This large and exquisitely engraved sea chart was produced by the Dépôt Général de la Marine (the maritime chart printing office of the French government) just after the end of the American Revolution. It was the authoritative map used by the French Government to manage its extensive fishing rights in Newfoundland and the Grand Banks (the world’s most productive fishery) in the wake of these provisions being amended by the Treaty of Paris (1783). All coastal features are meticulously labelled and the extensive offshore banks are carefully sounded with bathymetric readings. Interestingly, the map features several printed tracks of named French ships that had completed fishing and reconnaissance missions to the Newfoundland-Grand Banks region.
The map’s portrayal of the coasts of Newfoundland, Southern Labrador and the Island of St. John (Prince Edward Island) is extremely accurate, while the coasts of the Canadian Maritimes, the Gaspé Peninsula the St. Lawrence Estuary are portrayed in a somewhat archaic manner (as they were then not as much of a priority to France), being based on sources such as Jacques-Nicolas Bellin and Thomas Jefferys.
The Island of St. John (Prince Edward Island) is conspicuous in its sharply accurate form, in contrast to the other Maritime regions, as it is based on Samuel Holland’s 1765 survey, done to advanced scientific methods. The survey was done as part of the General Survey of British North America, an epic programme that would eventually map most of the Atlantic Seaboard from Quebec to New York.
The story behind the creation of the Newfoundland-Labrador aspects of the chart is fascinating and one of the most consequential in the history of 18th Century cartography. In 1763, Britain had won the Seven Years’ War, however, the Treaty of Paris compelled Britain to cede the tiny islands of St. Pierre & Miquelon (located off the southern coast of Newfoundland) to France and to provide the French with limited fishing rights along Newfoundland’s shores and the adjacent Grand Banks. The Newfoundland fishery was then big business, in fact, it was annually worth nearly as much as Virginia’s tobacco crop, which was Britain’s largest single source of revenue from British North American colonies. The British had an imperative to properly manage the fishery (and limit French activities to strictly what was conceded in the Treaty), the problem was, all existing charts of Newfoundland’s coasts were wildly inaccurate. For instance, the contemporary chart of record for the region was Mount & Page’s A Chart Shewing Part of the Sea Coast of Newfoundland, from ye Bay of Bulls to Little Placentia Exactly and Carefully Lay’d Down by John Gaudy, first issued in 1715, it as so imprecise as to be scarcely useful.
That year, Admiral Thomas Graves, the Governor of Newfoundland, appointed Lt. James Cook (1728-79) to survey the shores of Newfoundland and southern Labrador. Cook had already won acclaim for his masterly chart of the St. Lawrence River that was used by the British fleet to successfully besiege Quebec City in 1759. However, given the ferocious weather and the exceptional cragginess of Newfoundland’s shores, this would prove to be a dramatically more difficult assignment. Fortunately, Cook was assisted by Michael Lane (fl. 1763-84), a highly competent surveyor who refined his skills to the highest levels under Cook’s mentorship.
The Newfoundland survey proceeded expeditiously until 1767, when Cook was appointed by the Admiralty to lead the first of the three Pacific Voyages that would make him the foremost explorer of the 18th Century. The superlative quality of the surveys already sent back to England, combined with glowing reports from Cook’s superiors had been responsible for this august appointment. From that point onwards, Lane was left to lead the project to survey Newfoundland on his own, completing the endeavour in 1773.
Cook & Lane’s general chart of Newfoundland was first published as A General Chart Of The Island Of Newfoundland with the Rocks & Soundings. Drawn from Surveys taken by Order of the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. By James Cook and Michael Lane Surveyors and Others (London, 1775). This chart and the various larger-scale regional surveys of the coasts immediately became the authoritative charts of record for Newfoundland and Southern Labrador.
All considered, Cook and Lane’s Newfoundland surveys are viewed as one of the most impressive achievements of cartography during the 18th Century. How they managed to accurately capture the complexity of Newfoundland’s coastlines should still impress the modern day observer. So accurate were the charts, that the Admiralty did not see any need to resurvey Newfoundland’s shores until 1871! Cook and Lane’s original manuscript charts are today preserved at the U.K. National Archives (Kew).
The present map was made by the Dépôt Général de la Marine to manage France’s fishing rights in Newfoundland and the Grand Banks in the wake of the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the American Revolutionary War. In addition to its pied de terre of St. Pierre & Miquelon, France continued to have fishing and landing rights on the ‘French Shore’ (the west coast) of Newfoundland, as well as on the Grand Banks itself. Interestingly, a few examples of the map featuring manuscript annotations relating to the fishing rights still survive in official French collections.
References: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Cartes et plans: GE SH 18 PF 128 DIV 5 P 4; OCLC: 54649475.