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The Honourable J.F.W. DesBarres
Governor from 10 May 1804 to 5 August 1812



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Joseph Frederick Wallet Desbarres was the third Governor of Prince Edward Island since the creation of the Colony in 1763. During his long life, covering the last half of 18th century and the early part of the 19th century, J. F. W. DesBarres was to witness many of the dramatic events which made up the history of Nova Scotia during these times. He was an army officer, military engineer, surveyor, colonizer and colonial administrator.

Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres, is thought to have been born at Basel, Switzerland, in 1721 and was a member of a Huguenot family. "There is some question as to the actual date of birth of DesBarres, with dates ranging from 1721 to 1729; the date of 1721 has been widely accepted." His parents were Joseph-Leonard Vallet DesBarres and Anne-Catherine Cuvier; he was the eldest of three children. After an educational grounding in mathematics in the schools of Switzerland, DesBarres, like so many young Huguenot men, left Europe for England. He enrolled in the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. At Woolwich, DesBarres was trained as a military engineer which, as such, was to give him a superior knowledge of the building of fortifications and of how to destroy them; his training at Woolwich was to also give him a solid grounding in land surveying and in the preparation of maps.

With England and France having declared war on one another (The Seven Years War, 1756-63), Lieutenant DesBarres was sent off to the North America Theatre, which, as a practical matter, was the only theatre for this particular war. In 1757, it seems, he was operating in the area which we now know as upstate New York (Lake George); but, in 1758, he was to be with Amherst at the Siege of Louisbourg. He then went with Wolfe to Quebec in 1759. By 1761 DesBarres was at Halifax. In April of 1762, news was heard at Halifax that St. John's, Newfoundland, had been attacked and captured by the French. Because of this there was a frenzy of activity at Halifax: batteries were added to those already in existence on George's Island, more were erected at Point Pleasant and near the Dockyard, the walls of the eastern redoubt at Dartmouth were repaired, and a boom of "timber and iron" was bolted, shore to shore, at the mouth of the Northwest Arm. DesBarres, being the military engineer that he was, was in the thick of this activity. In September an English force was launched from Halifax, of which DesBarres was a part, aimed at St. John's, which, in short order, was retaken by the British. It was during this time that DesBarres worked with James Cook, who was to learn much from DesBarres, in the Admiralty business of charting the coasts of Newfoundland. On his return to Halifax, DesBarres was charged by the Admiralty to make accurate surveys and charts of the coast and harbours of Nova Scotia. This was to lead to an effort which was to continue for a number of years and to the eventual publication of The Atlantic Neptune. It was for this work that DesBarres was to take his place in the history books. The Atlantic Neptune, was a magnificent contribution to hydrography and a classic of the minor arts.

DesBarres was to take his leave of Nova Scotia sailing from Halifax for England during October of 1773. He was to leave behind, there, at Castle Frederick, his common law wife, Mary Cannon (known to her intimates as "Polly") and the five children born to them. In England, incidentally, he was to take up with another, Martha Williams; but, yet, DesBarres was to keep up correspondence with his "beloved friend," Mary Cannon. More children, indeed eleven children were to come of the DesBarres/Williams union.

DesBarres was not to see Nova Scotia again until 1784. During this time in England, (1773-84), he saw to the publication of his Atlantic Neptune. While there, in England, he developed his connections, such that, in 1784, Lord Sydney, there having been a determination that Cape Breton was to have a separate administration, was to appoint DesBarres as its new Governor. DesBarres arrived at Halifax from England during 1784, and, within a few weeks, he was off to take up his duties in Cape Breton. He was to spend time both at St. Peters and at Louisbourg. Though, given its history, Louisbourg might well have been chosen as the capital of the Cape Breton colony, DesBarres, for his own reasons, determined to relocate to Spanish Bay. His new capital was to be renamed, Sydney. He arrived there, at Sydney, on 7 January 1785. He came by sailing ship (the Blenheim) stepping off with 129 persons, the nucleus of a new English settlement. Within two years, after a stormy administration, DesBarres was relieved of his post. The storm revolved around a turf fight that DesBarres had with the local army commander, Colonel John Yorke.

In 1799 the name for St. John Island was changed to Prince Edward Island. An Act for altering and changing the name of this Island, from St. John to that of Prince Edward Island was presented to the Council on 26 November 1798, was approved and received Royal Assent on 1 February 1799.

In 1794 DesBarres was made Lieutenant Colonel; and, in 1798, full Colonel. In 5 May 1804, after kowtowing in London for sixteen years, DesBarres, notwithstanding his old age, was appointed the Governor of Prince Edward Island. DesBarres was to hold onto his governorship of Prince Edward Island longer than he did of that of Cape Breton; though, similar problems led to his recall. He made a public display of his dislike of the Chief Justice of the province; and, in any event, the authorities, no doubt, figured it was time that the ninety year old governor ought to be replaced, particularly since war had broken out with the United States of America. In 1812, DesBarres' term as Governor of Prince Edward Island ended. He moved first to Amherst, Nova Scotia, then in 1817 to Halifax. He died in Halifax in 1824. In 1913, the Nova Scotia Historical Society erected a plaque to DesBarres' memory; it states that he died "at the reputed age of 103 years".

Photograph courtesy of PEI Public Archives and Records Office, Reference Number 2320/60-2


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