Book: Naturalists at sea

The 18th century was the age of European conquest, but it was scientific discovery, not territorial claims, which captured the public imagination. By Bill Condie.

Naturalists at Sea: Scientific Travellers from Dampier to Darwin
Glyn Williams, Yale University Press (2013), RRP $41.99

Hundreds of years from now, when interstellar space travel is as routine as a flight to London, perhaps we will look back on the pioneering scientists who joined the voyage to Mars and say, “How did they ever manage to do that? The boredom, the hardship, the cramped quarters…and still they made such wonderful discoveries.”

Until then, we have the long 18th century and the naturalists who joined the remarkable voyages of European discovery. Most expeditions in this age of European conquest had more base motives than scientific discovery – for the most part an afterthought. But it was this, rather than territorial gains, that captured the popular imagination as a flood of unimaginably strange and exotic animals and plants began to appear. Can we, today, imagine how strange a kangaroo, far less a platypus, must have seemed?

Exotic plants such as the Bougainvillea were adopted as domestic species. Specimens of all sorts poured into the museums at such a rate they could not cope. This led to rather haphazard science, so much so that it is only now that we can look back on the what was achieved by these sea-going naturalists.

'My plants, my beloved plants, have consoled me for everything.'

Many are household names – Banks, Solander and Nicholas Baudin who accompanied Flinders around Australia. Others may not be so familiar. Philibert de Commerson, for example, the naturalist who joined the voyage of Captain Cook’s great French rival Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.

Commerson declared, “my plants, my beloved plants, have consoled me for everything”, but was more famous for his other consolations. Half-way through the voyage, it was discovered that his servant, posing as a man, was really a woman and his mistress, Jeanne Barret - the first female to circumnavigate the globe.

There are others, too, we don’t usually associate with the role of naturalist, such as William Dampier, the pioneer of the age, bringing back a myriad of treasures, including beautiful and faithful paintings of the Sturt Desert Pea. His early work, in fact, meant that the lands of the south were not quite the mystery to his successors that they might have been.

A colour engraving of French admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, Captain Cook's great rival. – Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

By the time of Darwin, however, a recognisably modern scientific approach had emerged, helped by his good relations with his captain, Francis Beaufort. Such co-operation was seldom taken for granted as so many naturalists complain – naval priorities always came first.

But why did they put up with the boredom, the hardship, the cramped quarters? Marine biologist T.H. Huxley gives us a clue: “We believed that beyond the world we knew lay a southern cloud-land full of strange wonders and overflowing with adventure.”

This book, written by a historian rather than a scientist, brings a somewhat unexpected view of the age, and one that can only enhance our admirations for these amazing pioneers.

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