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Mapping the Empire

Victory over France in the Seven Years War established Britain as the global military and scientific superpower. Scientific developments made it possible to fix latitude and longitude at sea, and established the Greenwich Meridian as the Prime Meridian, further aiding more precise and coordinated mapping.

And Britain needed maps.

According to Hornsby, Britain was ill-prepared to govern the vast territory it now controlled. In addition to Canada, which it had captured from France in the war, Britain also gained Florida and territories along the Gulf of Mexico from Spain. England now controlled all land in North America from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Eastern Seaboard to the Mississippi River.

Fishermen, explorers and settlers had been sailing in the North Atlantic for centuries, but according to Hornsby, their maps and charts were vague and lacked the detail that Britain needed to help govern the American colonies, as well as those newly acquired lands.

The government had a plan to settle the lands both in the north and south of the existing colonies in America. Parliament in 1763 issued a proclamation prohibiting further settlements beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and planned to funnel prospective settlers north into Maine and the Canadian provinces, and south toward Florida and Georgia.

To settle those areas, the British government proposed a General Survey of two districts: southern, from the Potomac River to Florida and into the gulf; and northern, from the Potomac to Labrador.

Enter Holland and Des Barres. The two Army officers, both engineers with surveying experience, were assigned to handle the survey in the northern district. Holland had worked on surveys along the St. Lawrence River at the end of the Seven Years War. He had been named surveyor general for Quebec and when the General Survey was planned, was also named by the British Board of Trade as surveyor general for the General Survey of the Northern District. Des Barres got his marching orders from the Admiralty and was named surveyor general for the Survey of Nova Scotia.

The two men faced problems with logistics, weather, geography and communication as they worked on the surveys. Although the French had settled areas along the St. Lawrence River and there were some settlements in Nova Scotia, much of the newly acquired Canadian territory was unsettled wilderness. Des Barres established his headquarters in Halifax. Holland, however, was forced to move his base of operation annually as the survey moved from Canada to the American colonies.

Both men were assigned ships and a captain to aid them in their surveys. Des Barres was assigned to work with Lt. John Knight, while Holland was paired with Lt. Henry Mowat. Knight, a good naval officer, and Des Barres produced a very good hydrographic survey, particularly of Nova Scotia, says Hornsby.

Holland fared differently. Mowat was often “off chasing smugglers,’’ a more financially profitable endeavor. Holland repeatedly bemoaned the lack of accurate soundings on the maps he produced.


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The Arts
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System