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Tuatara: Volume 32, April 1993

The French Voyages and the Philosophical Background — Abstract

The French Voyages and the Philosophical Background


The background to the early French and other voyages of exploration was the intense interest in Europe in the expansion of knowledge in a scientific sense during the “Age of Enlightenment”. This applied particularly to the little known Pacific Ocean, both in terms of natural history and also as a means of testing out the concept of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others of the “Noble Savage” uncorrupted by civilisation.

Let me state at the outset that the term “philosophical” is to be used in this talk in its appropriate eighteenth century context, at a time and place when a philosopher was first and foremost a lover of knowledge, committed, as the full title of the Royal Society so aptly put it, to the improvement of knowledge in every field. The philosopher was not a specialist, but still Plato's synoptic man who took a comprehensive view of the universe and consequently a researcher to whom no field of enquiry was closed.

The most striking aspect of eighteenth century research is the appearance of encyclopaedic works of all kinds. It was as though the man — and the woman — of the Age of Enlightenment had said “Let us first gather all that we know, all that we believe, all that we suspect, so that we may then go on to discover what lies beyond the clearly defined frontiers of knowledge”.

And so the eighteenth century opens with Pierre Bayle's great Dictionnaire historique et critique, over 3000 pages long, while in England John Harris publishes his Lexicon technicum; in Italy Coronelli struggles with his Biblioteca universale, although after seven volumes he had only reached the letter C; in Germany Hübner supervises the writing of the Reales Staats Zeitungs und Conversations Lexicon and Zedler gets to work on the massive Grosses vollstandiges Universal Lexicon.

But it was in France that an encyclopaedia became a manifesto of the philosophical movement as well as a massive compendium of human knowledge. It had been conceived originally as a straightforward translation of Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopaedia, published in two volumes, of 1728. It became a 21 volume collection of articles and essays by the leading writers and philosophers of the day: Voltaire, Diderot above all, D'Alembert, Montesquieu, Holbach, Turgot and many others. Its importance can be judged by the fact that it was banned as injurious to the king's authority and to the safety of the state. Its value can be assessed by the fact that the king and his court used it as a source of information.

More specialised encyclopaedias were also being written, which often were more than works of reference: in keeping with the enquiring and above all challenging spirit of the time, they were also calls to action.

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The driving force behind many of these compilations was a desire for knowledge which made itself felt outside the world of science. It spread into and through the educated middle class and, in France particularly, reflected a trend away from the literary salons and the fashionable passion for writing poetry, letters and plays which had turned the seventeenth century into the great age of European classicism. A fascination for a knowledge of nature and the physical world, soon transformed into a devotion to scientific enquiry, was combined with a critical examination of society.

Social analysis, eventually associated with a re-assessment of political and religious structures and of how they fitted into broader philosophical concepts, was brought about by the rigidity of French society and the resulting weakness of the French social system, but it also encompassed comparative analyses of institutions outside France. The political systems of England, Austria, Russian and the German states, were examined and envied or rejected, while correspondents throughout Europe added their contribution to the ferment of analysis. Curiosity spread beyond the boundaries of European society. China and some other eastern countries were known, very imperfectly, for their products and their art, and their despotic forms of government; the Near East held a lesser fascination while what was known of the African continent was unappealing; but North and South America had produced a rich harvest for students of natural history. There could not be boundaries to a world which had so much to reveal to an age bent on unveiling and analysing all that Man and Nature had to offer in such overwhelming diversity. The philosophes were driven by an Aristotelian desire for completeness, for a grasp of the entire panorama of human knowledge and of the physical world.

This curiosity, this thirst for new discovery and to some extent for sheer novelty and the exotic, lay behind many of the activities and the reactions of those who entered the Pacific during the second half of the eighteenth century. They certainly formed part of the mental make-up of the readers who, in large numbers, seized enthusiastically upon the accounts of Pacific voyages and eagerly discussed what was reported about an ocean and places that were both fascinating and frightening.

Expectations and responses depended on this European vision of the Pacific. It was a part of the world whose immensity was appreciated, now that the miscalculations of sixteenth-century Spanish navigators had been swept aside.

It was a blank space on the world charts that was still cluttered with imaginary islands, mysterious nations, fabulous animals left over from the imaginings of earlier cartographers. With enthusiasm and expectancy, the eighteenth century appeared to clear up this now accessible but still only vaguely perceived region of the globe. Exploration and scientific observation would as the philosophes expected, “improve human knowledge,” They would also offer possibilities for trade and for the consolidation of imperialist aspirations — but those are other matters best, at this juncture, overlooked.

In keeping with the approach of the savants, the first step was an encyclopaedic compilation, a broad but complete survey which would also show what needed now to be done.

The most influential such work is Charles de Brosses' Histoire des navigations aux terres australes of 1756. It was a historical survey of what had been achieved in the southern seas and the Pacific and, probably more important, what remained to be done.

It was not a compilation for its own sake, as was the Abbé Prevost's Histoire générale des voyages which also appeared, in many volumes, in the 1750s, itself inspired by John Greens A General Collection of Voyages, and Travels of 1746, but a systematic analysis of Pacific exploration encased between a lengthy essay on the page 59 value of geographical discoveries and a detailed proposal for a voyage. Like the Royal Society in England, the French philosophes were eager to promote actual exploration.

De Brosses' background is of interest because, although he belonged to the philosophe movement, he was not a parisian, but a resident of Dijon in Burgundy. His work and his subsequent influence were in no way lessened by his provincial background. Indeed, he provides evidence of the movement being not exclusively centred on Paris, but being active throughout France and throughout Europe.

He was a typical man of the Enlightenment, wide ranging in his interests and tireless in his studies. He had already written on Roman history, on archeology and on the origins of the languages. When Pierre de Maupertuis' open letter to King Frederick of Prussia, On the Progress of the Sciences was read at the Dijon academy in 1752, De Brosses had expanded his views on the importance of exploration to the advancement of science in a Memoir which he presented to the academy. This led the great naturalist, Buffon who was a patron of the Dijon academy and the author of the great multi-volume Histoire naturelle, to suggest to De Brosses that he expand his memoir into a full volume (eventually there were two), and to underline the likelihood that voyages of exploration would result in the discovery of new plants and new animals.

Voltaire who had poured scorn on Maupertuis' admittedly superficial Letter recognised the thoroughness of de Brosses' work and was, so far as he could be, sympathetic. Voltaire's indifference towards overseas territories — he had dismissed Canada as “a few acres of snow” scarcely worth fighting over — reflected a deep division of views among the philosophes over social progress and the real benefits of civilisation.

For scientists, knowledge and discovery were goals to be pursued without the need for philosophical justification. The world was there to be discovered, its secrets waiting to be revealed. The good that would result depended, not on what was discovered, but on the use which man made of it.

Others — and they were numerous — who speculated on the evolution of social and legal systems — were less definite. Laws seemed to exist to protect property rather than the individual, the status quo rather than innovation. And as society became more complex, man became less free, more exploited, less happy. Montesquieu's L'Esprit des lois went back to the origins of laws to discover what principles guided their emergence and their evolution. But Jean-Jacques Rousseau went further and studied the rise of modern societies through the various stages traversed by man: the hunter-fisherman, the nomadic shepherd, the farmer, the city dweller, the citizen and, on a personal level, the head of the family, the leader of the clan, the feudal lord, the absolutist ruler.

Viewed from the standpoint of the French political and legal system which had become rigid, ineffectual and corrupt, earlier societies, especially small pastoral or agricultural social units, aroused a nostalgia which gave rise to the simplistic myth of the Noble Savage. Civilisation seemed to have corrupted man, oppressed him, entangled him in a web of clumsy laws. The ownership of property, the accumulation of personal wealth were to a large extent the causes of this corruption.

Why therefore travel to distant seas to bring the chains of civilisation to simple people who, noble savages living in isolation, were undoubtedly happier than the civilised poor of Europe?

Reverse the proposition and you get the scientist's eagerness to test a theory, for if on faraway islands there could be found some unspoilt savages, the theory would have been proved right. Some aspects of their behaviour could be identified and copied in order to reform European civilisation. And as a by-product, newly discovered plants and animals could be brought back to Europe and used for the page 60 social good by raising the standard of living of all people, while by way of exchange the benefits of European knowledge, skills and implements, could be taken out to assist the material wellbeing of the lonely islanders.

One cannot either overlook the religious impetus: Christianity could be brought to the newly discovered lands. Unacceptable moral practices could be eliminated and salvation assured to nations hitherto deprived of the message of the Gospels, even though, to many philosophes, the spreading of the power of the established church, or churches, was in no way a benefit for which any Noble Savage would be likely to be grateful.

The exploration of the Pacific was not envisaged as what we now know it to be: sailing across vast empty seas, making occasional landfalls on small islands and atolls. The great blank on the charts of the eighteenth century was confidently expected to be filled by a continent, or at the very least by extensive tracts of land.

For those who kept an open mind, there was simply no reason why the south Pacific ocean should be void of lands at least as large as Japan or the Dutch East Indies, of places as populated and developed as Ceylon, or even as vast as South America. For a number of eighteenth century geographers and cartographers, the dictates of geophysics actually required the presence of large land masses to preserve the equilibrium of the globe. The theory had an elegant simplicity look at any terrestrial globe in any learned geographer's study, remember the relatively newly discovered laws of gravity, and it would soon become evident that, if the earth had not already toppled over, it was because the continental masses of the northern hemisphere are counterbalanced by roughly equal land masses in the southern hemisphere, some of which clearly remained to be discovered.

The expectation that new countries and in all likelihood new civilisations would be found was a significant component in several voyages. Surville sailed, rather hopefully — ál'aventure, as was stated — in search of an undiscovered land, spurred on by garbled reports that the English had come upon the fabled Land of Davis. Bougainville, who openly admitted his debt to De Brosses was more openminded about the existence of a southern continent, but he nevertheless hoped that if new lands were there to be discovered, they would fall to France through his endeavours, rather than to the rival English who were undeniably planning a world strategy which included in it the control of the Pacific. And Alexander Dalrymple, an influential man in his day and an admirer and friend of De Brosses, had no doubt at all about the existence of a southern continent.

Although there was no continent, if one excepts the Antarctic which is not really what these geographers were speculating about, there were islands still waiting to be added to the map. The Solomons, for instance, which Surville and Bougainville were to visit and report on, had been discovered by the Spanish but, in the absence of reasonably precise longitudes, had been lost again: the French were fairly confident they did exist and that exploration would solve what had unaccountably become a geographical riddle.

“Discovery”, of course, is a term which is now open to some criticism, as it disparages the achievements of the real first discoverers of the Pacific islands who were Polynesian or Melanesian wanderers: but its true meaning is real enough, namely to find something which was not known to the rest of the world. The explorer's task was twofold: to determine as precisely as possible the geographical location of the place newly discovered, and to describe its appearance, its climate, its flora and fauna and the way of life of its inhabitants, if any.

Most eighteenth century navigators were adequately equipped to carry out this descriptive function. They were sufficiently educated to be accurate and methodical: they often had some training and, if not the captain, at least some of the officers had studied botany, zoology, and sometimes geology. Linnaeus had introduced a rational methodology for the naming of species, and in France men page 61 like Buffon and Cuvier had widely influenced the work of professionals and amateurs. Scientific study, however amateur in its approach, was, let us bear in mind, a fashionable activity. The lengthy and careful descriptions and sketches we find in the journals of most French navigators of the time are evidence of the extent of the Enlightenment, even among men whose general education had been restricted by their going to sea at the age of ten or twelve.

Conditioned to be systematic and responsible in their observations, they were also preconditioned when it came to assessing the primitive societies they encountered. Bougainville, who followed Samuel Wallis to Tahiti, found a peaceful and friendly people. He was not to know that Wallis had cowed them into submission by the use of firearms, and consequently he put it down to the naturally good and uncorrupted nature of primitive people. He was disabused in due course, but not so the philosopher-naturalist Philibert Commerson who hailed the island as the true abode of the Noble Savage. Out of his enthusiasm, shared by others on board and spread by his writings among the French and European public, the lasting myth of an idyllic Tahiti was born. Commerson had found what he expected to find, an expectation fulfilled strengthened the theory on which it was built, so that a number of later voyagers would sail in the belief that the South Seas harboured island paradises.

The first Frenchmen to come to New Zealand were different. Seemingly unaware of—or untouched by — the writings of social philosophers, their expectation of New Zealand was built on the reports of the only Europeans to have preceded them more than a century before: the Dutch. Abel Tasman had been attacked without provocation, so that the natives of New Zealand were expected to be fierce and bloodthirsty. They were not: no indication that the Maoris were particularly warlike was apparent when Surville and his men put into Doubtless Bay. The French were pleasantly surprised and for most of the fortnight's stay relations were highly amicable.

A quite different expectation was carried to New Zealand by the next visitor, Marion de Fresne. Although an experienced seaman with a fine wartime record, he was something of an optimist and a dreamer. He had accepted the idea of the Noble Savage with few of Bougainville's reservations and in fact he had undertaken to return to Tahiti the islander, Ahu-toru, whom Bougainville had taken to France.

Marion du Fresne first called at Tasmania where he endeavoured, with little success, to befriend the aborigines. The Maoris of the Bay of Islands, however, rapidly lived up to his expectations and to the reports which James Cook (down-playing the loss of life which had marred his first contacts) was giving of them. His overconfidence led him to overstay his welcome; he had no inkling of the laws of tapu and little suspicion of the extent of intertribal warfare — and with a number of his officers and men he paid the price with his life in June 1772.

The optimistic theories of Rousseau and the sardonic opinions of Voltaire gave way to more realistic and empirical attitudes. La Pérouse had harsh comments to make about armchair geographers and philosophers, and D'Entrecasteaux who stopped briefly off Northland and visited numerous Pacific islands was always on his guard. In the early nineteenth century, French expeditions iscluded as a matter of policy trained scientists and professional artists whose functior was to observe and record. The day of the educated gentlemen, interested and learned in a number of fields of study, but driven by curiosity and often by dilettantism, was over. For one thing, they had little knowledge of the sea and were not amenable to shipboard discipline. So the scientists were primarily naval officers. Dumont d'Urville, who first came to New Zealand with Duperre and returned twice as commander of his own expeditions, had studied botany jules de Blosseville who also came with Duperrey was a physicist. Vincendon Dumoulin, who sailed on page 62 D'Urville's last voyage, was a noted hydrographer, and his colleague Pierre Dumoutier was a phrenologist.

The role of the learned societies should not be overlooked. Their function was to assist with the instructions that were issued to the various captains. La Pérouse received pages of them — from the Academy of Science, the Society of Medicine, the Dean of the Paris Faculty of Medicine, from the Royal Geographer Buache, from Buffon, and from the King's Gardener. D'Entrecasteaux, although his primary duty was to search for La Pérouse, received lengthy detailed instructions from the Academy of Science and the Society for Natural History. There were also experiments to be carried out, such as recording sea temperatures in specified locations, testing new chronometers, new methods of preserving food, desalinisation and the role of insects in the corruption of drinking water.

In the nineteenth century, instructions became centralised through officials of the Navy and, although the influence of the learned societies did not lessen, their independence was restricted, while gentlemen who wished to have their scientific theories tested during a naval expedition to the Pacific were requested to go through the proper channels.

The background against which nineteenth century navigators set out, moreover, had changed. The theory of the Noble Savage had faded. Attacks by natives who feared and resented the arrival and presence of strangers destroyed the idea of peaceful societies of island dwellers; a growing knowledge of class distinctions, feudal island structures, slavery, warfare and cannibalism destroyed the notion that civilisation undermined the essential and natural goodness of man. Science itself was becoming increasingly specialised, the amateur gentleman being elbowed out in the process. Experiments were carried out under far more rigorous conditions. The eighteenth century had prepared the ground, surveyed the horizons, and now it was time to get down to precise analysis and detailed, disciplined study. The writings of Dumont d'Urville are evidence of the new trends: whereas previous generations had painted broad all-embracing canvasses, the accounts of his voyages are loaded with details, quotations, references to sources to an obsessional degree, which makes the massive volumes untranslatable in their entirety. Even his attempt at writing a novel set in New Zealand, lengthy enough in itself, is further burdened by a massive appendix of explanatory notes.

The degree of co-operation which existed between philosophers and scientists of different nations during the Age of Enlightenment and into the nineteenth century was quite remarkable when one remembers how often the great powers were at war with each other during these years. The attitude of these research workers, amateur and professional, was well expressed in the title of a study by Gavin de Beer: The Sciences were never at war (1960). Sir Joseph Banks, as the most influential Englishman of his day in the field of science and exploration, played a significant part. He helped La Pérouse and D'Entrecasteaux, and willingly provided information and advice to would-be navigators, supplying scientific equipment and helping to release French collections of natural history specimens impounded during the wars. Documents were issued to explorers by all European rulers — the kings of England, France and Spain, in particular — so that all might sail without let or hindrance and with no fear of capture should war break out while they were on the high seas bereft of news from Europe and with no hope of rescue.

James Cook, La Pérouse, D'Entrecasteaux, Baudin, were protected in this way, but even without a specific passport genuine scientific expeditions had little to fear. It was understood that the search for new knowledge was a task that transcended national rivalries. Admittedly, local governors sometimes had doubts or were afraid of what their home government might say if they allowed a blockade runner through under pretext of exploration or research. But it was indeed the Age of page 63 Enlightenment and when the lights started to go out at the end of the eighteenth century, the spirit of co-operation was kept alive for a number of years.

The friendship and mutual help one encounters in the relations between navigators and scientists from different countries are some of the most gratifying and impressive features of the age of the philosophes. The age of merchants and colonisers which followed it cannot lay claim to the same fidelity to the ideals of science and learning.