Retracing Colonial Cities

Retracing Colonial Cities:Networks, Surveyors, Geographies, 1670-1770 by Benjamin Sacks

A seventeenth-century urban revolution, centered in the Low Countries and northern France, sought to use carefully-planned spatial organization as a means of enhancing economic productivity, defensibility, and social cohesion. Maps were the slate on which planners could experiment, share, reproduce, and erase. Dunkirk was in many ways typical of Flanders communities: port-focused, on soft, sea-level soil, with a large, vocal maritime population eager to protect itself. But its strategic position and economic vivacity stood out to early modern observers. Only forty-five miles from Britain (only Calais is closer), and ten miles from present-day Belgium, Dunkirk’s economy demonstrated a remarkable ability to survive conflict and blockade. Its transformation into a fortress and canal city under the auspices of visionary engineer Sébastien le Prestre, Marquis de Vauban, was part of a concerted plan not only to threaten France’s Protestant rivals - England and Holland - but also to envision the future French city. The maps included in this exhibit chronicle his and his protege Benjamin de Combes’ repeated efforts to expand Dunkirk, and follow the latter as he embarked on a global journey to reproduce ideas he first practiced at Dunkirk elsewhere in the fledgling French empire.

Vol II (23) Duynkercke (Dunkirk). Grevelinge (Gravelines). Borborch
Vol II (23) Duynkercke (Dunkirk).Grevelinge (Gravelines). Borborch (Bourbourg). Braun, Georg Cologne, 1575
In the late sixteenth century, Dunkirk was a small, but independent-minded Atlantic port city under the control of Hapsburg Spain. Its geography was its most important asset, a point Georg Braun, geographer and editor of the monumental Civitates orbis terrarum, one of the first comprehensive atlases of world cities ever produced, emphasized in his 1575 engraving. His depiction was remarkably accurate: a compact but dynamic community dominated by a large, shallow basin and a narrow entrance to the English Channel. Despite being controlled by Spain, its subsequent development would be greatly influenced by Dutch urban models.
Environs de Dunquerke, de Furnes et de Nieuport
Environs de Dunquerke, de Furnes et de Nieuport, Fer, Nicolas de Paris, 1696
Nicolas de Fer’s depiction of Dunkirk, completed near the end of the Nine Years War (1688-97), was less about Dunkirk than about the effectiveness of Dutch city techniques. In the preceding decades, the Dutch had developed new canal and port systems to control numerous aspects of the local economy, agriculture, and defense. During the Nine Years War, they opened the irrigation and shipping canals, flooding much of French-controlled Flanders (labelled A on the map). French planners, led by Vauban, were quick to learn their lesson.
Carte de France levee par ordre du Roy. No. 6 (Dunkerque. 1758). Feuille
“Carte de France levée par ordre du Roy. No. 6 (Dunkerque. 1758). Cassini, Cesar-François Paris, 1758
Under the terms of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, France was required to demolish Dunkirk’s expansion under British and Dutch supervision. Despite numerous attempts to delay, obfuscate, and rebuilt, Vauban and de Combes’s enhancements were gradually torn down. This map, produced by the famed Cassini dynasty of surveyors, attempted to record the enormous changes Dunkirk had experienced.
Dunkerque et Canal de Mardick
“Dunkerque et Canal de Mardick,” in Le petit atlas maritime recueil de cartes et plans des quatre parties du monde. Bellin, Jacques-Nicolas, Paris, 1764
In 1653, Dutch planner Michel Florent van Langren first proposed his Canal Marianne, an enormous canal connecting Dunkirk, neighboring Gravelines, and the English Channel. Intended to provide a safe berth for hundreds of naval and commercial ships, it would have transformed French Flanders’s economy and strategic importance. Despite appearing on numerous maps, it was not realized until 1715, when, in response to Anglo-Dutch demands to destroy Dunkirk’s enhancements, its residents constructed the canal themselves. They were forced to destroy its Dutch-style locks within a few years.