Between the 17th and 19th centuries, English, French, Spanish, Dutch and even Russian naval vessels ventured into what was then the uncharted waters of the Pacific Ocean looking for peoples and commodities to exploit. Shortly after these expeditions began, naturalists, or “experimental gentlemen” in the language of the day, accompanied these voyages to collect, catalogue and preserve whatever they found.
With Naturalists At Sea, English historian Glyn WIlliams takes readers on an entertaining voyage with men (and one or two women disguised as men) who lived and died in the interests of furthering our knowledge of the natural world. We meet William Dampier, one of the very first experimental gentlemen, who hitched rides with pirates across the Caribbean and East Indies. While his bucaneering patrons were out raiding and pillaging, Dampier headed off into the jungle collecting hitherto unknown plant and animal species. Upon his return to England in 1691, Dampier’s multi-volume account of his adventures was an immediate best-seller and fired the imaginations of subsequent voyagers.
Shipwrecked during an ill-fated Russian voyage across the North Pacific in 1740, German scientist Georg Stellar tried to persuade his ship’s company to avoid scurvy by eating fresh fruits and vegetables. The crew spurned his pleas and most of them died, including the ship’s captain, Vtius Bering, who asked to be buried alive on a frozen Siberian beach so that he would no longer suffer from the intense cold.
More successful were the three voyages of Captain James Cook and the host of naturalists who accompanied him between 1766 and 1799. Living in cramped conditions with hundreds of unwashed men aboard vermin-infested ships must have tried the patience of even the most even-tempered of men. Yet even Cook, upon preparing to set sail on his final voyage, was heard to complain: “Curse scientists and all science into the bargain.”
In Naturalists At Sea, Glyn Williams brings to life the harrowing adventures of these brave and curious scientists. And I couldn’t help but enjoy their stories even more from the plushy comfort of my couch, a mug of tea steaming on the table next to me.
You can reserve Naturalists At Sea here.