Massachusetts Bay from The Atlantic Neptune

[Samuel Holland et al., surveyors], Massachusetts Bay. London: J[oseph] F[rederick] W[allet] Des Barres (publisher), April 29, 1776.
Engraving on two sheets joined, 29"h x 41.75"w plus good margins, wash color


A very fine chart of Massachusetts Bay from the Atlantic Neptune, issued for use of British navigators early in the Revolutionary War.

The Atlantic Neptune is arguably the finest atlas of North American waters ever produced, achieving in its more complete states full coverage of the East and Gulf Coasts. The Neptune’s great strength was the integration of form and function: while its hundreds of charts, plans and views are based on rigorous observations taken by British military engineers in the years before the Revolution, they also exhibit a particularly high degree of artistry.

The work included three charts focusing on Boston at different scales, enabling navigators to “zoom in” with successively more detailed charts as they approached by sea. Offered here is the smallest-scale chart of the three, depicting coastal Massachusetts and Massachusetts Bay from Plum Island to Plymouth Harbor as well as the outer reaches of Cape Cod. It provides a most detailed view of the region’s complex coastal contours and-surprisingly–considerable inland detail of waterways, roads and even individual dwellings.

Historical context
Joseph Des Barres now receives the lion’s share of credit for the achievement of The Atlantic Neptune. In truth, he himself was responsible for the hydrographic survey of Nova Scotia that fills the first volume. And as compiler and publisher he was responsible for the extraordinary artistic quality exhibited throughout the work.

However, many others played critical roles in conducting the original surveys. The most important was Samuel Holland, a Dutch-born surveyor and engineer who entered British service during the French and Indian War (1756-63). Following their victory, the British were faced with the mammoth task of administering and developing thousands of square miles of newly-acquired territory, most of which had never been adequately mapped.

“we find ourselves under the greatest difficulties arising from the want of exact surveys of those countries, many parts of which have never been surveyed at all, and others so imperfectly that the charts and maps thereof are not to be depended on.”

For example, the standard nautical atlas for colonial waters was The English Pilot. Fourth Book, first published in 1689 and reissued for over 100 years. Unfortunately, “reissued” does not necessarily imply “updated;” many English Pilot charts were issued unchanged for decades, even long after superior alternatives were available. This did little for trade in general or mariners in particular, but did hold down research and development costs.

In response to this problem, Holland proposed “an accurate and just Survey upon a general scale and uniform plan” of North America east of the Mississippi. The survey would be based on geodetic controls-that is, with the locations of control points established by rigorous astronomical observation, and the intermediate areas pinpointed by means of triangulation. This followed the most advanced European practice, but would represent one of its earliest applications in North America, and on a much grander scale than hitherto.

The Lord Commissioners approved Holland’s proposal, and in 1764 he was named Surveyor General of both the Province of Quebec and the Northern District of North America. Holland spent the next six years surveying Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton and other areas in and around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then from 1770-1774 he focused on the survey of the New England and New York coasts.

Of course, Holland didn’t work alone. He was more on the order of a principal investigator, overseeing a number of semi-autonomous teams through five deputies: Charles Blaskowitz, James Grant, George Sproule, Thomas Wheeler and Thomas Wright. All told, Holland probably had more than 50 men working under his direct supervision at any given time.

Ultimately, the project required gathering and integrating several types of data: The geodetic survey described above was complemented by both hydrographical observations conducted by the Royal Navy (addressing depths, hazards &c.), and artists’ renderings of coastal profiles to be used in recognition views.

The Atlantic Neptune
Finished surveys were sent to England, where in 1774 Joseph Des Barres assumed responsibility for their publication. Des Barres had previously spent ten years in Nova Scotia as Surveyor General, and was now to spend another decade preparing North American charts for the British Navy. These were published both separately beginning in 1775 and beginning in 1777 in the compilation known as The Atlantic Neptune.

This work ultimately extended to five volumes: Nova Scotia, New England, the River and Gulf of St. Lawrence (based on the work of James Cook), the coast south of New York, and American coastal views. Because the Neptune was assembled to order and the charts often printed at intermediate states of completion, however, the exact collation of the work varies from copy to copy, while the individual charts typically exist in many variant states.

Per the National Maritime Museum (UK), the chart offered here appears to be an early state, as it has few place names and has neither stippling to shoal areas nor an engraved plate number in the upper right corner. That said it is not an exact match for any of the seven examples in that collection; most noticeably, it has the place name “Massachusetts” in the interior, lacking in all the National Museum copies.

National Maritime Museum (UK), Atlantic Neptune collection, #HNS 91A-F. Parke-Bernet Galleries, The Celebrated Collection of Americana formed by the Late Thomas Winthrop Streeter, vol. 2 item 706 (The present item is listed as vol. IV #13 in the Streeter copy of the <em%3


Area of wrinkling at center flattened, repairs on verso to one marginal tear (just into image) and a few areas of weakness, couple of other very short marginal tears, small hole in lower right margin filled. Withal, really a very nice copy for a chart from the Atlantic Neptune.