Thomas Hurd Biography 

Regarded by cartographic historians as the most important survey to ever be produced of Bermuda’s coast and outlying hydrographic environment, as well as the foundation upon which all future surveys were executed, Royal Navy Lieutenant Thomas Hurd’s (1747-1823) monumental, meticulously detailed chart and map — produced over a nine year period beginning in 1788 and continuing through 1797 — forever changed the course of the island’s history, turning it from a small, mid-ocean outpost into what many nineteenth century naval strategists considered “the Gibralter of the Atlantic.” Faced with the desperate, post-American Revolution need to establish a new warm water port to protect its colonies in the Caribbean, as well as seeking a potential harbour for the relocation of its North American fleet then stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Admiralty sent Hurd to Bermuda in 1788 to explore the possibility of turning the strategically located but treacherous-to-navigate island into the all-important port it required. With the aid of fellow Lieutenant Andrew Evans, RN, along with a small group of native Bermudians (some of whom were slaves, including the now famous pilot James “Jemmy” Darrell), Hurd painstakingly charted both the perilous reefs that surrounded the island as well as the inland waterways, the high point coming in May 1795 when Darrell successfully manoeuvered Rear Admiral George Murray’s 74-gun ship H.M.S. Resolution into a deep anchorage — now known as Murray’s Anchorage — on the North Shore near Tobacco Bay, St. George’s, the first time a warship had been successufully brought into Bermuda. (Prior to this, ships had usually entered Bermuda from the west end or the south shore into Castle Harbour.) This incredible feat on Darrell's part (he was later freed for his efforts) set the stage for the establishment of the Bermuda Naval Base on Ireland Island (Her Majesty’s Dockyard, Bermuda), which was the principal base of the Royal Navy in the Western Atlantic Ocean between the American Revolution and the conclusion of the Second World War. Dr. Edward Harris, a prominent Bermudian archaeologist who serves as the executive director of the National Museum of Bermuda, called the survey the “magnum opus” of the reefs and lands of the island, an endeavor that was "without parallel in our history." Citing the map’s intricately detailed topographical information as a vital feature as well, Harris stated that “aside from the depiction of the reefs, which is staggering in its detail considering the difficulty of surveying objects under the water from a boat, the information that has been recorded on the land is a feast for historical interpretation about the nature of Bermuda towards the end of its second century of settlement.” Additionally, Hurd is credited by Dr. Adrian Webb - a hydrographic scholar and author of the book, "Thomas Hurd, RN, and his Hydrographic Survey of Bermuda" - as being "the first person to establish the correct position of Bermuda with great accuracy, using the stars and the planets."

As a young lieutenant serving in the Royal Navy’s North American stations during the 1770s, Thomas Hurd had the benefit of working alongside one of England’s premier hydrographers, Samuel Holland. While aboard the H.M.S. Canceaux, Hurd perfected his craft by helping Holland (by that time Britain’s Surveyor General of North America) to create surveys of British possessions in Canada. After passing his lieutenant’s examination in 1775, Hurd’s abilities as a seaman impressed Lord Richard Howe enough that the Admiral of the Fleet assigned Hurd to the H.M.S. Unicorn,upon which Hurd and his crew engaged in battles against the Americans and the French. Later, in 1782, Hurd was part of the major British victory over a French fleet at the Battle of the Saints off Dominica, where he had the honor of sailing back to England aboard the recaptured H.M.S. Ardent. Through a recommendation from Lord Howe, Hurd spent the year 1785 as the Surveyor-General of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. In 1795, while still working on his Bermudian survey (and living with his wife in the Stiles Building off St. George's Town Square), Hurd was promoted to the rank of commander, further promoted to captain in 1802. Following the death of Alexander Dalrymple in May 1808, Hurd was the second person to be appointed Hydrogropher to the Admiralty, a position he held until his death in 1823. During his tenure at the Hydrographic Office, he oversaw an exponential growth in the number of charts produced by the Royal Navy, including many cooperative ventures with former enemies such as France, Spain, and Denmark, and orchestrated the distribution of many important charts to the merchant marine, the first time the Royal Navy allowed dissemination of its offical charts for public use. 

Following the conclusion of his survey work in Bermuda, Hurd returned to England, where, with the help of an assistant, he spent four years bringing the charts to completion, finishing his epic task in 1801. The completed manuscript — composed of two segments that measure 17ft. wide by 8ft. high when the two halves are joined — was so detailed and accurate that its publication was deemed too dangerous to national security, thus it was kept in the Hydrographic Office for more than 200 years before being moved in 2015 to the National Archives in London. In 1827, more than a quarter century after the survey’s completion, the Admiralty published a condensed version, officially titled The Bermuda Islands, reduced from a Survey made between the years 1785 & 97 by Captain Thomas Hurd, R.N. London. Published according to Act of Parliament at the Hydrographical Ofice of the Admiralty 4th Aug. 1827. The map is distinctive for its prominent depiction of the fringe of the barrier reef, with an attractively engraved titlepiece reminiscent of the 1805 Heather/Norie chart. Generally, the toponymy is kept very basic, owing to continuing security fears on the part of the Admiralty. Nevertheless, it was still considered to be the most detailed and accurate chart available at that time, and was reoriented to show the island lying True North where the original survey does not. The reason this reduced chart was even published was because of an urgent request from the Packet Service, which was responsible for the delivery of important correspondence and valuable items to British overseas possessions. The need for a direct mail service to Bermuda had by 1827 become a real necessity, and the absence of an accurate chart which could be used by the Packet Service to safely navigate Bermuda’s hazardous waters was a serious problem; eight months after the request, the Admiralty disbursed only 16 copies of the condensed version of Hurd’s survey to the Packet Service. Reflective of its extreme rarity, as of January 2018, no record of a sale of this version of Hurd’s map appears in the AMPR (Antique Map Price Record). Moreover, only three institutions are known to be in possession of copies: Princeton University, the Royal Museums Greenwich in London, and the National Museum of Bermuda.

Written September 2018 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble.

© The Lusher Gallery, LLC September 2018.  All rights reserved.  No portion of the material described herein may be reproduced in whole or in part without the prior written consent of The Lusher Gallery LLC.