French Revolutionary-era chart of Boston Harbor, updating des Barres

By order of M. De Sartine, Minister and Secretary of the Navy / after J. E. S. [sic] Des Barres, CARTE PARTICULIERE DU HAVRE DE BOSTON…., Paris, 1780.
Engraving and etching, 22 ¾"h x 34"w plus generous margins, early wash and spot color, reds probably retouched.

A lovely, early-color example of this important chart, produced during the American Revolution by order of the French Admiralty.

The chart was published in 1780, the year General Rochambeau landed with his army at Newport, Rhode Island, which for the duration of the American Revolution served as the major French base in the United States. It seems plausible that it was hurried into print for use by French naval commanders sailing out of Newport.

The chart depicts Boston Harbor and much of the coastline between Nahant and Hull. Extensive soundings are given for the major approaches, as well as navigational aids and hazards. Given its stated purpose-“for use of the King’s vessels”–it also provides a terrific amount of terrestrial detail, including bodies of water, roads, residences and other structures, and even the boundaries of fields and a small street plan of Boston. Elevations and slopes are shown by means of shading.

Marquis de Chabert

The chart largely follows a seminal chart published in London in 1775 by J.F.W. Des Barres for “The Atlantic Neptune,” though on a reduced scale and with much of the toponymy rendered in French. This French edition is based on the first state of the English prototype, as it includes place names such as “Cambridge,” “Maldon [sic] River” and “Germantown” that des Barres erased from later variants.

The French chart does however show important differences from the English version, the most obvious being the substitution of Paris for London as the prime meridian. More substantively, the long subtitle informs us that des Barres’ work has been updated to reflect recent observations by Joseph Bernard, Marquis de Chabert (1724-1805), a senior naval officer who served in the Americas during the Revolution:

“the declination of the magnetic needle [i.e., from true North] was observed as 6 degrees 4 minutes northeast in October 1778 by the Marquis de Chabert, who has also determined by land the latitude of several points to which this chart has been compared.”

BRM2124A Chabert
Marquis de Chabert

Chabert was an accomplished navigator, surveyor and chart maker. Earlier in his career had led important surveys of Acadia and Newfoundland, and it is possible that he himself drafted this chart at Sartine’s request.

Sellers and Van Ee, Maps and Charts of North America, #958. Surprisingly, not listed in either Boston Engineering Department, List of Maps of Boston or Phillips, List of Maps of America. States of the Des Barres prototype chart are described in Henry Stevens’ unpublished Catalog of the Henry Newton Stevens Collection of the Atlantic Neptune, pp. 211-216. For a helpful biography of Chabert, see Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.


Some soiling, largely confined to margins. Few reinforcements on verso. Professionally removed from a backing board, with some loss of original color.