Birds of passage : British seagoing naturalists and the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century

Wilkins, Ian Keith (2004). Birds of passage : British seagoing naturalists and the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century PhD Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, The University of Queensland.

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Author Wilkins, Ian Keith
Thesis Title Birds of passage : British seagoing naturalists and the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2004
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Dr Marion Diamon
Dr Paul Crook
Dr Simon Devereaux
Total pages 348
Collection year 2004
Language eng
Subjects L
430107 History - British
780199 Other
Formatted abstract
This thesis focuses on British Seagoing Naturalists in Royal Navy ships in the years 1815 to 1890. During this period the carrying of naturalists aboard Royal Navy vessels was a common occurrence. Though most of these naturalists are not famous today, their work was an important component in the British examination of far places and was a chief part of the British institutionalisation of the investigative discovery voyage in the nineteenth century.

The ship's that carried the naturalists were mostly engaged in hydrographic surveying work - charting coastlines with the aim of facilitating safe navigation. This was at the time of the 'Pax Britannica' - a time of relative peace and growing prosperity. The Royal Navy, freed from the requirements of large-scale warfare undertook new roles: anti-piracy, anti-slavery, and hydrographic surveying. The Royal Navy's size, far-flung interests, and amenability to scientific endeavour saw it become the ideal mechanism with which to gather scientific information from all comers of the globe.

Meanwhile, the natural sciences had developed rapidly. The formulation of workable systems of taxonomic classification during the mid eighteenth century stimulated the large-scale collection of plant and animal specimens from the farthest comers of the world. European scientists realised that there were far more species than they had ever thought possible. In the face of this vast evidence of the bounty of life, finding explanations for the distribution and creation of species became one of the most important scientific questions. While this was taking place, the increasing sophistication in the natural sciences altered the position of naturalists within the scientific milieu. As the seagoing naturalists toiled away through the century collecting, preserving, packaging and dispatching specimens, their position in the scientific hierarchy was steadily eroded. This occurred even as their work materially contributed to the development and strengthening of ever more advanced theories of how life on earth came to be what it is.

A periodised model has been formulated to illustrate the Royal Navy/natural history connection. These periods are: an early period (1815-1830), a middle period (1830- 1860) and a late period (1860-1890). This has been done to bring out the significant and subtle differences experienced by naturalists working from ships at different times in the century.

The Early Period was characterised by strong links with the voyages of the eighteenth century, the after effects of the Napoleonic wars, the beginnings of the "Pax Britannica", increasing energy on the part of the fledgling Hydrographic Office, and a continuing lack of detailed knowledge of many parts of the globe caused by the break in the process of exploration and investigation caused by war.

The Middle Period was a time of intense activity with large numbers of investigative voyages taking place in all oceans of the world. Still at this time, however, there remained large tracts of coastline that were still largely unknown to European navigators. This period saw an increase in the interest of the Hydrographic Office in science and in the accommodation of naturalists aboard Navy surveying ships. Technological advancements began to change the way the seagoing naturalists accessed the remote areas of the globe. Naturalists' voyages that took place around the coast of Australia are the particular focus of this chapter.

In the Late Period the world the seagoing naturalists inhabited had changed greatly. By now the world's coastlines had all but been laid down in detail and colonisation and imperialism had stimulated much development in the countries that the naturalists visited. Rail networks, advanced port facilities, and local scientific traditions based on the western model awaited naturalists in many of their ports of call. Meanwhile, the Navy had become a more educated service and officers other than the ships' doctors were attracted to making systematic researches into natural history in their spare time.

The final section of the thesis is concerned with the seagoing naturalist and the surveying voyage's part in the extension of the British empire. Here the activities of H.M.S Samarang in the South China Sea in the early 1840s is used as an example. The actions of Samarang's commanding officer, Edward Belcher, and the writings of the Ship's naturalists Arthur Adams show that the surveying voyage could have direct and indirect imperialistic effects. Similarly, the naturalist himself could display an imperial consciousness within his attitudes to plants and animals and within the written account of his voyage.

The thesis argues that a connection between the Royal Navy and natural history, which had been started in the eighteenth century, was extended and deepened during the nineteenth. This was the result of many factors, but most importantly: the British institutionalisation of the discovery voyage through the work of the Hydrographic Office: the long period of peace after the Napoleonic War: the availability of advanced taxonomic systems; a high level of interest in natural history; and the breadth and power of the British empire. This Royal Navy/natural history connection manifested itself in the frequent presence of naturalists aboard Royal Navy ships in the nineteenth century.
Keyword Naturalists -- Great Britain -- 19th century -- Travel
Great Britain. Royal Navy -- History -- 19th century
Additional Notes Variant title: Birds of passage

Document type: Thesis
Collection: UQ Theses (RHD) - UQ staff and students only
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Created: Fri, 24 Aug 2007, 18:25:05 EST