Naturalists at Sea: scientific travellers from Dampier to Darwin. Glyn Williams. 2013.

Naturalists at Sea: scientific travellers from Dampier to Darwin. Glyn Williams. 2013.

Williams, Glyn. 
Naturalists at Sea: scientific travellers from Dampier to Darwin
Yale University Press. 
ISBN 978-0-300-18073-2.

“This book describes the fortunes and misfortunes of a devoted if sometimes eccentric band of scholars as they ventured far from home” explains Williams in the introduction to this fascinating tome.  As he an historian rather than a naturalist, his telling of the trials and tribulations, triumphs and disastrous encounters of men who sailed across the Pacific in search of nature seemed an odd choice to me.  However, it works very well, perhaps because he does not get bogged down in the detail of the botany, zoology, geology, ethnography, etc., but covers the history of the voyagers, and their contribution to natural history.


There are ten chapters on different people, so I went straight to page 73 and chapter four - Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.  It begins with an explanation of who went with Banks in Endeavour and what they took with them amongst their “twenty tons of luggage and equipment”.  Banks made observations almost as soon as they left, describing the dolphins seen from the ship.  “His curiosity seemed limitless, his energy boundless” we are told.  I like the way Williams doesn’t tell us much about what James Cook was up to, but explains how Banks, Solander and Sydney Parkinson worked together in the great cabin.  At the brief stop at Madeira they went ashore and collected 300 plants, 200 insects and 20 fishes.  At Rio de Janeiro they were not allowed ashore, but still managed to obtain 300 specimens.  Williams continues to describe their astonishing success with, for example, 150 plants collected at Tolaga Bay, New Zealand, and over 200 specimens at Mercury Bay. 


Parkinson painted over 100 plants from the Society Islands, often in difficult conditions.  According to Banks dense swarms of flies covered the subjects and “even ate the colour off the paper as fast as [Parkinson] could lay it on”.  By the time they arrived at Botany Bay the collection of plants was so large they were afraid they would “spoil in the books” so spread the drying paper ashore “upon a sail in the sun, kept them exposd the whole day, often turning them”. 


After the voyage the acclamation was for Banks rather than Cook.  For his next voyage he assembled 17 scientists, artists, secretaries and musicians.  But it was not to be, and Banks went to Iceland instead.  Although he employed many artists and engravers to produce “near 700 folio plates” they were still unpublished by the time of his death.  Instead, as Williams puts it, “his collection was used by scholars in a piecemeal way”. 


Chapter five is devoted to Johann Reinhold Forster.  I was intrigued to learn that before he came to England he was employed by Catherine II of Russia to survey the new settlements of German families on the Volga, and took the opportunity to study nature, leading to the “published descriptions of more than two hundred plants, as well as of birds, mammals, reptiles and birds”.  Within four years of his arrival in England, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, with Banks as one of his sponsors.  When he joined Cook’s Second Voyage, Forster was 42 years old and a “man of prodigious learning” with a knowledge of “philology, zoology, ornithology, botany, ethnology, mineralogy, geography and history”.  However, he was about “to spend years in the unfamiliar and harsh environment of a man-of-war, far from the normal surroundings of a study-bound scholar.” 


Once again, Cook called at Madeira.  Forster searched for plants accompanied, Williams reminds those of us who have forgotten, by his servant Ernst Scholient, “bringing back plants for Georg to draw”.  Their difficulties included finding “a suitable space on the ship to dry” the paintings and then “protecting them from saltwater and the ravages of insects and weevils.”  Anders Sparrman was recruited at the Cape of Good Hope.  Williams points out the benefits included him sharing “the duties of sketching and painting specimens with Georg, while his botanical expertise allowed the latter’s father to spend more time on his zoological and ornithological investigations”.


Unfortunately, the Forsters’ cabins were never watertight.  Sometimes they had to share it with sheep and goats.  None of which helped Johann, who suffered from rheumatism.  One day at Dusky Sound, “his hands were so swollen from insect bites that he could not hold a pen, and he spent a sleepless feverish night; but the next morning he was up and about botanising on shore.”  As the ship was anchored under trees, “the ship was so dark that a candle had to be lit in the cabin even during the day”.  Quite often there was so much timber across his cabin door he was either stuck inside or prevented from entering for hours.  What a difference from the experience of “Banks, Solander and Parkinson, who had been given the run of the captain’s great cabin on the Endeavour voyage.”  He got on badly with many of the officers and with William Wales, the astronomer in Resolution.  But got on well with the surgeon James Patten, the artist William Hodges, and with William Bayly, astronomer in Adventure


Much of the voyage was “spent at sea or in the bleaker regions of the southern ocean” with comparatively little time ashore at New Zealand or the islands they visited.  Increasingly, Forster “was obsessed by the fear that his researches would appear second best to those of his predecessors who had sailed on the Endeavour.”  Back in England, he argued over the publication of the official account of the voyage, and had to make do with an unofficial one by his son written in a hurry in only nine months.  He did publish his own Observations Made during a Voyage round the World, and several other scholarly works.  These included “monographs on albatrosses and penguins [that] have been widely recognised as pioneering studies.”


Chapter six covers Cook’s Third Voyage, and then goes on to describe Archibald Menzies, the naturalist who sailed with James Colnett and George Vancouver. 


William Anderson, had sailed on Cook’s Second Voyage as surgeon’s mate, and “showed his interest both in natural history and in ethnography”.  His account of some poisonous fish was printed in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions.  He was appointed surgeon on Cook’s Third Voyage and “could be relied upon to follow his natural-history interests in his spare time” and “be subject to naval discipline”.  Williams describes the voyage through Anderson’s activities.  He explains the skills of David Nelson, gardener, appointed to sail in Discovery.  Whilst John Webber, the artist, drew many birds and fishes, Williams notes that William Ellis, surgeon’s mate in Discovery, painted 114 water-colours, mostly of birds.  Natural history was not neglected on the voyage.  Amongst the difficulties encountered, I particularly liked the description of the impact of the cockroaches at Tahiti.  The ships were inundated with them, covering any food exposed for a few minutes, and destroying many stuffed and preserved birds.  They even liked the ink, eating the writing on labels.  Apparently, “two different sorts of cockroaches were responsible for the damage: blatta orientalis, still on board from the previous voyage, and blatta germanica, new arrivals from New Zealand.”


Anderson died during the voyage, donating his collection to Banks, who “became the promoter of enterprises associated with Cook’s discoveries”.  One such was a trading voyage to the northwest coast of America by James Colnett, who had been a midshipman on Cook’s Second Voyage.  Menzies was appointed surgeon in Prince of Wales, which sailed from England in 1786.  There is no surviving journal from Menzies from the voyage, but there are some letters that he wrote to Banks.  The natural history results appear to have been very little.  However, after studying at Banks’s herbarium in Soho Square he was appointed to join Vancouver’s expedition in Discovery to Nootka Sound and the northwest coast of America that left in 1791.  During the voyage they called at Tahiti, where they saw trees planted by Banks and by William Bligh.  To protect the many plants Banks hoped would be collected, he had arranged for a wood and glass plant frame to be placed on the quarterdeck, much to the dismay of the officers.  It was not a great success as either rain got in or the goats would eat the plants.  There were other hazards.  At Cook Inlet, “most of the live plants from California and Hawaii… kept in the plant frame were killed by the cold.”  And as they sailed south to California, high waves washed away plants obtained at Nootka.  Although Menzies had kept a journal, after the voyage he failed to convert it into “publishable form” and it was left to other naturalists to tell the world of what he had found. 


After reading about Cook’s naturalists, I wondered how their predecessors had fared, so turned back to the earlier chapters in the book.  The first covers William Dampier, who sailed round the world several times, first as a buccaneer and later as a captain of the Royal Navy.  I greatly enjoyed reading how he recorded not only the plants and birds he saw, but also the people, which he published in several accounts of his travels and adventures, beginning with A New Voyage Round the World in 1697.  It included the first published description of the breadfruit.  When Cook and Banks arrived at Australia they were well aware of what they might find, through his descriptions, though he had seen the west coast rather than the east coast.  According to Williams, “Dampier’s books became the standard model for voyagers sailing to distant parts of the world.” 


The next naturalist is Georg Wilhelm Steller, a German who sailed on a Russian expedition.  Williams sets the scene by describing the Russian activities that led to the Danish born Vitus Bering’s first voyage to the Arctic and his second to the American coast.  It was on the latter voyage that Steller sailed in St Peter as personal physician to Bering, there already being a surgeon in the ship.  In 1741 they left the newly established port of St Peter and St Paul arriving at Alaska at Kayak Island, later visited by Cook.  Steller was able to spend a little time ashore collecting plants and observing birds and a fox.  No attempt was made to land on the nearby mainland.  Steller complained in his journal that he had spent ten years preparing for a mere twenty hours of investigation. 


As they sailed along the coast several men began to suffer from scurvy, and were successfully treated by Stellar with some scurvy grass that he had collected.  He had remembered the people of Kamchatka had used such “magnificent antiscorbutic plants”.  On the way back storms drove them ashore on an uninhabited island, where they spent the winter, suffering from scurvy due to the lacks of plants.  Bering died, and the ship broke up.  They built another from its hulk, and sailed back to Kamchatka.  Steller “worked on his journal and natural-history notes”, including many made at Bering Island, but he died in 1746, aged 37, before he could complete them.  The Russian government decided the expedition’s findings should remain secret, but a report appeared in France in 1752, and an account was published in Germany in 1758 (with a translation appearing in English in 1761). 


Chapter three deals with Philibert de Commerson, who sailed around the world with Louis de Bougainville.  Before describing the voyage, Williams explains the system of naming species devised by Carl Linnaeus, and used by the rest of the naturalists in this book.  Commerson was commissioned by Linnaeus to investigate some of the plants of the Mediterranean in 1754, and created his own botanic garden before submitting a 17-page proposal of his activities should he join Bougainville. 


Rather than sailing in Boudeuse, the main ship, Commerson went in the consort, Etoile, sharing a cabin with his servant.  The ships sailed separately to Rio de Janeiro, arriving in June 1767.  Unlike Banks, Commerson was able to go ashore and botanise.  Amongst his discoveries was one he named after his commanding officer, Bougainvillea spectabilis.  As the ships crossed the Pacific many of the sailors suffered from scurvy, but no one knew how to treat them. 


They stayed at Tahiti a mere nine days in April 1768.  Williams discusses whether the unmasking at Tahiti of Commerson’s servant as a woman was a surprise to every other sailor or confirmation of what they already knew.  More importantly, Williams explains how much she “was an invaluable help to Commerson, who was handicapped by a lame leg in his botanising


On the way home Commerson left the expedition at Mauritius, then spent the next four years investigating Bourbon, Reunion and Madagascar.  He died at Mauritius in 1773, aged 45.  Many of the plants he had collected were lost on their way to France, and “no comprehensive description exists of Commerson’s work”. 


At this point I had better draw my review to an end before my enthusiasm for this book runs away with me.


The remaining four chapters cover the many naturalists and scientists who sailed in the French expeditions led by Jean-Francois de la Pérouse and by Joseph-Antoine Bruny d’Entrecasteaux; the Spanish expedition of Alejandro Malaspina; the Australian surveys of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders; and Charles Darwin.  That takes the story into the nineteenth century.

The ten chapters follow the naturalists chronologically, but you can read them in any order.  The chapters vary in length from 19 to 29 pages, so you can dip in and out of the book so suit yourself.  There are just over 300 pages, with 39 illustrations plus another on the front cover.


Many more naturalists sailed with Pacific explorers than I had realised.  Many were also surgeons, or was it that the needs of a surgeon to use plants for medicines led them to becoming naturalists?  Many suffered the same issues of: naval leaders for whom spending time ashore botanising was a hindrance to their main tasks of exploration and survival.  The survival of plants, birds, etc., was fraught with difficulties, and hundreds of specimens never made it back home.  The dissemination of the knowledge afterwards was poor in almost every case.  This book adds greatly to our knowledge without overwhelming us. 



Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 43, volume 37, number 1 (2014).

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