“General Chart of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope” By John Barrow

Cape, Barrow

The Establishment of British Rule in the Cape Colony

Britain seized the Cape Colony from the the Dutch in 1795. France, during the French Revolutionary Wars, occupied the Netherlands, and British Secretary of State Henry Dundas feared that the French would also claim the Cape of Good Hope. Rather than allow South Africa to fall under the control of the French, Dundas instituted British rule.  Dundas and the Governor of the Cape, Lord Macartney, wanted the region to serve as a colony. At the same time, the British East India Company saw great strategic and commercial potential in South Africa, as a port-of-call and defensive station.

John Barrow & His Map of the Cape Colony

John Barrow was Lord Macartney’s private secretary. In this capacity he endorsed and justified Macartney and Dundas’ colonial stance by creating materials to demonstrate both the viability of a colony and its benefit to the British Empire.  During his time at the Cape, Barrow prepared reports such as “A General Description of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope” and “A General Description of the Revenues of the Cape of Good Hope,” in addition to recording his impressions of South Africa in his travel narrative, An Account of Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa, in the years 1797 and 1798.  In this account Barrow proudly declared: “By the capture of the Cape of Good Hope and of Ceylon, the British language is now heard at the Southern extremities of the four great continents or quarters of the Globe.”

It was in Barrow’s Travels that his map,“General Chart of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope,” was first presented to the British public. The map contained information about South Africa’s terrain, resources, and native population while also highlighting how the land would benefit the British. It emphasized the region’s economic potential and ability to support a colonial population with labels such as “good corn land,” and “grazing and grain country.”

Barrow’s map was the first document to establish northern boundaries, in print, for the colony. While the Dutch had refrained from fixing the boundaries of the colony, Lord Macartney ordered Barrow to determine these boundaries because he was convinced that the antagonism and fighting between the colonists and native groups, such as the Xhosas and the San, was due to the lack of clear borders.

A Void in Geographical Knowledge

Barrow’s map also filled a void in geographical knowledge. While the Dutch had produced maps of the Cape, they were kept secret from the British. The previous Dutch governor of the Cape, Jacob Cornelis van de Graaff, had overseen the creation of many maps of the region during his rule, but transported these maps out of the Cape in 1791 to ensure that they would not end up in British hands. As a result, Lord Macartney complained,“We are shamefully ignorant of the geography of the country; we have no map that embraces one tenth part of the colony.” The British considered Barrow’s map to be the first comprehensive map of the colony, which gave Barrow great power to define British perceptions of the space.

Barrow’s Influence

Barrow’s map was released in London in 1801. As part of a published account, the map was extensively circulated and would remain an important source for cartographers and publishers in the years to come. The version of Barrow’s map seen in the Defining Lines exhibit was published in the American edition of Barrow’s travel account one year after the original edition’s release in Britain, and thus illustrates the international reach of Barrow’s influence.

Watch an Expanded Version of this Entry


Barrow, John. An Account of Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa, in Years 1797 and 1798. New York: G.F. Hopkins, 1802. Print.

Barrow, John. “General Chart of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope.” New York: G.F. Hopkins, 1802. Print.

Beck, Roger B. The History of South Africa. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. EBSCOhost. Web.

Guelke, Leonard. “Imperial Eyes on South Africa: Reassessing Travel Narratives.”Journal of Historical Geography 30.1 (2004): 11-31. Science Direct. Web.

Huigen, Siegfried. Knowledge and colonialism: eighteenth-century travellers in South Africa. Boston: Brill, 2009. Print.

Ritchie. G. S. “Sir John Barrow, Bart., F. R. S..” The Geographical Journal 130.3 (1964): 350-354. Web.

“Sir John Barrow.” Ulverston Town Council. Web.  <http://www.ulverstoncouncil.org.uk/john_barrow.php>.