The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman / Anonymous.  Lance Bertelson (ed.).  2016

The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman / Anonymous. Lance Bertelson (ed.). 2016

Bertelson, Lance (ed.). 
The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman / Anonymous
Broadview Editions. 
ISBN 978-1-55481-274-5. 
255 pages.

This novel was first advertised in the London Chronicle in May 1778.  On its title page the novel was called The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman, esquire, into Carnovirria, Taupiniera, Olfactaria, and Auditante, in New Zealand; in the Island of Bonhommica, and in the powerful Kingdom of Luxo-volupto, on the great Southern continent.  It was published by William Strahan and Thomas Cadell during the time that Cook was on his third, fatal world voyage.  In the same month the London newspaper published an excerpt from the novel, describing HMS Resolution’s and HMS Adventure’s voyage to the South Pacific, and a massacre that occurred in Queen Charlotte Sound on 17 December, 1773.


Strahan and Cadell had also published a year earlier, in May 1777, James Cook’s two-volume account of his second global expedition, A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World.  And young George Forster’s A Voyage Round the World, in his Brittanic Majesty’s Sloop Resolution, had appeared in March 1777, preceding both Cook and The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman.


Both the Forster and the Cook books were popular successes, and quickened European interest in the South Pacific’s natural and cultural worlds.  It is not unreasonable to assume that in publishing The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman, Strahan and Cadell sought to capitalise on the public’s new-found fascination with the South Pacific, and with James Cook’s voyaging career. 


The novel’s eponymous, first-person narrator, Hildebrand Bowman, is a midshipman in Adventure, consort vessel to Resolution on Cook’s second world voyage.  The young man’s history is recounted: his family origin near the seaport of Hull, his education at a local grammar school, and his joining the Royal Navy.  Like Cook, Bowman serves in Newfoundland.  The young man’s growing fascination with Cook’s voyages leads Bowman to obtain a midshipman’s rating in Adventure, commanded by Tobias Furneaux.


The ships’ voyage to Antarctica, where they become separated, is briefly described, before the vessels are reunited in Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand.  They are subsequently separated for a second and final time, during a gale off the south-east coast of the North Island.  Adventure eventually makes it back to Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, but Cook and Resolution had left just a few days earlier.


Furneaux despatches eleven men to Grass Cove, on the other side of the sound, to harvest wild greens in preparation for Adventure’s return voyage.  Bowman is among the party in one of Adventure’s boats.  But instead of green-gathering, the midshipman goes into the nearby bush to shoot game.  While he is away the others in the party are attacked by local Maori, and the ten men are killed, dismembered, cooked and eaten.


News of this atrocity reached England when Adventure returned in July 1774.  When it was reported in the newssheets it caused a great deal of horror.  Presumably, the massacre was the catalyst for the writing of The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman


In the novel the massacre is described in grisly detail, on page 59.  So far, so factual.  But from then on Bowman’s narrative swerves away from fact, and moves firmly into the rich realm of fiction.  After escaping the massacre by being in the bush, the young man emerges to discover the killing scene.  Recoiling from the shocking sight, Bowman writes, “I staggered about without knowing what I did, or meant to do; excepting only the getting at a distance from those vile cannibals”.


To his further dismay Bowman then sees that Adventure is sailing off towards the Pacific without him.  He has missed the boat, and is now a castaway.  Staunchly, he decides to make the most of his predicament, writing “This alarm roused me from my languid despondency.  I resolved, with the assistance of a good providence, to struggle against all difficulties with fortitude, leaving the event to the all-disposing will of the creator and preserver of all mankind”.


From then on Bowman is on his own, armed with just a musket (his “fusee” as he calls it) and ball.  The only mammals of New Zealand are timid creatures, “a species of deer, hares and foxes”.  This description gives the reader a first inkling that the author can never have visited New Zealand, for as a footnote to this reference points out, “None of these animals existed in New Zealand in 1773”.  Maori had brought rats and dogs from Eastern Polynesia in the fourteenth century, but before that the only native mammals were bats.  Cook brought pigs and goats, and deer and rabbits were intro-duced as game in the nineteenth century.  (All of these introduced animals wrought severe environ-mental damage on New Zealand’s indigenous vegetation.  They still do.)


The novel goes on to describe Bowman’s travels through six invented South Pacific locations, the first four in New Zealand, then two in more advanced fictional societies, the first off the west coast of the North Island, the second on the imaginary Great Southern Continent.


In this way Bowman’s travels are able to embody the eighteenth century “stadial” theory of human evolution—stadial in this sense meaning “of, or relating to, discrete stages of development”.  This hypothesis held that society ascended slowly from brutish insensibility through to savagery, and then upwards to an idealised pastoral economy.  Bowman’s adventures in the various locations introduce him to society at different stages of upward development – hunter-gatherer, pastoral-nomadic, agricultural-commercial – all in a South Pacific setting.  Bowman’s narrative also gives rise to philosophical questions, such as whether an ideal state of nature can really exist.


In a lengthy introduction to the novel, the editor (Lance Bertelson, Professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin) places The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman firmly in its literary and historical context.  He states, “The work provoc-atively weaves together popular fascination with Cook’s voyages, sensational conceptions of the newly charted Pacific, contemporary ideas on human development and culture, topical satire on London life, and a fanciful castaway story”.  Furthermore the novel is “unique in literary history and unsurpassed as a teaching text.  Of equal importance, it marks the birth of a national literature.  It is the first New Zealand novel”.  The cover image is certainly that of a New Zealander.  It is a fetching photograph of “an unidentified young Maori woman, circa 1900”, wearing traditional native clothing.


A series of appendices cover Furneaux’s and James Burney’s accounts of the Grass Cove Incident, descriptions of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, stadial theory and the Scottish en-lightenment, cross-cultural satirists, and notes on the Great Southern Continent.  The text of the book is enlivened by a variety of contemporaneous illus-strations, several of them satirical, such as “The Fly-Catching Macaroni” and “The Preposterous Head Dress, or the Feathered Lady”.


The influences on the unidentified novelist’s style and philosophies are not difficult to discern.  They include Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771).  There are also echoes of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) in Bowman’s narrative.  


However for a Kiwi reader, Bowman’s travel story is most strongly reminiscent of Englishman Samuel Butler’s novel of ideas, Erewhon (1872).  Although an 1872 novel obviously cannot have been an influence on Bowman’s author in 1778, it suggests that Bowman’s story may have influenced Butler (1835-1902), who spent four years in New Zealand, some of that time farming in the South Island High Country.  Erewhon, also told in the first person narrative, was first published anonymously, like Bowman’s travels.


The question then arises: just who was the author of The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman?


A lengthy note by the editor on the question of the novel’s authorship examines the case for either John Elliot or Robert Home being the likely author.  Yorkshireman Elliot (1759-1834) served in the Royal Navy in Newfoundland, and as an able seaman (AB) in HMS Resolution during Cook’s Second Voyage.  Home (1752-1834), also from Yorkshire, was an English painter of Scottish descent.  


Of the two, it is suggested that Home has the stronger claim for authorship.  Although Elliot served under Cook, and later published a memoir, he had been to New Zealand, and so surely would not have included the natural history howler about deer, hares and foxes roaming the countryside in 1773.  Everyone on Cook’s ships must have quickly realised that the only creatures to inhabit the land of New Zealand were a multitude of native birds.  The flightless giant moa had been extinct for centuries.  Therefore it seems that The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman was penned by someone who had never set foot in New Zealand.  And that was not John Elliot.


In support of Home’s claim to authorship, an entry was discovered in the ledger of the novel’s publisher, William Strahan.  This item acknow-ledged receipt of the sum of £21.18, “From Mr Home for Bowman’s Travels”.  This sum precisely equalled the cost of publishing Hildebrand Bowman.  The discovery of the entry was made by none other than the Captain Cook Society luminary and immediate past president, Cliff Thornton.


Is The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman really the first New Zealand novel? 


According to Te Ara the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, the first novel published in New Zealand was Henry Butler Stoney’s work, Taranaki, a tale of the war, that appeared in 1861.  A thinly disguised account of personal experience, including excerpts from military dispatches, Taranaki thus post-dated The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman by 83 years.  Other home-grown New Zealand novels appeared from the later 1860s onwards.  Therefore it seems certain that Hildebrand Bowman is entitled to claim the distinction of being the first work of fiction set in New Zealand. 


Part-adventure story, part-allegory, didactic but never less than entertaining, The Travels of Hildebrand Bowman can be enjoyed on a number of levels.  Bowman’s search for Utopia in newly discovered exotic worlds captures the spirit of the Enlightenment imaginatively.  For anyone interested in late eighteenth century voyaging and discovery, and in the Old World reaching out towards the New, Bowman’s travels make captivating reading. 



Graeme Lay

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 23, volume 40, number 2 (2017).

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