Nature's Argonaut, Daniel Solander 1733-1782. Duyker, Edward. 1998

Nature's Argonaut, Daniel Solander 1733-1782. Duyker, Edward. 1998

Duyker, Edward.
Nature's Argonaut, Daniel Solander 1733-1782.
Miegunyah Press.
ISBN 0-522-84753-6.
380 pages.

When we think of the people on the Endeavour voyage, most people think of James Cook, then Joseph Banks, then pause and add "some Swedish gentleman, whose name I can't remember, who helped Banks". Few people know much more about Daniel Solander, but a book published this year shows why we should know about this "overweight bon vivant".

Born in Piteå, in northern Sweden on 19 February 1733, he went to the country’s oldest university at Uppsala, just north of Stockholm, where an uncle was a professor.  He soon became a student of Carl Linnaeus, who, apart from lecturing formally for an hour each day “every Saturday in summer he would lead botanical walks on the outskirts”.  After only a few years Solander had become a star pupil, and in 1753 accompanied his teacher when he catalogued the Swedish royal collection of “snakes, birds and fish”.

In the same year Linnaeus published the first volume of his Species Plantarum (the beginning of modern plant taxonomy), and Solander took his first steps as a botanical field researcher and explorer.

In response to requests by English naturalists, Linnaeus arranged for Solander to go to London to give “instruction in Linnean principles”.  The trip was interrupted by a bad case of malaria, whilst he was visiting the rector of Halmstad and Sireköpinge. 

Solander arrived in England in 1760, aged 27.  During the stormy voyage he “used his time at sea to study ragworms”.  He moved “to the country for a couple of weeks in order to associate only with English people; for, although I understand everything I read in English books, people here generally speak so fast and indistinctly that much practice is needed before I can comprehend what they say”. 

During the next few years Solander came into contact with many naturalists and nurserymen, as well as the aristocracy, “visiting gardens and assisting in the cataloguing and description of collections”.  He sent to Linnaeus as many plant seeds as he could afford.  In 1762 he published “Account of the Gardenia” in Philosophical Trans-actions of the Royal Society.  The following year he began work at the British Museum cataloguing the collections of “natural and artificial products”, an arduous task.  He became very popular at another duty: “his gift to describe with taste the rare specimens of the British museum was so unusually charming that both men and women chose the hours which they knew Solander was accustomed to display the collection”.

In 1764 Solander was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1766 he was joined at the museum by the Swede Herman Diedrich Spöring, a watchmaker by trade.  By the end of that year Solander had completed the catalogue of all the Asian, African and American plants, and received into the museum “artificial Curiosities, that shew the ingenuity of the Inhabitants in different parts of the world” brought back by Commodore John Byron from his voyage round the world.

Banks first met Solander in 1764.  Following Banks’ visit to Newfoundland in 1766, Solander was able to him “determine” the plants that were new to him.  Whilst Solander worked on the collection of American plants he met Benjamin Franklin, with whom he shared an interest in electricity.

The voyage of the Endeavour, with both Solander and Spöring, is so well known to CCSU members that I will not deal with it in detail. Duyker is to congratulated on ensuring there are sufficient maps to enable the reader to follows Solander's progress both in Sweden and England. In covering the 1768-1771 voyage he raises several items not known to the Cook-o-phile. He points out that at Solander was well prepared for conditions at sea, with his previous expeditions to Lapland. At Madeira he found himself familiar with some of the flora, having catalogued such items in Hans Sloane's collection. His experiences at Tierra del Fuego, when he nearly died, made a deep impression on him so that thirteen years later he was still conversing on the subject, and his efforts through the snow.

Banks later described Solander thus: “During this voyage, which lasted three years, I can say of him that he combined an incomparable diligence and an acumen that left nothing unsettled, with an unbelievable equanimity.  During all that time we did not once have any altercation which for a moment became heated.”

At Tahiti, Solander helped with the astronomical observing; his own father had made observations of a solar eclipse and sent a report to the Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala.  Although so many plants were collected at Botany Bay that Cook changed his name for it from Stingray Bay, Solander continued to use this name in his manuscripts for some time after his return to England.  When the ship reached the East Indies, Solander came across many plants with which he was familiar from his days at the British Museum.  At Batavia he went down again with malaria and became bedridden.  Nevertheless he described 151 species in his manuscript.  At Cape Town he again saw plants which he knew.

“Solander arrived back in England an instant celebrity” writes Duyker, who explains well the reaction of the Royal Family, etc., and the preparations for the next voyage to the South Seas, the disappointments, and the eventual voyage to Iceland.  On the way they went ashore in the Hebrides.  “The next day was a Sunday.  Given the strict Presbyterian tenets of the locals, the naturalists did not dare botanize for fear of being irrevocably stigmatized as profaners of the sabbath.”

Back in London, Solander was promoted to Keeper of the Natural History Department at the British Museum.  He began work on cataloguing Banks’ collection and “assisted in the supervision of artists and engravers employed by his wealthy friend to complete illustrations for their projected Florilegium”.  In 1774 when Tobias Furneaux brought Omai to England, Solander found they could still converse in the “South Sea Language”.

On 8th May, 1782, Solander was recounting his tribulations at Tierra del Fuego when he complained of a pain in his right toe.  Later in the day his left leg became paralysed.  His condition worsened, and on the 13th he died.  the autopsy showed he had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage.  he was buried in the crypt of the Swedish Church in London.  “On Wednesday 19 February 1913, prior to the demolition of the Swedish Church for a road-widening project, his coffin was removed and reburied in the Swedish section of Brookwood Cemetery in Woking, Surrey.”

Duyker notes the places named after him: Cape Solander on the southern arm of Botany Bay and the Solander Islands of New Zealand, the genus Solandra, seven plants that bear the specific epithet, such as Astella solandri, the kowharawhara of New Zealand, two species of fish, such as Canthigaster solandri, a puffer fish, and Solander's petrel Pterodroma solandri. Duyker also includes a checklist of Australian plants collected and illustrated on the Endeavour voyage, an extensive bibliography, and both a botanical and general index.

If you read the book you will find a chapter on his espionage activities, and a discussion about the intriguing theory that Solander was the illegitimate son of Linnaeus. I also leave it to you to find the reference to the Victorian duo Gilbert and Sullivan.

Highly recommended.

Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 1502, volume 21, number 2 (1998).

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