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Book Review: Naturalists at Sea

By (October 26, 2013) No Comment

Naturalists at Seanaturalists at sea
by Glyn Williams
Yale University Press, 2013

“Nothing can redound more to the honor of this Nation as a Maritime Power, and to the Advancement of the Trade and Navigation thereof, than to make Discoveries of Countries hitherto unknown” – so British naval commanders were informed in the sonorous tones of the Admiralty as the ‘long’ eighteenth century hit its stride and the nations of the West were seized with a nearly simultaneous craze to send ships and men into the far-flung maritime precincts of the Pacific and the Arctic. Commodore John Byron (grandfather of the famous poet) heard these sentiments in his own country, as did the legendary Captain Cook, and Robert Fitzroy, the dashing young captain of the Beagle, on whose 1831 voyage sailed the often-seasick naturalist Charles Darwin.

This wave of Enlightenment-animated opportunistic exploration is the background subject of Glyn Williams’ fascinating new book Naturalists at Sea, and its series of personality portraits, ranging from William Dampier (whose “books became the standard model for voyagers sailing to distant parts of the world”) to naturalist Philibert de Commerson to Joseph-Antoine Bruny D’Entrecasteaux to Alejandro Malaspina, to Johann Reinhold Forster, whose thin-skinned father griped, “It may seem extraordinary, that men of science, sent out in a ship belonging to the most enlightened nation in the world, should be cramped and deprived of the means of pursuing knowledge, in a manner that would only become a set of barbarians.”

That griping cut in both directions, despite the South Seas craze; naturalists and other ‘experimental gentlemen’ were constantly aggrieved by the fact that the gunships and military commanders under whose aegis they sailed didn’t allow them more time ashore amidst the staggering bounties of the lands they visited, and those commanders were angrily dumbfounded by the demands of the scientists they had on board – scientists demanding precious shipboard space and even more precious drinking water for their specimens. Williams is putting it mildly when he relates that for George Vancouver, “and indeed for any naval captain sensitive about his authority, the location of a large greenhouse on his quarterdeck, filled with tubs and pots, and needing constant attention and watering, was an affront.”

Yet despite such frictions, the voyages went forth from half a dozen countries, spurred as much by altruistic advancement of science as by more mercantile motives, as attested by Samuel Hartlib’s baldly self-interested summing-up attests in 1651: “Where any Endemicall or Natural disease reigneth, there God hath also planted a specifique for it.”

But the stuffing of holds with rapidly-drying plants and rapidly-starving birds and insects, the squabbling and hurrying, repeatedly falls into the background in Williams’ spirited narrative, replaced time and again by sheer wonder. Naturalists and astronomers encountered sights never before seen by white men; they encountered entire biospheres that had never encountered humans before. When Georg Wilhelm Steller shipped out to Alaska and the Arctic circle in 1741 and ’42, he encountered vast congeries of seal lions with no learned fear of men. He waded into the surf to walk amidst the gigantic creatures that would bear his name, creatures who went on shallows-grazing even while he ran his hands along their great chest-high backs. And Williams reminds his readers that Steller did more than just prod these Steller sea cows – he got his hands dirty inside them as well:

Steller was not content with watching and describing the sea mammals of Bering Island. During his six-day stay on the south coast of the island overlooking a huge colony of fur seals, he not only recorded their appearance and habits, but dissected a male fur seal, making thirty-one different measurements to add to his thirteen-page description. Then in July he turned to the altogether more difficult task of dissecting a huge female sea cow, weighing, he thought, eight thousand pounds.

As Williams points out, there could often be a curious lack of communication between the military and the scientific. Joseph Banks, for instance, sailing with Cook in 1769, had expert information on one crucial point: “I have enquired of several Sea Faring persons for a remedy against the Scurvy – none could inform me though most agreed they have received the greatest benefit from lemon juice.”

And yet, Cook could ignore it:

With these informed recommendations before him, Banks took a substantial supply of lemon and orange juice, and used it to good effect. Given that Banks and Cook were living at close quarters, and that they read each other’s journals, it seems odd, to say the least, that Cook appears to have ignored Banks’s demonstration of the efficacy of lemon juice. He continued to put his faith in malt wort, sauerkraut, fresh food and a clean, well-aired ship, and was dismissive of lemon juice as an antiscorbutic.

Several of the common threads running through Naturalists at Sea are a bit depressing – whole batteries of notes and illustrated books are lost at sea or in fires, holds full of specimens lost to dessication or decay – but that division between ship commanders and their ‘experimental gentlemen’ inadvertently becomes something close to the book’s theme, exemplified by the melancholy experiences Darwin had with Captain Fitzroy long after their famous voyage, with Darwin constantly sending his erstwhile friend kind notes and supplicating gestures and Fitzroy increasingly raving in public about how disgusted he was by the revolutionary ideas that had been born on the Beagle.

That tension – basically between inquiry and the money that pays for it – existed long before these tremendously evocative voyages given such new life by Williams, and like so many other aspects of the long eighteenth century, it reached its dark apotheosis in the 20th century, when a not very different generation of ‘experimental gentlemen’ were gathered at Los Alamos in pursuit of knowledge by military men with other aims in mind.