Society for the History of Discoveries


Science, Empire and the European Exploration of the Pacific: The Pacific World, Lands, Peoples and History of the Pacific, 1500-1900, Volume 6. Edited by Tony Ballantyne. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004

This is the sixth in the impressive seventeen-volume collection called The Pacific World. As its title suggests, this book deals with the European exploration of the Pacific during the period when science and empire-building worked hand in hand, that is, from the 1500s through the 1800s. Tony Ballantyne’s comprehensive introduction not only places the subject in time and space, but also in the light of the literature about the earth’s largest oceanic region. Ballantyne astutely notes that the understanding of the Pacific differed from understanding places like Africa and India because the Pacific “was not so heavily encrusted by long-established [i.e., classical and Biblical] forms of representation.” (p.xvi) 

This volume consists of seventeen separate chapters, each previously published elsewhere as journal articles — including a few in SHD’s own Terrae Incognitae. The selected essays fit into three major parts or sections: (1) Visions of the Pacific, (2) The Imperial Sciences of Exploration, and (3) Cultural Contact, Comparison and Classification. Given the amount of detail in these seventeen essays, I shall briefly summarize each. Appropriately, O. K. Spate’s essay “‘South Sea’ to ‘Pacific Ocean’’’ shows the close connection between exploration, place naming, and mapping. As Spate convincingly demonstrates by consulting both maps and literature, although the change in name from Mar del Sur (and other similar names) to Pacific Ocean occurred in 1520, the former name persisted for about two centuries before yielding. In his essay, W. A. R. Richardson interprets the origin and persistence of Terra Australis Incognita, a mythical southern continent that, while Ptolemaic in origin, perpetuated by Marco Polo, and appeared on maps into the late seventeenth century, disappears only after James Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific in the 1770s proved it to be non-existent. In “Shared Vision: Herman Moll and His Circle and the Great South Sea,” Dennis Reinhartz discusses the relationship between cartography literature and colonial ambition during the time leading up to the bursting of the Great South Sea Bubble in 1720. In “Finding the Way Home: Spanish Exploration of the Round-Trip Route Across the Pacific Ocean,” Harry Kelsey next discusses the Pacific in relation to circumnavigation following Magellan’s landmark voyage. He also notes Spain’s colonial interests in the various Pacific islands. Northern European interests in the Pacific during a somewhat later period are discussed by J. C. Beaglehole in “Eighteenth-Century Sciences and the Voyages of Discovery. In this chapter, the voyages of Cook and Banks are covered in some detail, and all activities are nicely placed in the context of scientific discoveries.

William T. Stearn covers a unique confluence of astronomical and terrestrial exploration in his chapter titled “A Royal Society Appointment with Venus in 1769: The Voyage of Cook and Banks in the Endeavour in 1768-1771 and its Botanical Results.” Stearn’s chapter very effectively places the celestial and botanical findings of Cook and Banks in the context of eighteenth-century science and natural history. Especially eye-opening is Richard Sorrenson’s chapter on “The Ship as a Scientific Instrument in the Eighteenth Century.” Noting that ships were sometimes even named after scientific instruments (for example, L’Astrolabe [the astrolabe] or La Boussole [the magnetic compass]), Sorrenson concludes that ships provided more than simple transportation. In his words, “…they mediated the complex interplay between representation and reality that lies at the heart of eighteenth-century geography.” (p. 138) David MacKay’s fascinating essay entitled “Banks, Bligh and Breadfruit” sheds considerable light on the process of exploration in relation to the logistics of maritime exploration, tropical plant collecting and the establishment of botanic gardens. Barbara G. Beddall’s short essay on “Scientific Books and Instruments for an Eighteenth-Century Voyage Around the World: Antonio Pineda and the Malaspina Expedition” offers a brief synopsis of that scientific reconnaissance around South America to Asia, followed by an account of the scientific materials aboard the Descubierta and the Atrevida; especially revealing in Beddall’s translation of a letter from Lima (now in Yale’s Beinecke Library) that offers remarkable detail about the expedition’s findings in 1790.

In “Of Fish and men” Spanish Marine Science During the Late Eighteenth Century,” Iris H. Wilson Engstrand focuses on the accomplishments of the Malaspina Expedition’s naturalists Takeo Hence, Antonio Pineda, and José Mariano Moziño, whose fine work was overshadowed by the political intrigue that placed Malaspina behind bars, and relegated the expedition’s scientific work to obscurity. Alexei V. Postnikov’s article “The Search for a Sea Passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific via North America’s Coast: On the History of a Scientific Competition” reveals, through significant maps from the period ca. 1740-1830, the international drama associated with exploration.

A revealing look at the European’s interaction with the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific is provided by David Turnbull in “(En)-Countering Knowledge Traditions: The Story of Cook and Tupaia,” who was a high priest and highly skilled in navigation. With the landmark publication of Histoire des navigations aux terres australes by Charles de Brosses in 1756, European voyages to the southern hemisphere became a subject of popular interest. This is discussed in Tom Ryan’s informative essay “‘Le Président des Terres Australes’: Charles de Brosses and the French Enlightenment Beginnings of Oceanic Anthropology.” 

The impact of Pacific exploration upon European culture is the subject of Glyndwr Williams’ essay “Seamen and Philosophers in the South Seas in the Age of Captain Cook.” The essay “Melanesians and Polynesians: Ethnic Typifications Inside and Outside Anthropology,” in which Nicholas Thomas “aims to illustrate the proportion of continuity and discontinuity in the values that each term possessed” (p. 298) offers a fascinating look at how race was constructed by Europeans in the South Pacific. Tony Ballantyne’s essay on “The ‘Oriental Renaissance’ in the Pacific: Orientalism, Language and Ethnogenesis in the British Pacific” offers insights on “a crucial, often overlooked, thread in the intellectual life of the Australasian colonies” revealing that “British Orientalism profoundly shaped the intellectual culture of nineteenth century New Zealand and that it was particularly prominent in debates over the origins and identity of Maori.” (p. 321) Lastly, Jonathan Lamp’s “Minute Particulars and the Representation of South Pacific Discovery” epitomizes the philosophical inquiry into the way narratives shape the experience of exploration in this area in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

As suggested by this synopsis, Science, Empire and the European Exploration of the Pacific offers varied and welcome approaches that not only inform about the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands, but also the impact of exploration on the cultural psyche. I highly recommend this book to those wishing to know more about both of this oceanic and intellectual frontier.

Richard V. Francaviglia 
The University of Texas at Arlington


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