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Eighteenth Century Science and the Voyages of Discovery

Eighteenth Century Science and the Voyages of Discovery

page 107

Eighteenth Century Science and the Voyages of Discovery

IT IS WRITTEN that about the middle of the eighteenth century, shortly after the invention, or discovery, in 1746 of the Leyden jar, the Abbé Nollet, a French physicist of some eminence, was commanded to demonstrate the wonder to the king. He did so by giving an electric shock to 180 of the royal guards at once. Thinking then of fresh fields to conquer, he collected together the Carthusian monks in the Grand Convent of Paris and arranged them in a line a mile long, ensured that all had a grip on the interconnecting wires, made his final connection with his charged jars, and a mile of monks leapt simultaneously into the air, to the great pleasure of the assembled city. This may be called the lighter side, the badinage, of science; and I mention it not because it casts any piercing light either on science or on voyages of discovery, but because the ingenious abbé had a pale counterpart in one well-known to the scientific history of our own country, the young Joseph Banks. When the Endeavour sailed from England in 1768 she carried not merely Banks but Banks's electrical machine, the handiwork of Jesse Ramsden, one of the great instrument makers of the time, and another machine belonging to John Green [sic: Charles Green] the astronomer; and the gentlemen of the great cabin amused themselves a few times by giving one another shocks, with no very outstanding results. It was perhaps their lack of consistent success that deterred them from operating on the inhabitants of Tahiti and New Zealand; for one of the diversions of Banks's visit to Iceland later on was to administer the machine to the surprised Icelanders. Or perhaps they were simply too busy in other ways. There were shocks and surprises enough anyhow for the Polynesians in the arrival of this expedition; and we may say that the first onset of European science in the Pacific was not one of physics, and did not lie in experiment, but was a matter of observation, and collection and description. This is not altogether true, for some of the observations were physical observations, as we shall see; but the great triumphs did not lie in this sphere. Nor did they lie in the spheres in which the really great triumphs of eighteenth century science lay, if we are to believe the scientific historians.

This paper is the text of a lecture given at various times to the Christchurch, Palmerston North and Wellington branches of the Royal Society of New Zealand. I have thought best, on the whole, to leave it in the form in which it was delivered, except for the inclusion of footnotes.

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According to Whitehead, the great thing was mathematical physics: the more you study this subject, the more you will find yourself astonished by the almost incredible triumphs of intellect which it exhibits.1 He instances the succession of the thought of the French Maupertuis and Lagrange. Others have seen it in chemistry: 'the crowning achievement of eighteenth-century science', it has been said, was the solution of the problem of the composition of the atmosphere, wherein Priestley and Lavoisier were concerned: and this was an achievement which 'profoundly influenced the development of physiology, botany, zoology, physics, astronomy, and indeed all other branches of science'.2 Now whether we can place such things in order of importance or not, we may notice that they were the products of home-keeping minds, either in the sphere of generalisation or in that of experiment. Or anyhow of home-keeping persons, because I suppose it is true enough that any great scientist, like Newton, voyages strange seas of thought, alone.

So far I have been negative, and you may think that my object has been to prove that the voyages of discovery were of no great importance for science. That is not at all my object, but I want to see them in relation to their time. While Maupertuis and Lagrange were laying the deep foundations of dynamics (let me quote Whitehead again), 'Galvani and Volta lived and made their electric discoveries; and the biological sciences slowly gathered their material, but still waited for dominating ideas'.3 The voyages were of enormous importance for the biological sciences; and there was at least one dominating idea, which I shall say more about later. And of course I can go on no farther without mentioning astronomy, so closely allied with mathematics, so closely allied with the fundamentals of geography, the shape and behaviour of the earth in the cosmos, its accurate picture in the minds of men; so closely allied with the navigation that enabled men to explore that earth. The voyages themselves should not be regarded, in discovery, as something unique: they were part of a vast effort that took men all over the world on scientific missions, by land as well as by sea; and Cook's voyage to Tahiti in 1768 must be seen to have some relation to the journeys of La Condamine to Peru in 1735 and of his friend Maupertuis to Lapland in 1736 to measure the arc of a meridian at different latitudes—just as the observations and collecting of Banks and Solander must be seen in relation to the vast explorations of the natural history of Siberia associated with Bering's north Pacific voyage from Asia to America in 1741. They should be seen also in relation to the work of the Dutch physicians who landed up in the East Indies and studied their natural history—Rumphius, for example, with his seven folio volumes—and to that of the 'apostles' of Linnaeus, as the great master called them, sending them to Palestine and China and the Cape and America. To read through Banks's own journal is to be instructed in a good many of these relations. page 109 Not in geographical or astronomical relations—I do not think Banks was really interested in geography or astronomy. After the Endeavour's return to England he did not mind acquiescing in the view that her voyage was his voyage—'Mr Banks's voyage'—but we can remember that he was a passenger. The Endeavour brings me back to my voyages: I am thinking primarily of the British and French voyages of the second half of the century, Pacific voyages, from Bougainville to, say, D'Entre-casteaux; and I may possibly say more about Cook than about anybody else.

Banks, looking behind him after fourteen years, from his eminence as president of the Royal Society, on his Endeavour experience, flattered himself that he was 'the first man of scientific education who undertook a voyage of discovery' and that he 'was in some measure the first who gave that turn to such voyages'.4 Flatter is his own word, and the self-flattery was undeserved. We have only to look at Bougainville's voyage, 1766-9. It had its scientific origins in the speculations of Maupertuis and Buffon and the geographical thinking of the President de Brosses, and on it sailed two men of scientific distinction, the young astronomer Pierre Antoine Véron, and the naturalist Philibert de Commerson. Those two indeed indicate a good deal of the less esoteric interests of the age. Véron was concerned with the problem of longitude, and this voyage was the first (if we must deal in firsts) on which longitudes were consistently found by astronomical means, and Véron was the first man, using the techniques of the observation of lunar distances, to arrive at a scientific estimate of the width of the Pacific Ocean. Commerson was a very considerable botanist, and his collections should have been invaluable. But he left the expedition on its return passage at Mauritius, where he died in 1773, and they were never published. Nor did Bougainville do much about longitudes in his own book: he was writing for the polite public, not a technical one; and it seems unlikely that he wished to give too much away to the traditional enemy of France. For the British were in the Pacific too, and there was a strongly competitive element about the voyages of the 1760s.

There was nothing competitive about the great scientific effort of 1769. This was of course the year of the transit of the planet Venus across the disc of the sun, and a French historian, Jean-Paul Faivre, has recently and happily carried back our modern jargon to that earlier century and spoken of an 'international Venusian year'.5 Astronomy having just bestowed on navigation a feasible means of determining longitude (anyhow for a sea-captain with a good enough telescope and good enough mathematics), it might almost seem that there was a debt for navigation to repay, and that Cook was to be the vehicle of the repayment. At any rate, it appeared that the Transit would be one of page 110 the great events of the century. It had occurred in 1761; it would not occur again till 1874 and 1882; and that was a long time to wait. For while the observations of La Condamine and Maupertuis had done a good deal to determine the shape and dimensions of the earth and had proved conclusively one Newtonian hypothesis, equally accurate observations of the Transit of Venus, so the thought ran, would make it possible to calculate accurately the distance of the earth from the sun, which in turn would furnish a base for determining the dimensions of the universe. Let us go back to Edmund Halley, reading a paper to the Royal Society in 1716: 'I could wish that many observations of this famous phenomenon might be taken by different persons at separate places, both that we might arrive at a greater degree of certainty by their agreement, and also lest any single observer should be deprived, by the intervention of clouds, of a sight which I know not whether any man living in this or the next age will ever see again, and on which depends the certain and adequate solution of a problem the most noble, and at other times not to be attained to. I recommend it therefore again and again to those curious astronomers who, when I am dead, will have an opportunity of observing these things, that they would remember this, my admonition … I earnestly wish them all imaginable success.'6

Now, leaving aside the technical differences of methods of observation and the combining of results, we may note that it was difficult to pinpoint precisely the places of observation, owing to the difficulty still, in 1761, of determining longitude; in addition to which clouds and the various chances of war got in the way of a number of the observers. There were about 120 observers contributing their efforts, and they were certainly scattered in different places, as prescribed by Halley: in Europe, Siberia, Sweden, China, Turkey, India, Réunion Island, the Cape of Good Hope, St Helena, Newfoundland. They were French, German, Swedish, English, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Danish, and Spanish. The French took the lead in numbers, even in that desperate time of war, with their empire crashing about them—they had thirty-two astronomers gazing hard; the English, rapidly becoming masters of the world, came only fourth in the list, with eighteen. This seems to have made the Royal Society rather sensitive, even though numerous observers did not do better than few, and the 1761 operation brought no useful result. In 1769, therefore, with places of observation equally widely spread, out of 150 observers eighty were English, and their viewpoints ranged from Hudson Bay to the Pacific.

To the Pacific: and here we have the nub of our navigational problem. Why, indeed, the Pacific? And where was it to be in the Pacific? To begin with, the phenomenon would occur in June; and it would occupy about six hours' time, so that one would want it visible for that time page 111 and well above the horizon. For a northern station, therefore, any convenient spot within the Arctic Circle would do, as long as the weather was fine. But one needed also the best possible station south of the line; and that, calculated the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal, would lie in an area between the latitudes of 5° and 35°S, and longitudes 172°E to 124°W in the north, and 139°W to 172°W in the south. Within those limits, a sort of trapezium, were the Marquesas, in the north-east, found in the sixteenth century, and Tonga, in the west, found in the seventeenth century, neither group sighted since but presumably still there: Maskelyne proposed one of them. Then another fellow of the Society proposed Fly Island or Rangiroa, a Tuamotuan atoll also in Maskelyne's quadrilateral, or the Solomons, which were well out of it, either of which would also have to be rediscovered. At that stage in the discussion, no decision having been reached, Captain Samuel Wallis arrived home from his circumnagivation in the Dolphin with a signal piece of news. He had discovered Tahiti, not far from the middle of the favoured area, and its position had been fixed with the utmost exactitude, by astronomical means, by his purser. A captain who could find his longitude by the same method could sail straight to it; and this of course is precisely what Cook did. And, as we all know, he observed the Transit on that clear and cloudless Tahitian 3 June, at Point Venus, with the noon thermometer in the sun at 119°. Indeed, to make all sure he sent a party to Moorea, and a second along the coast to the east, to the islet of Taaupiri: the Royal Society was to be properly served. Having successfully observed the Transit, we are generally told, Cook set sail for higher latitudes, to look for a continent and to find New Zealand. Alas! the youthful admirers of greatness are not usually told the truth. For what we have to register is not success but failure. We may take Cook's own words.

This day prov'd as favourable to our purpose as we could wish … we had every advantage we could desire in observing the whole of the passage of the Planet Venus over the Suns disk: we very distinctly saw an Atmosphere or dusky shade round the body of the Planet which very much disturbed the times of the Contacts particularly the two internal ones. Dr Solander observed as well as Mr Green and myself, and we differ'd from one another in observing the time of the Contacts much more than could be expected.7

Cook and Green, both using reflecting telescopes made by the celebrated James Short, found their times for the two external and two internal contacts differ by as much as fifteen to twenty seconds; and the observers in other parts of the world got results no better. That, of course, did not stop the mathematicians from computing; by the end of 1771, when the Endeavour had been home four or five months, over two hundred calculations had been received in Paris by the Academy of Sciences. The distance between the earth and the sun, it seemed, ranged page 112 between 87,890,780 to 108,984,560 miles. I cannot find that anyone went on from those figures to estimate the size of the universe. So the wretched planet, with its dusky shade, after all defeated the prophetic Halley and the method he had worked out for profiting by it—defeated him and his scientific posterity in 1874 and 1882 as in 1769.

Cook's scientific reports were printed in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. These reports were not confined to the Transit of Venus; there was one on the Transit of Mercury, by means of which he and Green had settled very satisfactorily the longitude of Mercury Bay; and others on variation of the compass and the behaviour of the dipping-needle—so that terrestrial magnetism was not altogether neglected; and others on the measurement of the tide, of gravity and the pendulum at Tahiti, of the tide on the east coast of Australia. The general astronomical observations, for latitude, longitude, etc., were not published till 1788, and then by William Wales, the principal astronomer on Cook's second voyage. He had difficulties at that late stage, because Charles Green, the professional astronomer in the Endeavour, though a devoted man in actual observation, was also devoted—it seems too devoted—to the bottle, and dying of the prevalent sickness picked up in the East Indies, had left his papers in a confusion that exasperated both Cook (I think) and Maskelyne, though Cook did his best to defend the memory of Green from Maskelyne's righteous wrath. The true scientific glory of the voyage, apart from its resplendent geographical one, would no doubt have been its natural history collections, if they had been published at all—the harvest of plants and zoological specimens, the bird-skins and shells and butterflies, the wonderful series of drawings by Sydney Parkinson, most of which went into Banks's herbarium and drawers in New Burlington Street and Soho Square. And there were the ethnological things, a sort of skimming-off of the golden age of Polynesian handicrafts. How many separate articles there were I do not know. The Dane Johann Christian Fabricius published the insects.8 Banks said there were 'somewhat above 800' new plants. He had about 700 copper plates engraved showing them, from Parkinson's drawings, to publish with the careful descriptions drawn up by Solander, until he dropped the whole idea; there are the equally carefully compiled manuscripts of Solander's descriptions of vertebrate and invertebrate animals. The late Guy L. Wilkins published what could be published about the remains of the shell collection in 1955;9 Averil Lysaght the birds in 1959.10 Britten published lithographs from the engravings of the Australian plants in 1900-05.11 I did what I could about a selection of the drawings, reproduced from the originals, page 113 including a number in colour, in my own edition of Banks's journal of 1962. Ernest S. Dodge, of the Peabody Museum of Salem, has for some time been travelling the museums of the world identifying the Cook artifacts. Of course Banks was generous with his collections. He gave away things. Any respectable natural historian had the freedom of the library and the cabinets at Soho Square. You can still go to the British Museum at South Kensington and inspect dried plants of 1769 and 1770 in the Banksian Herbarium, annotated in his hand or in Solander's. You can still, in the Botanical Library there, turn over the leaves of Parkinson's drawings. But I have a lingering feeling that, if Banks had been more the professional and less of a great man, he might have left the world much more in his debt.

Let us look at Cook's second and third voyages, with a side-glance at the French, and let us look first from the stand-point of geography. I have referred to the French observations which proved the Newtonian theory of the shape of the earth; and in the eighteenth century the French had a great school of geography, both practical and theoretical. Men like de Vaugondy, and above all, d'Après de Mannevillette, made some superb charts for the French Hydrographic Office, the Dépôt des Cartes et Plans de la Marine, dated from 1720; there were whole dynasties of students and theoreticians. I do not think any English historian has made a full study of the French writings on, for example, a southern continent, that persuasive figment that seemed to be required as a counterpoise to the land-mass of the northern hemisphere, and not merely as a counterpoise but a counter-figure of the great bays and rivers of the north. A good deal of this may now seem to us very foolish; but seen against the background of general eighteenth-century feeling, the belief in rational form and balance, it is not incomprehensible. It just turned out to be wrong. We see, as it were, a classical architecture of geography; and the Great Architect of the Universe, as they called him often enough in those days, was not a Classicist but a Romantic. Apart from this arguing in the air from first principles, there were held to have been, since the middle of the sixteenth century, a number of probable or possible sightings of the Continent. The Cape Circumcision (now Bouvet Island) of the French Lozier Bouvet in the South Atlantic, in 1739, was very persuasive to some people; some of Wallis's men, in 1767, were quite positive they had seen it the evening before they turned in to Tahiti; and Kerguelen, in 1772, in a quite staggering flight of fancy, announced to the French Minister of Marine and to France that he had actually discovered the central mass of the Antarctic Continent—a land of such promise that even now it takes our breath away. Now the French government and French geographers were not such fools as to believe all that without modification, but they thought further investigation was warranted, and Kerguelen was sent back. Cook had just left on his second expedition, and although he had sailed over part of the anciently fabled land on his first voyage its existence had never been disproved. If it had been discovered, or if it were discovered, there would be a great deal of scientific work to be done. Governments, page 114 as governments, might not be interested in science, but they were interested in trade, or in ports of call for ships on long trading voyages, particularly voyages to and from the East. Bougainville was extremely interested in geography, but he also knew enough about his government, and was patriotic Frenchman enough, to talk about spices and the trade with China. Spices, and jealousy of the Dutch for their near monopoly, come lite a refrain into most of the French maritime discussion of the time. Cook, on his third voyage, considered the future of Kerguelen Island not as a place for murdering seals, but as providing a possible port of call. Kerguelen went back to his continent, his Austral France, with an astronomer and a botanist and a draughtsman and fourteen separate memoirs on what was to be done in the fields of geology and botany and zoology, and returned home to face the first-rate scandal; and Cook finished off the continent and the continental theoreticians all together. But not altogether: here was still Antarctica to reckon with, and Cook did not discount its possible existence. Indeed, it is not impossible that on one particular day, by some queer refraction of light, he actually set eyes upon it, though he was unwilling to be dogmatic.12 The point I would make here, in relation to my subject, is that this voyage was not just a masterly, a great, voyage, it was also a great scientific achievement, clean-cut, decisive.

There was great scientific achievement in the third voyage of Cook, too, though it was not as clean-cut or decisive. These achievements were those of denial, not affirmation. There was no southern continent, there was no north-west passage — at least no north-west passage navigable by ordinary means. There were of course things to affirm, the other side of the denials. There was a vast southern ocean, there were islands, there was northern ice. There were again, with this third voyage, theoreticians to confound, though I do not think Cook set out with the object of confounding them. If only they had been right, he would have profited extremely in the material sense. After all, there was a reward of £20,000 on offer for the discovery of a north-west passage. It was not only a north-west passage that was in question, however; it was also the nature of the arctic sea, the origin and movement of the arctic ice. Nobody denied that there was ice in the arctic, but there were plenty of people to deny that sea-water froze; and if it did not freeze then the ice must be fresh-water ice, and the product of rivers, and so limited in quantity. Furthermore everybody knew that the ice came and went with the seasons; and it was possible to argue that if you sailed in the right direction at the right time you would come into an open polar sea, and could in fact sail right over the pole and south into the Pacific Ocean. You could outwit the brute fact of America. If there was not a passage through America from, say, the Californian shore, and you did not sail right over the pole, into the sea near Spitsbergen, you might quite well avoid ice farther north, and page 115 come out in the east in Hudson Bay or Baffin Bay. I omit all the buttressing arguments, all the detail that seemed so persuasive to the library geographer. It might be taken as significant that the chief publicist of this theory was Samuel Engel, a Swiss of Geneva, whose main acquaintance with water was with his own lake; but perhaps that is too cheap a gibe. His Mémoires et Observations Géographiques et Critiques of 1765 had influenced a good number of persons, among them Daines Barrington, an energetic fellow of the Royal Society, and it was under the impetus of Daines Barrington that the Royal Society pushed the Admiralty first into Phipps's arctic voyage of 1773, and then—that having failed to reach the Pole—into Cook's third voyage. Some of the French, we may take note, had also these polar ambitions. Bougainville wanted very much to embark on such a voyage, but his government preferred to put its money into Kerguelen. Cook found out enough about the arctic ice to convince anyone who was not quite grimly determined to fly in the face of facts; and geography, as Bougainville had said in his book, is a science of facts, and authors should not give way to abstract systems which could be put right only at the expense of navigators. Cook, in his journal, has himself a few words on 'Closet studdying Philosiphers';13 and I fear he may have had in mind among them his own colleague in the fellowship of the Royal Society, the Hon. Daines Barrington.

From the great speculations of the closet let us step to the humbler but profitable field of technology. The eighteenth century was a notable age of instrument-makers; and without its instruments its scientific achievements would have been a good many fewer. For astronomy—I hope you will forgive me for pointing it out—depends on telescopes, and it was not every astronomer who could, like Herschel, grind his own lenses and make or design his own 40-foot reflector. Exact measurement depends on micrometers. How much depended on making marks on pieces of brass in the right places—i.e. the delicate work of a man like John Bird in perfecting the graduated scale! There were excellent instrument-makers in France as well as in England, but it was the English who in that period bore away the palm: in the first half of the century the mechanical geniuses George Graham (1675-1751) and John Hadley (1682-1744), the inventor of Hadley's quadrant, refined by Captain John Campbell into the sextant—Hadley who became vice-president of the Royal Society; in its middle and latter part John Bird, the Durham weaver who came to London and worked under Graham, became a master himself, and had his Method of Dividing Astronomical Instruments published by the Board of Longitude in 1767; John Dollond (1706-61), the silk-weaver interested in astronomy and optics, who went into the optical trade with his son Peter (1730-1820), and in 1758 invented the achromatic telescope; Edward Nairne (1726-1806), who worked independently on electricity, and published papers in the Philosophical Transactions; Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800), perhaps the page 116 greatest workman of them all and a Copley medallist, famed alike for his instruments and his unpunctuality in delivering them—'the artist's genius', as someone said, 'disdained time restrictions'. There were certain family connections, as well as a sort of migration from cloth- and silk-weaving: Ramsden married a daughter of John Dollond, Peter Dollond married a daughter of Ramsden. When Maupertuis went to Lapland in 1736, he took London-made instruments by Graham, Hadley, and John Ellicott. Bird's astronomical quadrants were famous all over Europe. But the interesting thing for us, of course, is the connection of these instrument-makers with the navigators, both in their navigation and in the supplementary scientific work.

As I know more about Cook than about anybody else, I shall take my examples from him. For use on the Endeavour's voyage, he and Green signed to having received from the Royal Society '2 Reflecting telescopes of two feet focus, with a Dollond's micrometer to one of them and moveable wires for the other … 2 Wooden Stands for the telescopes with polar axes suited to the Equator [that is, mountings to convert the instruments into what we would call equatorial telescopes, for the long-continued observation of the Transit] … An astronomical quadrant of one foot radius, made by Mr Bird … A Brass Hadley's sextant bespoke by Mr Maskelyne of Mr Ramsden. A Barometer bespoke of Mr Ramsden … 2 Thermometers of Mr Bird. 1 Stand for Bird's quadrant … A dipping needle, bespoke of Mr Ramsden'.14 It was the Bird quadrant that was stolen by the Tahitians before it had even been unpacked, and was repaired by Dr Sporing, who had worked for eleven years in London as a watchmaker. For the second voyage we have Board of Longitude lists of instruments to be lent or to be purchased, approved by the Royal Society: the astronomical quadrants of one foot radius again, '2 common brass Hadley's quadrants … 2 of Dollond's Last improved 3½ feet telescopes with object glass micrometers and moveable wires, 2 brass Hadley's sextants with Mr Maskelyne's improvements … 2 marine barometers with spiral tubes by Nairn', thermometers, theodolites, '2 wooden frames to hold quicksilver, or any other fluid, with ground glass roofs to keep off the air for the purpose of observing altitudes of the sun or stars by reflection with the Hadley's Sextants'—artificial horizons, in fact; '2 magnetic dipping needles, 2 magnetic variation compasses'.15We have orders for payment to the makers—e.g. Nairne, the Dollonds, Burton, George Adams.16 Cook's sextant was by Bird; Lieutenant Clerke's by Ramsden; Joseph Gilbert the master's by Nairne; Wales the astronomer's by Ramsden. Much credit, wrote Cook, speaking of some observations for longitude, was 'due to the Mathematical Instrument makers for the improvements and accuracy with which they make their Instruments … we cannot have a greater proof of the accuracy of page 117 different Instruments than the near agreement of the above observations, taken with four different Sextants and which were made by three different persons, viz. Bird, Nairne and Ramsden.17 For the third voyage we have very much the same sort of thing with some variation: our 'Acromatic Tellescope' now has 'a treble Object Glass of 46 Inches Focus with an Object Glass Micrometer & an eye Tube with moveable wires'; there is 'A 4 feet hand perspective with a large Aperture', 'A Marine dipping Needle with Six Magnetic Steel Bars … A Wooden Bucket to fetch up Sea Water from great depths to try its saltness & coldness with two Barometers belonging to it, 3 Bottles for weighing salt Water in A Hydrostatic Ballance'; and for Cook 'A Pinchbeck pocket Watch with a second hand & Ruby Cylinder'.18 When La Pérouse set sail in 1785 he carried with him two of the dipping needles used by Cook, presented to one of his officers by Sir Joseph Banks. So were the international amenities in science preserved.

For navigation the greatest technological invention of all was, of course, the chronometer. This has a history of its own, into which I need not go. The name of John Harrison, like Cook a Yorkshireman, whose fourth chronometer, produced in 1761, received its triumphant vindication by Cook on his second voyage between 1772 and 1775, is well enough known. It was, to be precise, an exact copy of Harrison's large flat watch, made by Larcum Kendall, another famous workman, that was carried by Cook, and it cost £450. We must not think of Harrison, however, as a lone figure struggling with this problem: there were other men working in England, Thomas Mudge, and John Arnold, whose instruments were also carried by Cook on this second voyage, and broke down; and in France Pierre le Roy, and the Swiss Ferdinand Berthoud, whose instrument Cook found a distinguished scientist testing at Tenerife, when he called there on his outward passage on his third voyage. Indeed, for a few years one of the chief functions of astronomers on voyages of discovery might seem to be testing chonometers through their own refined observations and calculations: William Wales in the Resolution, for example, was directed by the Board of Longitude, who appointed him, to keep and carefully record three parallel reckonings, one by astronomical observation, one by the chronometer or 'watch machine', and the third by dead reckoning. Gilbert the Resolution's master, refers to 'Kendals watch which is most certainly the greatest piece of Mechanism the world have yet produced'.19 Cook becomes positively affectionate: 'our trusty guide', 'our never-failing guide the Watch'.20 Alas! even this noble instrument, which you can still see ticking away in its burnished silver case in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, broke down off the coast of Kamchatka, in April 1779; and when you consider the gales and tossings, the tropic heats, the antarctic and arctic colds it had known since Larcum Kendall page 118 delivered it to the Board ten years before, you need hardly be surprised.

The astronomers would determine longitude accurately by the observation of lunar events—'Mr Maskelyne's method', so-called, from its chief publicist, the Astronomer Royal, whose Nautical Almanac, first published in 1766, was the handbook to the method—the measured angular distance of the moon from the sun or a fixed star, the occultation of a star, an eclipse, and computations therefrom. We frequently come across the occultation of Jupiter's satellites, an excellent starting-point if your ship's deck is stable, and so generally practised on shore. The trouble in all this was, you had to be a bit of a mathematician. I have seen a page of Cook's computing, and it is a whole foolscap page: nevertheless he remarks, 'Would Sea officers once apply themselves to the makeing and calculating these observations, they would not find them so very difficult as they at first imagine',21 and his astronomers, Green and Wales and Bayly, were assiduous, and on the whole successful, in teaching the business to his officers. They had other duties besides these. Wales on the second voyage, Bayly on the third, was instructed by the Commissioners of Longitude to observe the variation of the compass and of the dipping-needle, as studies in terrestrial magnetism, to observe the thermometer and barometer, and the saltness and temperature of the sea and the movement of the tides and to keep exhaustive records, as well, of course, as a miscellany of astronomical work and looking after the chronometers and the astronomical clock. Not satisfied with all this, Wales tried measuring such things as atmospheric electricity in a fog, and the angle of roll of the ship.

There were other sorts of science practised, or contemplated, for Cook's second and third voyages. The Royal Society recommended Dr James Lind, a young physician of Edinburgh, as a fit companion for Banks and Solander, 'as a person who will be extreamly useful … on account of his skill and experience in his profession, and from his great Knowledge in Mineralogy, Chemistry, Mechanics, and various branches of Natural Philosophy';22 and Wales tried a wind-gauge invented by Lind (and made by Nairn) with no great success. Lind was appointed, but when Banks and Solander retired from the voyage he retired too. The result was the Forsters, father and son, and a vast amount of dissension undoubtedly caused by the former. John Reinhold Forster was a good naturalist, however, and a thoughtful man; he worked out, among other things, the existence of a submarine mountain-chain from Tierra del Fuego to the South Sandwich islands, part of the ridge we know now as the Scotia Arc. The range of his interests is indicated in the title of his book, Observations made during a Voyage Round the World, on Physical Geography, Natural History, and Ethic Philosophy. Especially on 1. The Earth and its Strata, 2. Water and the Ocean, 3. The Atmosphere, 4. The Changes of the Globe, 5. Organic Bodies, page 119 and 6. The Human Species. Some of his observations on his fellow-travellers come into the two volumes of his son George. He did not think Cook was quite a gentleman. I presume that it was his personality—I will not say what others—that caused Cook to exclaim at a later date, 'Curse the scientists, and all science into the bargain!'23 This may seem, to a branch of the Royal Society, to prove Forster's point.

Space prevents me from doing more than mention the work of the Swede Anders Sparrman on this second voyage of Cook; or the admirable, the quite first-rate, observations of the young surgeon, William Anderson, on the third—a man excellent in temper, and in keenness as well as universality of interest, with what appears to have been a quite remarkable gift for the Polynesian languages. Space and a too great measure of ignorance prevent me from enlarging on the general scientific work carried out on the French voyages. I have mentioned the fourteen memoirs handed to the unreliable Kerguelen. He was also handed a Berthoud chronometer for each of his ships. When La Pérouse's voyage was in preparation in 1785 the Academy of Science was asked for its advice on what matters should be investigated, and its advice takes seventeen pages to print: it lists geometry, astronomy, mechanics, physics, chemistry, anatomy, zoology, mineralogy, botany, and the Society of Medicine made known its interest in the life, appearance, and diseases of native races. The expedition of D'Entrecasteaux, which sailed in 1791 and broke up in Java in 1794, besides filling in some important gaps in geography left by Cook, was especially strong in hydrography—one may mention the charts of Beautemps-Beaupré— and in botany, in which the leading name is Labillardière. By the time Labillardière reached home, in 1796, his priceless natural history collection had been captured by the English. The return of this to him, during the years of war, through the instrumentality of Banks as President of the Royal Society, is a passage of scientific history not without its own fame.

I mention, finally, though I scarcely do more than mention, and might well be reproved for this galloping method, two matters of great importance in the development of human thought, matters in which the voyages of discovery had a considerable part to play. They interweave. One was the study of man. The voyages of discovery were voyages for the discovery of man, or anyhow of fresh varieties of man, almost as much—one is inclined sometimes to think—as they were voyages for the enlargement of geography. The period of the great voyages is in fact the period when the real foundations of the science of anthropology began to be laid, when system and a comparative method began to be embarked on. In the study of human origins and dispersal over the earth the study of language has been an important element One of the famous works was that on The Origin and Progress of Language, of 1773 and succeeding years, by the learned Scottish, lawyer Lord Mon-page 120boddo, and Monboddo was a great reader of Pacific voyages; but apart from that sort of fundamental grappling we find all sorts of people struck by words and making lists and—on the lunatic fringe—proving something about the ancient Irish or the Lost Ten Tribes and the Eskimos or the Tahitians. And in the Pacific, to take a single instance, we have Banks in the Endeavour much struck, and puzzled, by likenesses between Malagasy and Malayan and the Polynesian tongues, and speculating wildly for a moment about the 'Egyptian Learning'.24 Straightforward systematic ethnological observation, however, was the important thing, which we get in real abundance from both the English and the French, and this was a large part of the attraction the volumes of voyages had for the ordinary reader. Some points struck the voyagers in particular, of course, and struck their readers with a wide-eyed wonder—infanticide and the agreeable freedom of sexual relations in Tahiti, cannibalism in New Zealand, nudity in Australia—and got into the footnotes of a Gibbon or a Malthus; but these were the bits and pieces that made sensations as well as having real significance in their anthropological context. Of course our men were not trained in this line of observation: they could make their blunders of interpretation. The important thing is the mass of observation they brought back, from Polynesia, from Melanesia, from both sides of the northern Pacific. I imagine that all of this mass has not been utilised even yet. There were also the live specimens that were given a trip to civilisation, the Ahutoru of Bougainville, the Omai of Captain Furneaux, all the fashion, in their brief day, of Paris and of London; of some importance, in that day, as examples of the veritable, the unsophisticated, the 'noble' savage; of more importance, I think, in the march of romance than in that of science. And they had no tails. Tails would have added illimitably to their importance. In November 1772 Banks and Solander were in Edinburgh, and Boswell has an interesting entry in his journal. 'Went with Dr Solander and breakfasted with Monboddo, who listened with avidity to the Doctor's description of the New Hollanders, almost brutes—but added with eagerness, "Have they tails, Dr Solander?" "No, my Lord, they have not tails".'25

Now this is interesting, much more interesting to scientists, I presume, than the Noble Savage and the Romantic Movement, and it brings me to the second matter I wish to touch on so briefly. It carries us back to Maupertuis, and to the Letter on the Progress of the Sciences which he published in 1752, a very famous production, aimed, as he said, at fixing attention on some pieces of research useful to mankind, interesting to the learned world, and, in the then state of the sciences, within reach of successful investigation. Among these he discussed the problem of the southern continent and the promise of spice-bearing islands, the other geographical problem of a northern passage around America or Asia, the question whether there were giants in Patagonia, the question page 121 whether in the islands of the south sea would be discovered men covered with hair and with tails, mainly human but part ape. 'I should prefer an hour's conversation with those beings to one with the finest intellect of Europe', added Maupertuis. Voltaire, a malicious man, made Maupertuis a figure of fun all over Europe, and people were accustomed to laugh at Monboddo. Although he was not so witty as Voltaire, neither one nor the other was a fool, but on the contrary learned and acute. Maupertuis, as we have taken note, was a very considerable scientist indeed, and we may note further that it was this Letter that stimulated the geographical interest of the President de Brosses, and thus in due course of Bougainville. The geographical problems were plain enough. Why the interest in tails? The answer is at once simple and complex. We may leave the complexities, and remember that the latter part of the eighteenth century was the time when a great change in relation to the philosophy of science, indeed to man's philosophy of the universe, was becoming apparent. It was the time of the first real stirrings which grew into the tremendous upheaval of mind involved in the acceptance of the theory of evolution. Perhaps upheaval is too strong a word, except in the realm of theology, and the process seemed to many people quiet and natural enough, however interesting and even exciting. We have lived with the Darwinian theory of evolution for more than a hundred years now, but before Darwin was Lamarck, who was born in 1744, and Lamarck was a young contemporary of most of the thinkers I have mentioned already. He was born thirty years after Monboddo. Monboddo has been described as an early champion of the theory of evolution: I am not quite certain how really accurate this is; nevertheless he was deeply interested in the idea of progress. It was possible enough to conceive of progress exhibiting itself in the natural world, and that was an evolutionary conception. It was also a revolutionary conception, as revolutionary as the French Revolution, even more revolutionary than — shall we say? — the chronometer. Monboddo's quest for tails is comprehensible enough. He knew the orang-utan. He knew man. He thought the orang-utan was more man than ape—more a man who somehow by accident had missed the gift of speech, than an ape who had missed a tail. If there was a connection between the two, a chain, or progress, there ought to be some intermediate being, with both speech and a tail. That sort of being had been reported by earlier voyagers; but something more recent, more clearly authenticated, was needed—was indeed, passionately desiderated. It was a link missing in a chain. Hence Monboddo's eager question to Dr Solander, his eager reading of every South Sea voyage: 'we have reason to expect from those countries,' he wrote, 'in a short time, much greater and more certain discoveries, such as I hope will improve and enlarge the knowledge of our own species as much as the natural history of other animals, and of plants and minerals'.26

page 122

Links could be missing in a rather different sort of chain, and it was from the conception of this other sort of chain that the familiar phrase originally rose. It was the conception of the Great Chain of Being, or the Chain of Nature, a metaphysical concept which contained the concept of natural science, and stretched in its dominion of the intellect from Plato to the time of which I am speaking. It too had its natural history, and the birth of the evolutionary theory is the reinterpretation of the Chain of Being, the Chain of Nature, in terms of change for the better. The idea of the Chain of Nature is a static idea. Everything in the universe, according to this idea, was created at once, every thing exists at once; and everything, animate or inanimate, man, animals, plants, stones, is linked to everything else in an infinite logical series which shows not development, not progressive change, but difference. Take Linnaeus, the intellectual master of Solander and of Banks. 'If we consider the generation of Animals,' he says in his Reflections on the Study of Nature, 'we find that each produces an offspring after its own kind … and that from each proceeds a germ of the same nature with its parent; so that all living things, plants, animals, and even mankind themselves form one "chain of universal Being", from the beginning to the end of the world: in this sense truly may it be said, that there is nothing new under the sun.'27 Or you could say grades, or steps, rather than links, as long as you remembered that they were steps, and not things that stepped upwards. There were some links that seemed rather indeterminate, in relation to what were conventionally known as the different orders of creation—were the zoophytes plants or animals, for instance? Obviously, too, man with his imperfect vision had not seen all the links, and it was the grand task of science to discover the missing ones. Among animals the top visible link with man seemed to be the apes: was there something in between, or do you step straight from ape to Hottentot? But the Hottenot did not have a tail, however otherwise he seemed qualified. Marupertuis's interest is as intelligible as Monboddo's. This was the general background of our scientific voyagers, this was the general philosophy with which they dredged up jellyfish or pinned down butterflies or pressed their plants, or scrutinised a new set of islanders as their boats came in to land.

We do not have to go very far for an example, we can go straight to Banks—no profound thinker, no originator, but a man up with the scientific conventions of his age. I take two short extracts from Banks's journal of his voyage with Cook. In the first he is speaking of New Zealand:

The sea coast is also frequently visited by many Oceanick birds as Albatrosses, Shearwaters, Pintados & and has also a few of the birds called by Sr Jno Narborough Penguins, which are truly what the French call Nuance, between birds and fishes, as their feathers especially on their wings differ but page 123 little from Scales; and their wings themselves, which they use only in diving and by no means in attempting to fly or even accelerate their motion on the surface of the water (as young birds are observd to do), might thence almost properly calld fins.

Nuance: he is probably thinking of Buffon, the great systematizer, 'Nature goes always and works in everything by imperceptible degrees and by shades.'29 In the second he is exploring in his small boat inside the Great Barrier Reef, finding little in the way of edible provision: 'We had in the way of curiosity much better success, meeting with many curious fish and mollusca besides Corals of many species, all alive, among which was the Tubipora musica. I have often lamented that we had not time to make proper observations upon this curious tribe of animals but we were so intirely taken up with the more conspicuous links of the chain of creation as fish, Plants, Birds &c &c that it was impossible.'30

If that is not enough, we can jump fifty years forward, simply to see how continuous is doctrine, to the artist Augustus Earle, whose Narrative of a Residence in New Zealand of 1832 has lately been reprinted; and, be it noted, Earle sailed with Darwin in the Beagle. He was puzzled by 'the decided dissimilarity between the natives of New Holland and New Zealand', in countries so similar in situation and climate. 'But the natives of the former seem of the lowest grade—the last link in the great chain of existence which unites man with the monkey': and he gives an uncomplimentary account of their physique and their mind.31 The Hottentots, it seems, had been displaced. While the New Zealanders!—his panegyric is almost too excited. The age after Cook, plainly, brought no sudden illumination. Were we (if I may identify ourselves with our countries) in this southern hemisphere discovered by the Eighteenth Century? We were also discovered by the Middle Ages and by ancient Athens.

J. C. Beaglehole


1 A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Cambridge, 1926, p. 75.

2 E. J. Holmyard, in Johnson's England, Oxford, 1933, pp. 249, 252.

3 Whitehead, p. 78.

4 Quoted in J. C. Beaglehole, ed., The 'Endeavour' Journal of Joseph Banks.Sydney, 1962, I, 120.

5 In Journal of World History, X (1966), 107. His article, 'Savants et navigateurs: un aspect de la coopération internationale entre 1750 et 1840', pp. 98, ff., is an extremely interesting one.

6 This is the translation quoted by R. T. Gould, Captain Cook, London, 1935, p. 27, of the Latin of Halley's 'Methodus singularis qua Solis Parallaxis sive distantia a Terra, ope Veneris intra Solem conspieiendae, tuto determinari poterit', Philosophical Transactions, XXIX (1716), 460.

7 J. C. Beaglehole, ed., Journals of Captain Cook, Cambridge, 1955, I, 97-8.

8 Systema Entomologiae,, Leipzig, 1775.

9 A Catalogue and Historical Account of the Banks Shell Collection, British Museum (Natural History) Bulletin, Hist. Series I, 3, London, 1955.

10 Some Eighteenth Century Bird Paintings in the Library of Sir Joseph Banks, B.M. (N.H.) Bulletin, Hist. Series, I, 6, London, 1959.

11 James BrittenIllustrations of the Botany of Captain Cook's Voyage round the World, 3 vols., London, 1900-05.

12 A. Grenfell Price, 'Captain James Cook's Discovery of the Antarctic Continent', Geographical Review, LI (1961), 575-7.

13 Journals, 1967, III, 425.

14 Journals, I, cxliii.

15 Journals, 1961, II, 721.

16 ibid., p. 940.

17 ibid., p. 79

18 Journals, III, 1499.

19 Journals, II, cxii.

20 ibid., pp. 563, 511, n.3.

21 Journals, I, 392

22 Journals, II, 913

23 Zimmermann's Account of the Third Voyage of Captain Cook, trans. U. Tewsley, Wellington, 1926, p.48.

24 'Endeavour' Journal, II, 241.

25 Boswell for the Defence, ed. William K. Wimsatt & Frederick A. Pottle London, 1960, p. 146.

26 Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific, 1768-1850, Oxford, 1960, p. 172.

27 Smith, pp. 123-4.

28 'Endeavour' Journal, II, 5-6.

29 In ch. XI of the Histoire Naturelle, II, 1749.

30 'Endeavour' Journal, II, 108.

31 Earle, Narrative, ed. E. H. McCormick, Oxford, 1966, p. 187