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Mapping the Empire Historical research traces Britain’s ambitious efforts to survey its North American holdings by Rich Hewitt

Rolled up and tucked away in a corner of the British Library in London sits a hand-drawn map of the Maine coast, created in the years just before the American Revolution. At a scale of two miles to the inch, it is an extremely detailed rendering of the intricate coastline from Cape Elizabeth to the St. John River. It’s big — 10 feet long or more when fully unfurled on a map table.

“It’s breathtaking to see,’’ says Stephen Hornsby, a professor of geography and Canadian studies at the University of Maine and the director of UMaine’s Canadian-American Center. “Absolutely magnificent. It’s part of the heritage of the state, but it’s in London. It’s unknown in Maine.’’


French squadron entering Newport, 8 August 1778 (detail), by Pierre Ozanne. The survey of these waters in 1778 proved invaluable to the British fleet in pursuit of the French. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The Maine map is one in a series drawn from the first major survey of England’s holdings in North America. The General Survey of the Northern District and the Survey of Nova Scotia, conducted between 1764–75 by two Army officers, Samuel Holland and Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres, have been largely overlooked, despite their influence on the British government’s approach to surveying and on subsequent surveys done throughout the expanding empire.

Hornsby first became aware of the survey as a graduate student conducting research on Cape Breton Island and continued to find references to a major survey of British America as time went on. He noticed the distinct grid lines on Prince Edward Island, and how the roads and lot boundaries followed them. He also noticed what seemed to be a peculiar pattern of place names.

“I had questions that accumulated over the years and lay in the back of my mind,’’ he says.

To answer those questions, Hornsby began to research the survey — a five-year project that culminated last year in the publication of Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.W.F. Des Barres and the Making of the Atlantic Neptune. The book has received favorable critical reviews and has earned Hornsby two awards: Publication of the Year by The Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation, and the John Lyman Book Award for Science and Technology by the North American Society for Oceanic History.

Through his research, Hornsby discovered the most ambitious survey of that century. It was the first scientifically based survey of British America from Labrador to the Gulf of Mexico, which led to the publication of The Atlantic Neptune, a four-volume atlas containing maps and charts of that enormous area. The survey set the standard for mapping Britain’s expanding empire and established a practice of using the science of those surveys, backed by its formidable military force, to govern.

“The British surveys of North America were not simply interesting examples of the entwining of Enlightenment science and military power in the late 18th century, but directly influenced British understanding of specific parts of the globe and helped shape government policy at a critically important juncture,’’ Hornsby notes in his book.

Fall 2012

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