Claire Campbell reviews Chet Van Duzer and Lauren Beck’s Canada before Confederation: Maps at the Exhibition

Chet Van Duzer and Lauren Beck. Canada before Confederation: Maps at the Exhibition (Wilmington, Delaware: Vernon Press, 2017).

By Claire Campbell

In July 1615, an Ottawa chief drew a map of the mouth of the French River for Samuel de Champlain. The map was drawn in charcoal on a piece of tree bark. My students were fascinated by such “ephemeral” mapping by Indigenous peoples, in both its material qualities (which did not carry over well in European modes of preservation) and its geographical knowledge. Europeans like Champlain were, too, although, as Chet Van Duzer and Lauren Beck note, his attitude toward Indigenous knowledge fell somewhere between curious, pragmatic, and exploitative (127).

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Chet Van Duzer and Lauren Beck. Canada before Confederation: Maps at the Exhibition (Wilmington, Delaware: Vernon Press, 2017)

Amid thought-provoking conversations about teaching Canadian history, and specifically about teaching within the quest for reconciliation between Indigenous and settler Canadians,  Canada before Confederation is a welcome resource. The book reproduces the eighteen maps dating between 1508 and 1772 that made up a 2017 exhibition of the same name, “chosen for their cartographic importance or uniqueness, ability to contribute to a narrative of the development of the cartography of Canada, and use of Indigenous knowledge” (10). To their credit, the authors/curators favoured lesser-known and unpublished manuscript maps, and many are exquisite to look at. (The title is a bit of a misnomer, though, since the territory charted here is less “Canada before Confederation” than “the eastern half of the American continent before 1800”; more unwieldy, but also less determinist). The book reads very much like a collection of exhibition texts – useful capsule histories of contextual and cartographic history which would make it ideal for the classroom. (They do an especially nice job with the French & Indian/Seven Years’ War in what may be my favourite entry, a 1758 Plan du Cap Breton … dit Louisbourg).

The collection attempts to balance a cartographic tradition of “[p]ositioning Canada as a land discovered” (6) and contested between European empires, with a theme of “the transaction of knowledge between Indigenous and European peoples” (8). As Tabitha Renaud recently observed on the Acadiensis blog, such early exchanges were “taken for granted by contemporaries and became the building blocks that comprise the ‘known facts’ of … today”, when in fact these communications were impressionistic and easily muddled. The authors consistently note Indigenous contributions to European-authored maps (although the European authors themselves generally did not); focused especially on toponyms as a way of identifying traditional territory after centuries of disruption, as with the Wendat, for example. This complements other projects working to reassert Indigenous territories within national boundaries. At the same time, the histories recorded in place names complicates our image of colonization by showing the variety of linguistic marks left on the landscape: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Basque, and numerous Indigenous languages (e.g. Vallard, 1547 and Bernou, 1681).

The book’s carto-biographies introduce the concept of provenance in lively ways, showing how knowledge was patronized (i.e. paid for) and ported: constructed, rewritten, retained (or lost), and entangled in larger imperial contests. Consider the map of Nouvelle France (anonymous, likely Jesuit, c. 1641, also known as the Huron Map). It survived for a century in Quebec City; before it was carried off by “British insurgents” after the conquest in 1759, likely by John Montresor of the British Royal Engineers, who gave it to Joseph F.W. Des Barres of Atlantic Neptune fame, who in turn passed it to the Hydrographer of the Royal Navy, from where it was eventually deposited in the British archives (135). A missionary map becomes a military trophy, both in the service of empire in their way.

Mapmakers were also trying to “accommodate a growing array of information [in] a world that continued to expand before European eyes” (48). Part of this was structural: how to present a globe in two dimensions. Different designs distorted the world in different ways and, of course, tended to privilege the territorial ambitions of the map’s creator. And part was about incorporating a growing body of literature about the new world. (As Jack Bouchard has shown, mapmakers often had difficulty translating the maritime experience and understanding of “Terra Nova” of pilots and fishers). Those with access to travel narratives or first-hand accounts were able to replace the fictional with the prosaic, or, unicorns with muskrats (60). Guillaume Delisle stressed that his 1708 map was based on “un grand nombre de Relations imprimées ou manuscrites” (186). There is also a growing commitment to visual annotations on these maps over time. Whether cartouches bearing a royal arms or sketches of flora and fauna suggesting scientific observation, these illustrated, quite literally, a map’s claim of authority in defining  place. As the authors say of Champlain’s 1613 map, it showed “what a map can be, namely a medium for conveying a wide range of information about a region” (126).

But these maps were never simply, or even primarily, about knowledge; they were agents and expressions of the competing motives behind colonization. For Michael Lok (1582), it was to endorse further exploration of “new found lands … full of such commodities and merchandize” (91), as it was with Arthur Dobbs two centuries later (1744) attempting to break  the Hudson Bay Company’s monopoly. For John Mitchell on the eve of the Seven Years’ War (1755), mapping British claims over French ones amounted to propaganda (213). The projection of desire over understanding means that these maps blended the mythic and the material, the fantastical and the factual, especially in the promises of wealth and water: locating cities of gold, inland seas, or connections with Asia where they were not. Even Vincenzo Coronelli’s America Settentrionale (1688/1693), which “shows the highest level of cartographic artistry among the printed maps,” with exceptional detail of the Great Lakes and Grand Banks, nevertheless re-inscribes a fictitious claim of Venetian discovery of Labrador (172-3).

The book includes a useful bibliography on early exploration and mapping, although it could be enhanced by more material from Indigenous and environmental history. These maps remind us of our long history of harvesting nature for power and wealth. It is unsettling to read how Michael Lok’s naming of meta incognita in what would become Nunavut endorsed further exploration for ores and minerals (98); exactly what is happening in a melting north four centuries later.

Canada before Confederation would be an excellent complement to the wonderful online archives available to scholars of eastern North America. It asks us to query the historical record, the place of Indigenous peoples in historic and modern Canada, and to confront our history with the natural world.


Claire Campbell is a professor at Bucknell University, where she teaches Canadian, Atlantic, and environmental history. Her current research explores Canada’s relationship with its Atlantic coastlines.

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About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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