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Desbarres, Joseph Frederick Walsh (DNB00)


DESBARRES, JOSEPH FREDERICK WALSH or WALLET (1722–1824), military engineer, born in 1722, was descended from a Huguenot family, which fled to England on the revocation of the edict of Nantes. He was educated at Basle under the Bernouillis, and subsequently entered the Royal Military College at Woolwich. In March 1756 he embarked as a lieutenant in the 60th regiment for America, where he raised a corps of field artillery numbering three hundred men, of which for a time he held command. In 1757 he led an expedition against the Indians, who had attacked Schenectacdy, surprised and captured their chiefs, and induced them to become allies of the English. He was aide-de-camp to General Wolfe at Quebec (1759), and is said to have been making a report to that distinguished soldier when he fell mortally wounded (Drake, Biog. Dict.) Knox (Campaigns in North America, ii. 79) mentions that an artillery officer, whose name he forgets, helped to carry Wolfe to the rear. Desbarres conducted the subsequent engineering operations, and by the reduction of Fort Jacques, with other strong places, helped to complete the conquest of Canada. Captain Cook was then master on board the Mercury in Wolfe's expedition, and he was instructed by Desbarres in the art of making maritime surveys. Desbarres received public thanks for his services as quartermaster-general in the expedition for retaking Newfoundland (1762). From 1763 to 1773 he was engaged in surveying the coast of Nova Scotia, and on his return to England was complimented by the king on the way in which he had performed this duty. He was selected by Earl Howe to make surveys and prepare charts of the North American coast. The work occupied sixteen years of his life, two years of which were spent on the survey of the Isle of Sable alone. Two bars here, over which the surf broke often mast high, for seven leagues were strewn with wrecks, and could not be approached without the greatest risk. Desbarres completed the survey of the island and the soundings around it at the hazard of his life (Preface to Atlantic Neptune). In 1784 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Cape Breton, with the military command of that place and Prince Edward's Island. In Cape Breton he founded the town of Sydney, and opened and worked valuable coalfields at the mouth of the river. In 1805, when far advanced in years, he succeeded Fanning as lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief of the last named dependency, and conducted the administration for eight critical years to the general satisfaction. He did not reach the rank of captain till 1775, nor that of major in the army till March 1783. He was gazetted lieutenant-colonel 1 March 1794, and full colonel on 1 March 1798. He resigned the governorship of Prince Edward's Island in 1813, and retired to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he died in 1824 at the age of one hundred and two.

Adapting the works of Holland, De Brahm, and others to nautical purposes, he published a number of charts and plans, including the Atlantic Neptune, published for the use of the royal navy, 4 vols. atlas fol. 1777, the most splendid collection of charts, plans, and views ever published (Rich, Biblioth. Amer. i. 249); general chart of the Atlantic or Western Ocean, 1804; Carte particulière du Havre de Boston, 1780; charts of the coasts and harbour of New England [1776], fol.: Halifax Harbour [Catch Harbour 1780?], Port Hood 1779, Port Jackson 1781, Port Mills, Port Mansfield, and Gambier Harbour 1776; a chart of Nova Scotia, 1775; the South-east Coast of Nova Scotia [2 sheets], [1780?]; the South-west Coast of the Peninsula of Nova Scotia [1780?]; Cape Breton, Lond. 8vo. 1804, a book privately printed and suppressed. His letters to Captain Boquet and General Haldimand are among the Addit. MSS. in the British Museum.

[Desbarres' Statement respecting his Services from 1755, fol. 1795; Campbell's History of Prince Edward's Island; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Royal Mil. Cat.; Univ. Dict. of Biog.; Knox's Campaigns in North America, 4to, 1769.]

R. H.