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Naturalists at Sea: From Dampier to Darwin

By Glyn Williams

March 22, 2016

Review By Daniel Clayton

Books by Glyn Williams are always a delight. He is one the foremost historians of European voyages of exploration to the Pacific and the Arctic and has a rare and enviable ability to bring his consummate scholarship to a general audience. In this handsomely produced and illustrated book (with thirty-nine plates), Williams turns his attention to the ship as a site of scientific and social experimentation, affectation, and struggle. He is concerned with how naturalists worked: how they cooperated and competed with one another and their naval counterparts (officers and crews) during long (and often tedious) voyages; the hefty equipment they lugged into cramped and leaky ship cabins; how they strove to protect their animal and plant specimens from insects, the elements, and occasionally theft and vandalism; how they were captivated by, but also disparaged and objectified, the alien worlds and objects they encountered; and how they worked with what was “before them” in a twofold sense (in terms of what they experienced first-hand and what they knew of prior voyages and existing collections).

The ten chapters of the book follow the fortunes of civilian naturalists from a variety of backgrounds: from the self-taught William Dampier in the late seventeenth century (who, among other things, found on the island of Sumatra “`a plant called ganga’” and observed, with great prescience, that “`Some it keeps sleepy, some merry, putting them into a laughing fit, and others is makes mad’” (11)); to physicians and surgeons who turned their hands to voyaging and collecting; to the teams of scientific “gentlemen” who sailed with James Cook, Jean-François de Galaup La Pérouse, and Alejandro Malaspina in the latter part of the eighteenth century; and finally to Charles Darwin’s 1830s voyage on the Beagle and the rise of a professional breed of botanists and zoologists. A good many more naturalists were involved in these voyages than I knew about, and Williams places their trials and tribulations at the centre of his discussion.

He pays his respects to the scholarly networks and facilities — archives and museums, editors and translators, learned societies and academic publishers, and not least The Hakluyt Society and Yale University Press, with which he has long-standing associations – and which, over the last fifty years, have brought to fruition printed editions of the hitherto scattered journals and letters of explorers and naturalists. He notes that he could not have written Naturalists at Sea without this body of work (surely one of the most remarkable historiographical accomplishments of recent decades), and the book bears witness to his mastery of this now largely published archive of exploration and natural history, and to the facility with which he situates the work of naturalists in wider skeins of voyaging, and nation- and empire-building.

In Naturalists at Sea we encounter Williams’ trademark concern with European exploration as both a wellspring of wonder and fount of power, and as both a corporeal odyssey that surprised, tested, and violated the body and the senses, and permitted a prodigious project of classification marked by the violence of abstraction (the imposition of European categories on alien peoples, places, and objects). Williams shows how civilian naturalists fashioned their own spaces of observation, dialogue, and reflection between the tininess of the ship and the immenseness of the Pacific Ocean, and how the difficulties surrounding their work can be exaggerated (especially compared with the physical challenges that land-based explorers faced). The obstacles thrown at seafaring naturalists were offset by a deep longing for adventure and the unknown, and Williams shows how this yearning was expedited by a mixture of flight (from ship to shore, and attempts at “going native”) and fight (a perennial struggle with social and institutional strictures, and scientific norms and expectations). No more so, Williams reveals, than in the case of the “experimental gentlemen” who came to the coast of British Columbia with British and Spanish explorers (133-149).

On the Northwest Coast, as elsewhere, the ship worked as a kind of menagerie: a space where different voices, practices, and agendas bristled and screeched (often in the case of naturalists, in the quiet confines of their journals). While “enthusiastic amateur[s]” like Joseph Banks may have tolerated the fetters that shipboard life and naval discipline placed on what Williams gleefully describes as his seemingly limitless curiosity and boundless energy for a higher good, many were not as acquiescent (77). “The close relationship between Banks and Cook, or Fitzroy and Darwin, was unusual,” Williams surmises: “On most of the voyages… there was a running conflict over priorities between naval officers and civilian naturalists” (261). Even so, throughout the period Williams considers, naval officers and their state sponsors did not see the scientific experiments and observations going on in their midst as mere sideshows, or civilian naturalists as nuisances.

In fine, Naturalists at Sea is a noteworthy contribution to the literature on Pacific voyaging and to Williams’s own impressive oeuvre: a learned work that wears its scholarship lightly, and an enthralling narrative that is framed by this historian’s indubitable feel for human surprise, drama, vanity and foible in Europe’s opening of the Pacific.

Naturalists at Sea: From Dampier to Darwin
Glyn Williams
New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2013. 328 p. $22.00