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Naturalists at Sea

From Dampier to Darwin by Glyn Williams

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For centuries after Columbus, the flora and fauna of the New World remained a mystery to Europeans. But in the 1600s and 1700s, explorers began to visit and describe what were then considered remote corners of the Earth. Williams brings to life these naturalists who preceded Charles Darwin.

While others on the ships mapped the blank spots on their charts, the naturalists scrambled onshore and combed the waters to catalog all that lived.

The book meanders much as they did. Williams, a historian, starts with self-taught English­man William Dampier, who hopped a ship to Java at age 20 to begin a 13-year trip around the world. Dampier’s notes and drawings awoke European scientists in the late 1600s to species in Australia and many other exotic locales.

In 1767, French naturalist Philibert de Commerson set out on a six-year tour that took him to South America, Java and Madagascar. He shipped home 34 cases of plants, seeds, fish and drawings — some 3,000 species new to Europeans. James Cook’s first Pacific voyage collected such a flood of species that the naturalists on board ran out of storage and began pressing plants between the pages of Milton’s Paradise Lost. After Cook had mapped New Zealand and part of Australia, the retinue returned home with reports of an unknown people, Aborigines, and one of their words: kangaroo.

The book’s details are the best part. We learn that Dampier was in reality a buccaneer who raided Spanish ships and cataloged plants and animals on the side. Commerson’s ship took two months just to get through the Straits of Magellan. And Commerson’s assistant Jean Baret was revealed, after having crossed the South Pacific with the crew, to be a woman, Jeanne Baret. After Commerson died in 1773 on Mauritius, Baret married and sailed back to France, becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Many of these naturalists never gained recognition while alive. Some of German scholar Georg Wilhelm Steller’s notes survived, but he died in Siberia. The Bering Strait, named for his ship captain, is better known than tiny Steller’s Island. Alejandro Malaspina, whose ships sent 16,000 plant specimens to Spain, ended up in prison. Upon his release, he had to sell the sextant that had guided him around the Pacific.

It’s quite a journey. While these naturalists exist in Darwin’s shadow today, their work lives on through their writings and their specimens, seminal contributions to the unveiling of a new world.

Yale Univ., $29.95

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