Colonial Adventures in England: Jeremiah Dixon at the Bowes Museum

When lines were drawn by Englishmen in 1763, the Proclamation Line probably looms largest in the historian’s mindset. But another line also appeared for the first time in 1763, when Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon set out to survey the line that would come to bear their name. Jeremiah Dixon is of particular interest to me, as I am also a County Durham native who hopes to make his name through close and careful study of Pennsylvania. So when my parents told me about an upcoming exhibition at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham, dedicated to the life of Jeremiah Dixon, I knew it was something I wanted to check out. 

The exhibit itself is rather small – it occupies just one room of a rather imposing building mostly notable for its art collection. But what it lacks in size, it certainly makes up for in its interpretation. This cannot have been an easy task for the exhibitors. We know surprisingly little about Dixon himself  – according to the exhibition website, even the Royal Society itself confuses him with another Jeremiah Dixon. We don’t even what he looked like! (One panel shows a portrait of his brother, George, as the image most likely to resemble Jeremiah). The panels dedicated to his early life are full of words such as ‘reputedly’ and ‘possibly’, especially when referring to his amateur education in the sciences. Despite this,  though, the exhibitors have assembled an impressive combination of artefacts and interpretations that give an intriguing introduction into the British Empire of the 1760s.

The bulk of the exhibition focuses on two events, both involving Mason and Dixon. The first was their appointment by the Royal Society to survey the transit of Venus in 1761. Mason, an astronomer, and Dixon, a surveyor, were sent to Sumatra to make their observations (on an East India Company ship) – only to be beset by difficulties from the French. A fierce naval battle forced repairs of their ship, and so they were forced instead to land at the Dutch Cape Colony in South Africa, where they were given permission to construct an observatory.

It was their expertise in making their calculations (which revised calculations of the distance between Venus and the Sun) that saw them recommended to take a journey to the American woods to sort out an almost century-old border dispute between Maryland and Pennsylvania. And again, the exhibit illuminated a number of different aspects of the British Empire and the Atlantic World. In this instance, the difficulties of overlapping territorial claims, and the concomitant problems of two governments expecting loyalty from settlers, who used the claims of two taxing authorities as an excuse to give firm allegiance to neither. Yet it wasn’t just competing governments that were crucial to Mason and Dixon’s surveying; they were also dependent on guides sent from the Six Nations Iroquois. Indeed, their mission would come to an end when, in 1767, their guides refused to cross a warpath just miles from the end of their mission. Even that wasn’t the last foreign adventure of Mason and Dixon; they were sent out again to observe the transit of Venus in 1769. Dixon received orders to travel to Hammerfest in Norway; Mason to Ireland. And Mason would return to Philadelphia with his family in 1786, though he would fall ill and die shortly afterwards.

I’d never realized just how far the story of Mason and Dixon was a global story that touched on quite so many key factors of the British Empire in the late eighteenth century – from engagement in the battles of the Seven Years’ War through the connections to the Royal Society and the East India Company through to the presence of Iroquois guides. In many ways, the exhibition was a public history version of a microhistory – taking a story of particular local interest in the North East, and using it to illuminate the patterns that connected otherwise disparate populations.

But perhaps the most striking part of the exhibition for me was how local many of these stories were, too. Perhaps it was simply seeing Dixon’s maps of County Durham, including areas where I’d played cricket growing up. But it was clear that Dixon’s scientific skills were developed thanks to a keen scientific community in the north east of England; though Mason and Dixon needed the patronage of the East India Company on their aborted voyage to Sumatra, it was local circumstances in Cape Town that allowed the successful construction of an observatory. Even in North America, with the close overlapping of imperial, provincial, and Native American concerns, their path was dictated from local circumstance as much as wider international forces.

Ultimately, the interaction of so many different local and historical trajectories was the real delight of the exhibition. One room was too small to give anything other than a brief overview of most of these different insights. Yet for such a small exhibit, it packed a real punch in terms of the amount of information given – and this was backed up with an impressive collection of eighteenth-century scientific instruments. It’s certainly piqued my interest in a story I’d not given too much thought to previously. Not bad for the son of a pit owner with no formal education!

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