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The Atlantic Neptune: An Unparalleled Collection of British Nautical Charts

Title page from the <em>Atlantic Neptune</em> set of nautical charts covering the eastern coast of North America, ca. 1774-1800. Attributed to J. F. W. Des Barres and published under the auspices of the British Admiralty. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Title page from the Atlantic Neptune set of nautical charts covering the eastern coast of North America, ca. 1774-1800. Attributed to J. F. W. Des Barres and published under the auspices of the British Admiralty. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

In the years following the epic struggle for control of North America between the French and British empires, it became apparent to the Royal Navy that there was a considerable lack of adequate charting along the eastern coasts of North America.

Thus was born one of the largest charting undertakings to date: The Atlantic Neptune. Published between 1774 and 1800 and attributed to Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres (1721 – 1824), the charts were initially issued as separate sheets. As the geographic coverage of the charting operation grew to cover the entire eastern coast of the British Colonies, the charts were commonly sold in four volume bound sets. The Library of Congress, for example, holds over twenty individual Atlantic Neptune volumes with some issued in a single volume and others in four volume sets.

Two examples of large and small scale charts can be found below. The first is a nautical chart of the eastern coast of the British colonies extending from New York south to North Carolina. The scale, or level of detail, is not great enough to use for navigation but it may prove useful for planning purposes.

Chart of the Coast of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. From J. F.W Des Barres, Atlantic Neptune, ca. 1774-1800. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Chart of the Coast of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. From J. F. W Des Barres, Atlantic Neptune, ca. 1774-1800. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The second chart is a large scale chart of the Delaware Bay which shows soundings, shoals and tributaries. This type of chart would have proven useful to a British squadron of ships entering the Delaware Bay.

A Chart of Delaware Bay...From J. F. W Des Barres, Atlantic Neptune, ca. 1774-1800. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

A Chart of Delaware Bay…From J. F. W Des Barres, Atlantic Neptune, ca. 1774-1800. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

In addition to charts, the Atlantic Neptune contained headland views that assisted ship captains and navigators when entering and leaving ports such as New York. The view below, for example, shows the North River (now known as the Hudson) and the East River with the island of Manhattan in the center.

[Four headland views of New York vicinity, including the Hudson River, Manhattan Island, the East River, Staten Island, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey.] Views such as these provided information to ship captains and navigators. From J. F. W. Des Barres, the Atlantic Neptune, ca. 1774-1800. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

[Four headland views of New York vicinity, including the Hudson River, Manhattan Island, the East River, Staten Island, and Sandy Hook, New Jersey.] Views such as these provided information to ship captains and navigators. From J. F. W. Des Barres, the Atlantic Neptune, ca. 1774-1800. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Another type of view appearing below the text “Utility of the Atlantic Neptune” depicts a foundering vessel careening sharply on its port side with its main mast broken and it appears that two other ships are attempting to render aid. Additionally, the text describes several instances of British vessels successfully avoiding such tragedies by using the charts – a not so subtle advertisement!

Plate entitled Utility of the Atlantic Neptune. From J. F. W. Des Barres, The Atlantic Neptune ca. 1774-1800. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Plate entitled Utility of the Atlantic Neptune. From J. F. W. Des Barres, The Atlantic Neptune ca. 1774-1800. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The Atlantic Neptune represents a virtually complete set of navigational charts for Atlantic Canada and the East Coast of the British Colonies. These extremely detailed charts offered a distinct advantage to the Royal Navy.

Learn more:

Mapping the American Revolution and its Era  Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Stephen J. Hornsby, Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the Making of The Atlantic Neptune. McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2011.

The Atlantic Neptune Lloyd A. Brown in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography,Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 1943), pp. 377-381 Published by: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania

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