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Mapping the Empire


Lt. John Knight was still working on the British surveys with Joseph Des Barres when, in 1775, he sailed into Machias, Maine, just two weeks after local patriots had attacked and seized the British sloop Margaretta. His ship, the Diligent, and a smaller sailing ship were taken without a fight and Knight was captured. He was later released in a prisoner exchange, and all of the charts and maps from the surveys went with him. Artifact courtesy of University of Maine Fogler Library

At the end of the American Revolution, Holland returned to Quebec to serve as surveyor general. In that role, he conducted and oversaw the survey of British lands to the west of Quebec toward Lake Ontario and Niagara, in preparation for the British loyalists, displaced from their homes in the colonies and seeking to relocate in that region.

Des Barres had remained in London during the early years of the war, promoting the publication of The Atlantic Neptune. Hornsby says Des Barres knew the value of the manuscript maps he possessed and was determined to publish them himself to gain both credit and what he hoped would be considerable profit. In early summer 1775, he was busy engraving and printing maps and charts based on the Neptune to get them in the hands of the Admiralty and on British war ships sailing to America that fall.

“They were very helpful for the navy during the early years of the war,’’ Hornsby says. “But the great irony of the project is that while the British had maps and charts based on the coastal surveys, the war, to a great extent, was fought on land. And the British did not have good maps of their 13 colonies.’’

Interior maps of the colonies might have made a difference in the conduct and the outcome of the war, according to Hornsby. However, Britain learned from the experience of the General Survey and put that knowledge to good use after the war.

“By the early 1800s, Britain realized that they needed a naval mapping office,’’ Hornsby says. “The General Survey was accomplished in a rather ad hoc manner; it was all done by different parts of the government. That’s not a very efficient way of operating. The experience and the problems and difficulties led to the Admiralty creating the Admiralty Hydrographic Office.’’

It was the hydrographic office that would create the British Admiralty charts that covered most of the globe’s waters and remained the gold standard for mariners throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, Hornsby says.

But it was Holland and Des Barres who set the standards for those imperial surveys on land and on water — scientific, coordinated surveys of an empire on which the sun never set — from London to India, Australia, Africa and Atlantic Canada. The two surveyors provided Britain with the tools and methods to delineate its empire and define much of the world we know today.

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