of charting Newfoundland waters, which occupied him for several years.  Charles Morris, Chief Surveyor to the Governor of Nova Scotia, charted Halifax Harbour, Sambro Islands, Mahone Bay, Port Mutton, Port Senior, Port Metway as well as long stretches of coastline “with all the Islands, Shoals, and Ledges of Rocks and Soundings” in the early 1760s.  Other charts of the Atlantic coast were drawn by Cook’s assistants, William Parker and Michael Lane.  Holland was appointed Surveyor General of Quebec and the Northern District of North America, and under his direction much mapping was carried out.  It is clear that, in those days, no distinction was made between topographic and hydrographic mapping, and surveyors switched from one to the other.

The grand old man of Atlantic coast charting was undoubtedly J.F.W. Des Barres, born in Switzerland and trained in England.  Des Barres, by all accounts, was what is usually known as ‘a character’.

Haughty, unbending, even selfish, a confirmed bachelor, he may easily have been the greatest hydrographer of his time.  A British Admiralty publication says of him: “In a century of great marine surveyors… Des Barres, for all his faults, stands pre-eminent… For skill and versatility as both surveyor and draughtsman, he had no equal.  The accuracy of his charting, often carried out under conditions of imminent danger, is matched only by the delicacy and balance of his compositions.”

The mass of charts and sailing directions left by Des Barres is truly impressive.  Compiled in his Atlantic Neptune 1777 (the term ‘neptune’ was applied to any collection of charts covering a given area), they numbered at least 250 separate sheets, Many of them were later amended and reissued, The Public Archives have 171 different plates and a total of 735 issues, of which 442 are variations.  It must be admitted that some of the charts in the Neptune were originally compiled by others and later appropriated by Des Barres.  Among the most dangerous undertakings was the charting of Sable Island, which took two years, during which Des Barres and his crew were in almost constant danger of shipwreck.

It is interesting to compare one of Des Barres’ charts with a modern one published by the Canadian Hydrographic Service.  In the Public Archives’ collection there is a chart of Halifax Harbour published by Des Barres in April, 1781, at a scale of about ½ mile to the inch.  The chart has an elliptic inset containing written directions for finding one’s way safely into the harbor, a panoramic view of the shore as seen from the open sea as a further aid to mariners, and a smaller view of the slender lighthouse on “Lighthouse Island”, now Sambro.  McNab Island was called “Cornwallis” by Des Barres, and Lawlor Island was “Bloss”.  Chebucto Head, whose name has survived unchanged, should be given “a Birth of 100 fathoms”.  On the site of the present Dartmouth (also unchanged in name) only a few fields appear.  What is remarkable is the almost complete agreement between Des Barres’ soundings – which are numerous – and those on the modern chart.  This evidences both the early hydrographer’s competence and thoroughness and the absence of heavy silting during the past 180 years, one of the qualities which distinguish Halifax Harbour.

As to the city itself, another chart of Des Barres, published in 1779 when Halifax was 30 years old, shows the built-up area to be about two miles long along the waterfront.  A small square fortification – perhaps no more than a tower – is drawn on the site of the Citadel, but a more substantial defence work, facing landward, occupies the site above the dockyard, A “Fresh Water River” falls into the harbor where the Ocean Terminals are now.  Much in evidence are several batteries – “nine gun battery”, “thirteen gun battery”, “governor’s battery” – and several breweries.  A fortification is also shown on George’s Island.

Des Barres was later appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Cape Breton, and Sydney was founded under his direction.  In the early years of the 19th century he became Lieutenant-Governor and Commander in Chief of Prince Edward Island, but his record as a politician and administrator is less outstanding than that as a hydrographer.  He lived to a ripe 103.

With Des Barres the age of pioneering hydrography in the Atlantic comes to an end, and hydrographic surveys from then on were undertaken periodically as a matter of routine by special ships of the British Admiralty.  The Admiralty’s hydrographic office was established in 1795, bringing a measure of order and standardization into the lusty and often lucrative – but not always reliable – business of marine charting,

All during the colonial period, the Atlantic seaboard continued to receive more attention from British hydrography than any other region, for the obvious reason that it was the gateway to the British possessions in North America.  L.S. Dawson, a British hydrographer, in his Memoirs of Hydrography published in England in 1885 supplied short biographical sketches of all officers of the navy who had engaged in hydrographic work, together with lists of the charts prepared by them, insofar as he could trace them.  In the period from Des Barres to Dawson’s time, Nova Scotia’s coast and adjacent waters were covered in 40 charts, those of Newfoundland in 26, and those of New Brunswick in 8.  This is no doubt an incomplete record.  A point to be borne in mind is that hydrographic charts become outdated in several years end the areas covered need to be resurveyed because of the action of tides, waves, and currents.

Probably the most notable hydrographer to work on Canada’s Atlantic coast after Des Barres was Henry Wolsey Bayfield, who entered the British Navy in 1806 at the age of 11 and died in Charlottetown at the age of 90.  Bayfield was appointed Admiralty Surveyor for British North America in 1817, and from that time on he was occupied entirely with hydrographic surveys – first on the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, and after 184l, when he took up residence in Charlottetown, in the Maritimes.  He surveyed the Strait of Belle Isle, the Coast of Labrador, Anticosti Island, Prince Edward Island, the Magdalen Islands, Cape Breton, Sable Island, Halifax harbor, and the coast of Nova Scotia from Halifax to Canso.  Other hydrographers who charted Atlantic waters during the 19th century were George Thomas (Croque Harbour, Newfoundland, 1808), George Holbrook (eastern Newfoundland, 1814-2l), Anthony Lockwood (Nova Scotia, 1813-18 – he also wrote a book about Newfoundland), Frederick Bullock (Newfoundland 1824-27), Henry Charles Otter (who helped to land the first transatlantic telegraph cable in the Bay of Bull’s Arm, Newfoundland, 1866), Peter Frederick Shortland and A. Kortright (l842-8, Bay of Fundy), John Orlebar (Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, 1833-64), J.H. Kerr (Newfoundland 1865-7l), William Chimmo (Newfoundland 1867) and W.F. Maxwell (Maritimes, 1872-84).

Hydrographic surveying is still difficult and exacting work, but the echo sounder and electronic position-finding equipment have made the task much more efficient and less time-consuming than in the period covered here, when the lead line and simple triangulation were the hydrographer’s chief tools.  The hydrographers, in their sailing ships and rowboats, had to seek out the reefs and shoals that other mariners tried to avoid, and their task was seldom without danger.  The mass of reliable charts bequeathed to Canadian hydrography by the early marine surveyors of the rugged Atlantic coast is a magnificent monument to their skill and endurance.

Source:—  The Maritimes – Cradle of Canadian Hydrography Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, prepared on the occasion of the Official Opening of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography on 25 October 1962 (Preserved in the archives of the BIO-Oceans Association).

New Digitized Content Online: British Admiralty Charts of Canadian Waters Library and Archives Canada has completed a major project to catalogue and scan its collection of original navigation charts published in London by the Hydrographic Office of the British Admiralty.  The 3400 documents, which cover a 150-year period ending in the mid-20th century, represent the largest historical description of Canada’s three major oceans and the inland waters of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.  Many of the charts were prepared from surveys undertaken by the elite of the British navy: Admiral Henry Bayfield, Captain James Cook, Lieutenant George Vancouver, Sir John Franklin and Admiral William Parry… The Admiralty series is part of a much broader collection of early navigational records at Library and Archives Canada.  The collection boasts a significant number of portolan charts from the workshops of Johannes van Keulen, Hendrick Doncker, Pieter Goos and other 17th-century Dutch masters.  It also includes some 800 sheets from the famous work The Atlantic Neptune (ca.1775-1784) by Joseph F.W. Des Barres as well as the beautifully detailed charts of French hydrographers Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin and Jacques Nicolas Bellin.  More recent additions to the collection include the complete print run produced by the Canadian Hydrographic Service and its predecessors.  Future scanning projects will make it possible to access these other navigational records via the Internet…
Source:— Press release, 27 October 2009, by Library and Archives Canada.

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