Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Book Review: Naturalists at Sea by Glyn Williams

It must have sounded like a golden opportunity, and it was for the lucky ones like Joseph Banks. Sailing around the world with Captain Cook, visiting unexplored countries, being the first to see new species, not in the watch system, having a cabin without the responsibilities of command, dalliances with Tahitian girls (in the name of Pacific ethnology, of course) and returning famous, position and wealth guaranteed.

But few other naturalist had such success. The German Georg Wilhelm Steller joined a Russian expedition which struggled for 10 years to get to Alaska but only gave him 10 hours of exploration at the end of it before returning, then being wrecked "on an unknown desert island without a ship or timber with which to build a new one, and at the same time with little or no provisions". He managed to escape the scurvy that killed so many and return safely home, only to die of a fever in Siberia a few years later.

That was to be more of the model for naturalists in years to come: endless struggles often leading to disaster. A later chapter in the book has the title "The Woes of Johann Reinhold Forster" which gives a flavour the more typical experiences. Yet the dream of repeating Banks endured, as did his position, and these pioneers would often be sending him collections of their discoveries.

It was only with Charles Darwin that a naturalist would again be able to claim their voyage was an unquestioned success. Another quasi-success was the much earlier pioneer William Dampier, though he was an accidental or self-trained naturalist, not one employed as such.

This well written and interesting book comes from author Glyn Williams, who also wrote Arctic Labyrinth which I also very much enjoyed.

Strongly recommended.

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