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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

[Re]Presenting Halifax #3: DesBarres on Halifax and Sydney

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The [Re]Presenting Halifax series revisits historical and contemporary maps, diagrams and other interpretive readings of the Halifax region. See my first post for the full aims of this project and more information about contributing to the series.

HALIFAX – Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres: “army officer, military engineer, surveyor, colonizer, and colonial administrator” – cartographer.

DesBarres is a mysterious figure and little is known about his personal life. But despite the little attention he is given, DesBarres holds an important place in the history of this region. Leaving Switzerland, spending time with Voltaire in Paris, joining the military in England, DesBarres came to North America in 1756, seven years after the founding of Halifax.

Instrumental in the successful 1758 siege of Louisbourg, DesBarres’ many talents were quickly recognized by his superiors. DesBarres was soon mapping the St. Lawrence River and working on his charts in Halifax during the winter months while teaching mathematics, astronomy, and surveying to a young James Cook.

In 1760, DesBarres began mapping the Halifax Harbour in preparation for the construction of fortifications and dockyards. Over the next decade he would also complete detailed hydrological surveys of the coast. The Atlantic Neptune, a large collection of charts and views of the east coast of North America was the result of his work, first published in 1777, and has been his lasting legacy.

The maps shown here are plates from The Atlantic Neptune, and are all variations of the same map. Demonstrating DesBarres’ extraordinary attention to detail, these plans offer great insight into the former landscape of the peninsula, including drainage patterns that are still relevant today.

DesBarres’ representation of the early days of Halifax is in sharp contrast with other maps of the era, as it positions the city within the landscape, rather than as an exception to it. Whereas other maps show Halifax in isolation, the illustration by DesBarres represents the city as an integrated system of both city and nature. Paths running parallel to the shoreline appear as contours of the land itself, stepped up from the water’s edge to the top of the glacial drumlin. Paths perpendicular to the shore seem to dissolve into the valley, no doubt affected and continuously altered by rising water in the flood plain and meanders of the river. The extensive system of valleys and streams located on the western half of the peninsula is somewhat disturbing, as little if any of it remains today.

DesBarres’ grand plan for Sydney

In 1784, DesBarres was appointed the first Governor of the colony of Cape Breton Island. Arriving in Spanish Harbour in 1785 (Sydney Harbour), DesBarres began laying out his plan for the new colonial capital. DesBarres had high hopes for the future of Sydney – with its rich mineral and fishing resources and strategic location – and so, he designed a city that seemed destined for greatness. His plan centered around a large central plaza, with long boulevards radiating from it. But, unfortunately, his plans never materialized. Despite many setbacks, DesBarres returned to the region years later when he was appointed Governor of Prince Edward Island.

DesBarres died in Halifax and was buried beside his wife, Martha, at St. George’s Anglican Church. While this plan of Sydney takes the R[e]Presenting Halifax series outside of the confines of Halifax, it shows the wide range of DesBarres work in the region. From hydrological surveys to pure urban design, DesBarres perspective on the region was one of possibility and potential, much of which has yet to be realized.

maps by J.F.W. DesBarres (“The Harbour of Halifax, 1777,” from the Atlantic Neptune; “A Plan of the Town of Sydney, 1786”)



  1. Another great article in this series. I like that the maps show us what we know intuitively to be true of the origin of all cities: that the land came first. The marks we make on it (settlement) can either acknowledge or ignore this. These maps show the landscape as a tangible texture, it’s real, and in a way, the grid of streets at the base of the hill are like an overlay, with the landscape still showing through.

  2. Thanks for your comments Nova.

    I like these maps because, as you said, they show the peninsula as a “tangible texture’, rather than a flat surface seemingly waiting to be filled with buildings. In this way, I think this notion of landscape as infrastructure is key, as it suggests we should be building and planning within our existing (natural) systems, and recognizing both the limitations and opportunities it presents. This would seem a good place to start when thinking about sustainable living.

    These maps are wonderful because I’ve never seen the peninsula presented with such detail – in a way that really shows it as a living system – they show the city, yet “with the landscape still showing through”. Definitely a notion of city, as well as an urban analysis and design process, worthy of further reflection!

  3. I am fascinated by the disappearance of streams and floodplains that has taken place as Halifax developed. These are the best maps I’ve seen for getting a sense of what the original landscape was like in the Halifax Harbour watershed. I am very curious to know if there is anyway to determine how much of the area was wetland as opposed to stream by looking at the original maps. I just can’t tell from these reproductions but suspect it night be easier on the originals. Any thoughts would be appreciated.