Monday, 14 November 2016

Georgian travellers: 2. Outside Europe

For this post I am indebted to Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder. How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Harper, 2009), Patrick O'Brian, Joseph Banks: A Life (Collins, 1988); the entries on James Cook, Joseph Banks, and Mungo Park in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Block 3, 'Religion, Exploration and Slavery', from the Open University Unit, A207, Enlightenment to Romanticism, and Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior of Africa (Wordsworth Classics, 2002)

From the sixteenth century Europeans had been exploring lands beyond Europe. This exploration began as a competitive search for markets and trade routes, but it was also inspired by the wish to survey the new territories more accurately and by simple intellectual curiosity. 

James Cook: navigator

'Captain James Cook', by Nathaniel Dance
National Maritime Museum
Public Domain

The career of James Cook (1728-79) shows how a young man of humble origins (he was the son of a Yorkshire farm foreman) could rise to a position of distinction through a career in the navy. (You can read an outline of his career on the National Maritime Museum site.) He learned seamanship and navigation in the North Sea coal trade. In 1755 he enlisted in the Royal Navy as an able seaman. He passed the examination for master and during the Seven Years War he was in North America, involved in hydrographic surveying. During the winter of 1758-9 he complied a chart of the Gulf of St Lawrence and the St Lawrence River, and it was the work of Cook and his fellow-surveyors that enabled the British fleet to pass safely through the river and attack Quebec

With the British recapture of Newfoundland in 1762 Cook carried out a number of surveys of the island. His captain was so impressed by the accuracy of his work that he informed the Admiralty 
‘that from my Experience of Mr Cook’s Genius and Capacity, I think him well qualified for the Work he has performed, and for greater Undertakings of the same kind’. Quoted Andrew C. F. David, ‘Cook, James (1728–1779)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 
With the ending of the war in 1763, Cook was back in Newfoundland, and the next four years were spent in surveying. 

Cook's map of Newfoundland
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies,
Memorial University of Newfoundland,
St. John's, Newfoundland.
Public Domain

One of the difficulties Cook initially faced in his surveying was his inability to observe for longitude, though the problem was partially solved by computations deducted from the observation of an eclipse of the sun on 5 August 1766.

The transit of Venus and the voyage of the Endeavour, 1768-71

Cook returned to England in 1767. On 25 May 1768 he was appointed commander of the Endeavour and appointed to head an expedition to Tahiti (whose longitude had just been observed astronomically) to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. This would enable the distance between the earth and the sun to be calculated and help the calculations of longitude. The expedition was organised by the Admiralty, but also partly financed by the Royal Society, which supplied £4,000 towards astronomical observations. Accompanying Cook was the astronomer Charles Green, appointed by the Royal Society, and the amateur botanist, Joseph Banks (1743-1820).

Unlike Cook, Banks was born into the elite, the son of a landed gentleman, and educated at Harrow, Eton, and Oxford. In 1766 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries. He corresponded with the Swedish naturalist, Carl LinnaeusHe was therefore already a serious naturalist rather than a gentleman dilettante. The Endeavour voyage was to turn him into an internationally respected figure.

After a six-weeks’ voyage, the Endeavour anchored off Matavai Bay, Tahiti, on 13 April 1769. Cook’s crew were the third set of Europeans to arrive on the island. Lieutenant Samuel Wallis had landed there in 1767, and the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in 1768. On 3 June Cook observed the transit and named their settlement Fort Venus. 

Fort Venus on the Island of Tahiti
British Library
Public Domain

While he was viewing the heavens, Banks found himself charmed (to put it mildly!) with the Polynesian women. 

'In the Island of Otaheite where Love is the Chief Occupation, the favourite, nay almost the Sole Luxury of the inhabitants; both the bodies and souls of the women are moulded into the utmost perfection…' Quoted O'Brian, Joseph Banks, p. 91

 His verdict on Tahiti was of an earthly paradise: 
‘Thus life these – I had almost said happy – people, content with little, nay almost nothing. Far enough removed from the anxieties attending upon riches, or even possessions of what we Europeans call common necessities.… From them appear how small are the real wants of human nature, which we Europeans have increased to an excess which would certainly appear incredible to these people could they be told it.’ Quoted Holmes, Age of Wonders, p. 39

After three months on Tahiti, in accordance with sealed Admiralty orders, Cook sailed due south to search for a possible ‘great Southern continent’, believed to lie between latitudes 30 and 40 degrees south. On 6 October he sighted the east coast of New Zealand, which had already been seen by the Dutch seaman Abel Tasman in 1642. He spent the next six months surveying the north and south islands and was able to determine his longitude with considerable accuracy using measurements of lunar distances. In May 1770 they anchored off the coast of ‘New Holland’ (Australia) in the place Banks named Botany Bay because of the profusion of its vegetation, and on 29 May they narrowly escaped being shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. While the Endeavour was being repaired, Banks compiled for his journal a record of the customs and language of the aboriginal people. 

Before his final departure Cook took possession of the east coast of Australia in the name of George III, naming it New South Wales.

The voyage home was marred by an outbreak of fever at Jakarta. They landed at Deal on 12 June 1771 and Banks became an instant celebrity. Though less sought-after by society, Cook was promoted to commander.

Joseph Banks, painted on his return by
Sir Joshua Reynolds
National Portrait Gallery.
Public Domain


In October 1774 a young Tahitian arrived in London from the British ship, HMS Adventure. His name was Omai and he had met Cook in Tahiti in 1769. He was taken up by Joseph Banks, introduced into British society, and painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Banks presented him to George III at Kew. He was made welcome as an exotic specimen, but when he returned to Tahiti in 1777 he found it difficult to reintegrate into his society.

'Omai', by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Public Domain

The first voyage of the Resolution, 1772-1775

Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas was undertaken in two vessels, the Resolution and the Adventure. The purpose was to continue the search for the ‘great Southern continent’ and to test a copy of John Harrison’s chronometer. Banks had enthusiastically supported this expedition, but his quarrel with the Earl of Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, forced him to withdraw. (However, this did nothing to undermine his celebrity. In 1778 he was elected president of the Royal Society and he was made a baronet in 1781 and a privy counsellor in 1797.)

'Resolution and Adventure with fishing craft
in Matavai Bay, Tahiti',
William Hodges (1776)
National Maritime Museum. Public Domain

On 17 January 1773 Cook became the first person to cross the Antarctic circle. He reached South Island, New Zealand, in March. In December he crossed the Antarctic circle again and did so a third time on 26 January 1774. He never reached the land mass of Antarctica, but he had shown that the great Southern continent did not exist. In November he set off on the long journey home and rediscovered South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in January 1775. He anchored in Spithead on 30 July. In March 1776 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society

The second voyage of the Resolution and the death of Cook, 1776-79

Early in 1776 Cook came out of retirement to command a further expedition, this time to discover the North West passageThere were to be two ships, the Resolution and the newly-purchased Discovery.  Between March and September 1778 he surveyed the western coast of North America with such detail and accuracy that his successors were unable to make any major discoveries. During this cruise he became the first European to enter Nootka Sound on the north-west coast of Vancouver Island, where he remained for a month. He then explored the coast up to the Bering Strait until he was blocked by sea ice. His furthest north was 70 degrees 44 minutes.

With the approach of winter, he sailed for the Hawaiian Islands which he had named the Sandwich Islands after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. He anchored on Hawaii on 17 January 1779. While the Discovery’s foremast was being repaired, it was discovered that the ship’s cutter was missing, having been stolen by one of the islanders. On the morning of 14 February Cook landed with an escort of marines to persuade the local chief to come with them on board where they intended to hold him hostage until the cutter was returned. However, at the landing place they were met by a hostile crowd. The Europeans were attacked and Cook and four of the marines were knifed to death. Their bodies were cut up, the flesh was scraped from the bones and ritually burned, and the bones were distributed among the various chiefs. According to their custom, they were honouring the man they had killed. Some of the remains were later returned and were buried at sea. The expedition finally reached home in October 1780.

John Webber, 'The Death of Captain Cook'
Public Domain

Mungo Park: African traveller

Mungo Park (1771-1806) was born near Selkirk on the Scottish borders, the son of a tenant farmer.  At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a surgeon, but he went on to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He completed his education in 1792, but did not graduate, possibly because he could not afford the fee for the oral examination. Instead he gained a professional qualification from the Company of Surgeons in London.  Through his brother-in-law, he became connected with the Linnean Society and came to know its founder, Sir Joseph Banks. It was through Banks’s patronage that he obtained his first post as an assistant ship’s surgeon and sailed to Sumatra. 

Mungo Park
Public Domain

He returned to England in 1794 and was appointed by the African Association (of which Banks was a member) to journey ‘from the Gambia the Interior Countries of Africa’. He was to explore this territory and to report back on its potential for trade and ‘civilisation’. He was also charged with finding the legendary city of Timbuktu and locating the source of the River Niger. 

Park was travelling in an area then known as the Senegambia, which had been made a crown colony in 1764.  It lay across an ethnic and cultural fault line between a quasi-nomadic desert fringe people (described by Park as ‘Moors’) and Africans, and between Muslims and pagans. It was also an area where slaves were captured and taken in coffles to the coast to be traded with the Europeans.

Park's first expedition

He set off in May 1795 and reached the Gambia River in June. Following the river for two hundred miles, he reached the British trading station of Pisania. He stayed there for five months at the house of a local slave-dealer, Dr John Laidley, where he learned Mandinka and recovered from fever.  In December, accompanied by two local guides, he began his journey eastwards into the interior.

At Benown he was taken prisoner by the Moorish king, Ali and held for three months.  His account of the Moors was (understandably?) extremely hostile and contrasted with his much more favourable account of the ‘Negroes’: 
‘the gentleness of their manners presented a striking contrast with the rudeness and barbarity of the Moors’. (Travels, p. 108)
 In witnessing an incident in which a travelling blacksmith was reunited with his blind old mother he 
‘was fully convinced that whatever the difference there is between the Negro and the European in the conformation of the nose and the colour of the skin, there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature’. (Travels, p. 74) 

There are several places in his Travels where Park pays tribute to the Africans and in particular to the women who gave him shelter when he was hungry. (Travels, 182)

The culmination of is journey was the sight of the Niger at the town of Segu.  He was the first European since antiquity, and perhaps ever, to locate the middle potion of the river. 

‘Then at last, I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission; the long sought for majestic Niger, glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward’. (Travels, 178-9) 
The town itself surprised him. 
‘The view of this extensive city, the numerous canoes upon the river, the crowded population and the cultivated state of the surrounding county, formed altogether a prospect of civilisation and magnificence which I little expected to find in the bosom of Africa.’ (Travels, 180) 
But he was too ill to continue much longer on his travels. At Kamalia he found a Muslim slave-trader, Karfa Taura, who agreed to look after him and return him to the Gambia.  (Travels, 234 ff) He remained there for seven months, recovering his health. 

Park at Kamalia (bottom right) where he recuperated
before beginning his journey back to the coast.

On his return journey he accompanied Karfa’s slave coffle. In June 1799 he reached Pisania and embarked for home on an American slave ship. 

Park and the slave trade

His Travels, published later in the year, was an immediate best-seller, and was used by both sides in the debate on the abolition of the slave trade. On the one hand, he showed that Africans were not an alien species but fellow-humans. On the other, he believed that 

‘If my sentiments should be required concerning the effect which a discontinuation of that commerce would produce on the manners of the natives, I should have no hesitation in observing that, in the present unenlightened state of their minds, he effect would neither be so extensive or beneficial as many wise and worthy persons fondly expect.’ Travels, 290.

Park's second expedition and death

In 1805 he set off on his second expedition to the Gambia with a large party, many of whom died on the journey. Early in the new year (1806) they reached Yelwa in the Hausa country (modern Nigeria), not realising that they were only 500 miles from the mouth of the Niger. At Bussa, where they were slowed by rapids, they were apparently attacked from the shore. They retaliated, and in the subsequent conflict Park and the accompanying soldiers perished, probably by drowning. The details of the deaths of Park and his companions have never been resolved.


  1. The eighteenth century is a great age of exploration, inspired by intellectual curiosity and the search for new markets. Travellers published best-selling accounts of their explorations.
  2. James Cook was a navigator turned explorer. He was the first European to sail south of the Antarctic circle and to navigate Nootka Sound.
  3. Joseph Banks was a botanist, an ethnographer and a tireless networker.
  4. Mungo Park was also interested in botany and ethnography. He was the first European to sight the middle Niger River. His Travels contributed to the debate on the abolition of the slave trade. 

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