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Tuatara: Volume 32, April 1993

Differences between British and French Organization of Zoological Exploration in the Pacific 1793–1840

page 75

Differences between British and French Organization of Zoological Exploration in the Pacific 1793–1840


A comprehensive approach to the cataloguing of natural diversity was developed by the natural philosophes in France and became part of French government policy following the revolution of 1789. This resulted in the establishment of the professionally-based Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris which, through a system of voyageurs-naturalistes, was able to ensure that well-documented natural history collections were made during pacific voyages and preserved in state institutions. A similar commitment to museum-based natural history research and exhibition or even to scientific collecting was not developed by the British until after 1840, by which time many of the new wonders of the Pacific had been described. Thus most early British name-bearing zoological specimens from the Pacific were lost.


I am neither a historian nor an expert on voyages of discovery, but rather a museum curator concerned with tracking down and verifying early type specimens. With very old collections this can be a complex and difficult task as types were mostly not labelled as such. Sometimes the identification of type specimens revolves around the identification of particular labels, or handwriting. Thus it is often necessary to become familiar with the personnel and organization of scientific expeditions if one wishes to identify the actual specimens described. From such work the idea for this paper developed, constrasting approaches to the organization and documentation of zoological collections in England and France. It arose following discussions on French contributions to scientific knowledge of New Zealand at a symposium organized by the Alliance Francaise de Wellington and the Royal Society of New Zealand on 28 October 1989, and formed the basis of a public lecture at the National Library of New Zealand on 10 October 1991, one of a series on New Zealand as seen by the French.

My interest in the scientific organization of voyages of exploration and the fate of their collections was stimulated by a study of early specimens of bellbirds Anthornis melanura (Bartle and Sagar 1987). The selective synonymy that follows illustrates something of this history and in particular highlights the involvement of both British and French expeditions in their collection and subsequent species description:

  • “Mocking Creeper” Latham 1782

  • - missing type, ex-Leverian Museum

  • Certhia melanura Sparrman 1786

  • - “Cape of Good Hope.” Museum Carlsonianum

  • Philedon dumerlii Lesson & Garnot 1828

  • - 5 collected La Coquille Bay of Islands April 1824

  • - figured in Atlas (1828)

  • - full description in text (1830), recognised as the same as C. melanura Sparrman.

The first two names had their source in the British expeditions of James Cook, familiar to most New Zealand readers, whereas the last name arose out of the first of the major French expeditions to New Zealand begun by Duperrey and continued by D'Urville, which are less well known.

Many of us have been led to believe that French interest in this part of the world was largely concerned with territorial aspirations, including a rather limited page 76 attempt to establish a beach-head at Akaroa, whereas the systematic French programme of scientific exploration and discovery in the Pacific (including New Zealand) has gone relatively unrecognised. Thus the impression is created that the British, as far as this part of the world is concerned, were more committed to scientific expeditions than the French, and were better organised. This paper is presented in reaction to that view, challenging the widespread belief that “Cook's voyages provided a model and methodology of scientific exploration for later expeditions” (Mackay 1985).


I was brought up to believe that the perfect models for conduct of voyages of exploration and discovery were those of Cook, and that the best way for a government to organize the scientific programme for such voyages was to delegate it to a gifted amateur like Sir Joseph Banks. Banks had a key role in all British voyages of discovery from 1766 until his death in 1820. He became a general repository for all collections and scientific knowledge which Cook and his followers accumulated (Mackay 1985). The influence of Banks can be traced right up to the Challenger expedition of the 1870s — perhaps the first completely professional British voyage of scientific discovery. And what happened to Banks' great repository of knowledge and collections? Where are the published journals and monographs, and what happened to the collections?

Perhaps I was influenced in my youth in favour of an inspirational rather than pragmatic approach to scientific expeditions and the production of research results by Sir Charles Fleming, himself a great admirer of Banks. Scepticism really only set in when, a few years ago, I started to try and track down bird specimens from British voyages … Only then I learnt of the delays, dissention and intrigues that beset publication of the results of Cook's voyages in England (Hoare 1982). In my opinion these private jealousies set back scientific knowledge of this part of the world by fully 50 years — from the 1770s to the 1820s, until after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

English voyages of scientific exploration actually depended on private patronage for over 70 years — from the time of Cook to that of James Clark Ross, in 1840. Sir Joseph Banks, England's greatest promoter of science during the period (Mackay 1985), was a conservative figure, favouring slavery and believing that the benefits of science and mercantilism should be reserved for the landowning class (Mackay 1985). This went with a paternalistic attitude toward indigenous peoples. Other key amateurs involved in promoting scientific exploration in the eighteenth century included Lord Sandwich, Daines Barrington and Thomas Pennant.

Museums were the main government agencies involved with collections and publications resulting from expeditions of scientific discovery in the nineteenth century. Again, the famous English institutions are held up as models of their kind, but this was certainly not the case until the 19th century was almost over.

Montague House was purchased in 1754 by the British government to house the collections of Sir Hans Sloane. The natural history cabinets on the first floor were reached by a magnificent staircase guarded by a stuffed rhinoceros and three giraffes. Early keepers owed their position to patronage, and the stipend was insufficient to offer a livelihood. Montague House was maintained as a nobleman's cabinet of curiosities, rather than as a national musuem for the benefit of the masses (Gunther 1975). The trustees seemed to wish to make it hard for the right people, and absolutely impossible for the wrong people, to get into the place at all. The museum was open only three days a week (daily opening would not arrive for 120 years), and visitors had to apply in writing for admission to the Principal Librarian several weeks in advance (Panter-Downes 1980). Staff worried that the page 77 well-to-do might be put off by rubbing shoulders with the common people, however studious and curious. As late as 1835 the Principal Librarian, Sir Henry Ellis, told the trustees that opening over Easter would surely bring “the more vulgar class” thronging into the galleries to the annoyance of “the more important class of population” (Panter-Downes 1980).

It was not British government policy to encourage organized collecting during this period (Gunther 1975). So the advance of natural history depended on the study of collections in private hands. In eighteenth century England the most important of these was that of Sir Ashton Lever, who built a museum in Leicester Square, open to the public for a small fee. The Leverian Museum was much more popular with both the public and scholars than the British Museum, and the latter was described in 1799 by a visiting professor of natural history as containing “amidst a vast quantity of insignificant trifles, few important specimens”. It was “no longer instructive” whereas, in contrast, “the Leverian museum may be seen for a trifle, and the (well arranged) collection exceeds everything of the kind I have seen” (H.F. Link, in Stresemann 1975). This was partly because so many of the ethnological and zoological items from Cook's voyages were shown there. Pennant, Latham and Shaw found their richest quarry there, and by 1784 the Leverian Museum had 28,000 items and was world famous. But its owner had been too prodigal, and to make money, he held a lottery with 36,000 tickets at a guinea a head — all blanks except one, which entitled the holder to the entire museum! On the day of the draw Lever had sold only 8,000 tickets but, as luck would have it, the winning ticket was amongst these and was bought by a dentist, James Parkinson. The unhappy loser took to drink and died soon after, in 1788 (Stresemann 1975). James Parkinson, despite re-housing and expanding the museum, auctioned the entire collection, in May and June 1806.

The British government turned down the chance to acquire this, the greatest of all eighteenth century museums (Gunther 1975), and the lion's share was bought by the showman, William Bullock, who had also built a private museum in London. Later, in 1819 the government likewise refused to buy Bullock's collections, on the grounds of lack of space at Montague House (Farber 1982). By this time it included more than 3,000 birds, including all those from Cook's second and third voyages, presented by Sir Joseph Banks. So this priceless collection was sold at auction and dispersed throughout Europe with many specimens and associated data lost forever (Medway 1981).

Meanwhile, the state of the British Museum's collections was not good:

“… mouldering or blackening in the crypts of Montague House, the tomb or charnel-house of unknown treasures [where] … moths, ptini, dermetes are busily employed amid the splendours of exotic plumage, or roaring through the fur of animals, we do not know a single insect visible to the public, of all that have been deposited in the British Museum” (Traill 1823).

Neglect of the British Museum's natural history collections by the poorly-paid staff became a well-recognised scandal by the 1830s. Konig (1836) wrote that:

“… Most objects of the Sloane collection were in an advanced state of decomposition and they were buried or committed to the flames one after another. Dr Shaw had a burning every year; he called them his cremations … Some persons in the neighbourhood complained and threatened with an action, because they thought the moths were introduced into their houses by the cremations in the Musuem garden.”

And, later, in the time of Dr Leach, when:

“… the gardens of the Museum were still the favourite resort of the Blooms-burians, but the attraction of the terraces and the fragrance of the shrubberies were sadly lessened when a pungent odour of burning snakes was their accompaniment. The stronger the complaints, however, the more apparent page 78 became Dr. Leach's attachment to his favourite cremations” (Edwards 1870).

Collections made by government and private expeditions prior to 1840 were not offered to the British Museum, but instead to the museums established by societies like the Zoological Society of London and the Royal College of Surgeons, and by organizations such as the East India Company. Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Admiralty felt that the British Museum was unworthy of collections from overseas expeditions, and instead gave these to the Zoological Society and to private collectors (Gunther 1975). By the time John Gould retired as keeper of the Zoological Society's museum in 1836, this collection alone already outstripped that of the British Museum (Stresemann 1975).

By 1835 the situation had deteriorated to the extent that a Parliamentary Select Committee was set up to look into the condition and management of the British Museum. The need for a properly-paid professional staff was identified, as well as the advantage of placing all government-collected specimens in a national collection; and the value of employing “travelling naturalists” (Farbor 1982). During this review the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, was repeatedly cited as an example of how a major national museum should be organized. Over the next decade these recommendations were slowly put into effect, although G. R. Gray, in charge of the bird collections at the British Museum since 1831, did not employ collectors abroad, like the French. It was not until Bowdler Sharpe took over the bird collection in 1872 that really substantial advances in ornithology were made (Stresemann 1975).


The origin and establishment of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris played a key role in encouraging scientific exploration in the Pacific during the early nineteenth century.

The idea of cataloguing nature to reduce its diversity to a comprehensible system was developed by natural philosophes in France before the revolution. After the revolution such knowledge was felt to belong to the masses, and not just to an educated élite. This, from 1793 to 1840 French voyages of exploration resulted in government-funded publication of detailed accounts of voyages and discoveries and the journals and objects recovered became the property of the people through the new national institutions.

One of the four major philosophes of the French Enlightenment was Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte du Buffon, superintendent of the Jardin du Roi since 1739. He was responsible for the aggrandizement of that institution from a minor botanical garden for the study of pharmaceutical plants to a major research institution. His Histoire naturelle, générale et particuliere was the third most popular book in France in the late 18th C (Farber 1982). Buffon's writings were one of the important factors in popularizing science in the period of the Enlightenment. However, Buffon really needed thousands of bird specimens for this undertaking. Although 700–800 had been accumulated by 1770, many of these were destroyed by insect pests, and no one knew how to protect them. The big breakthrough was made by Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur, an apothecary in Metz, who developed an arsenical soap that protected skins without destroying them. Although Bécoeur kept his recipe a secret during his lifetime, in the hope of benefiting financially from it, it somehow passed to the Muséum and became the accepted method of preparation (Farber 1982). Louis Dufresne, taxidermist at the Musěum since 1793, popularized arsenical soap in an article on taxidermy that he wrote for the Nouveau dictionnaire d'histoire naturelle (1803–1804). This single development enabled the Muséum in Paris to build up the greatest collection of birds that the world had ever seen in the early 19th C.

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In the same year as the appointment of Dufresne, the revólutionary government of France took the bold decision not to dismantle the Jardin du Roi, but rather reorganize it as a national museum of natural history that would encourge the solution of practical problems, would provide lectures to the public, and would reflect the glory of France as the leader in the world of ideas (Farber 1982). Under the energetic direction of Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the Paris Muséum rapidly became the centre for European zoology. The Revolutionary armies had brought in many remarkable and important rarities when they carried off the Prince of Orange's famous collection as booty from The Hague to Paris in 1775. Its condition in 1797 was described by H.F. Link:

“The museum of natural history in the botanic garden of Paris is far more interesting than the British Museum, and contains a great number of specimens, and very extraordinary productions. London possesses nothing that can be compared with it.”

In 1817 William Kirby wrote:

“Every part of the Museum is in beautiful order, systematically arranged, so that every student may in a moment find every object that he wants, and every facility is afforded to him that he can desire. I wish the zoological department of the British Musuem was in similar order.”

During the following years the French government took a series of far-sighted decisions which effectively integrated the work of the Paris Muséum with expeditions and voyages of scientific discovery. On February 3, 1819, at a meeting of the staff of the Muséum, the Secrétaire général of the Ministre de l'Intérieur informed the professors that the budget contained twenty thousand francs to create “a school for young naturalists destined to make voyages to various parts of the world”. The sum soon grew to twenty-five thousand francs per year and was used to train, equip, and cover the expenses of collecting for about ten voyageurs-naturalistes. With the aid of government support, the Muséum was able to send people into the field in localities where it wished to strengthen its collection. Missions were sent to the Cape of Good Hope, South America, Australia, West Africa, Madagascar, North America and India (Farber 1982). Of course not only specimens were returned to the museum, but accurate accounts were kept and preserved in the Muséum, where they are today. Foreigners and colonials were encouraged to send material by designating them correspondants (Farber 1982). The Muséum enjoyed enormous official support, for it drew on the rising public taste for natural history and promoted that interest by lecture series and by its popular exhibitions. This at the time when the few enterprising souls who actually obtained entry to the British Museum commented most unfavourably on the state of the collections and on the lack of enterprise of its staff.

D'Entrecasteaux's expedition in search of the ill-fated La Pérouse was the first post-Revolutionary expedition to the Pacific. Unlike earlier French voyages, it was well-equipped to make observations and collections, although unfortunately everything was seized in Java, and it was years before the naturalists could return to France, bereft of notes and material.

Nicolas Baudin's voyage to Australia in the Géographie and the Naturaliste (1800–1804) was well-staffed with scientists, artists and instruments, and one of the largest natural history collections to date, including nearly 1,000 birds, was brought safely back to France. Baudin's expedition, although highly successful from a scientific point of view, was torn by internal strife. The bitter disputes between the scientific staff and the naval personnel led to the decision that henceforth the collection and observation of natural history on navy ships would be entrusted to medical officers.

This change in policy reflected a growing professionalization of the French navy as well as a shift in emphasis in the purpose of major naval expeditions (Farber page 80 1982). It was these voyages during the 23 years following 1817 that consolidated the French position as a world force in natural history and the status of the Paris Muséum. To the museum came hundreds of rare species from the government expeditions of the Coquille (1821–1825), the Astrolabe (1826–1829), and the Astrolabe and Zélée together (1837–1841), which amassed a wealth of new birds from the coasts and islands of the world's oceans. Added to these were the astonishing novelties collected by the daring “travelling naturalist” Goudot and the Ship's doctor Bernier during the 1830s on the mysterious island of Madagascar. Beginning with Alcide d'Orbigny (1826–1834), Justin Goudot (1827–1843), and Claude Gay (1830–1842), explorers of the Andean countries were mostly French (Stresemann 1975).

Publication of the scientific results of these expeditions was prompt and comprehensive, thanks to the availability of government funds. Familiar New Zealand animals such as the sea-horse and red gurnard were first described in Duperrey's volumes. On D'Urville's later voyages the collecting became quite systematic, with particular attention paid to specific groups. D'Urville also had firm instructions regarding disposal of the collections to the Muséum from the Secretary of the Navy (Andrews 1986), in contrast to the contemporary British voyages in which amateurs participated at their own expense. The result was that the Muséum in Paris was often overwhelmed with specimens and drawings. In 1828–30 1263 animals were illustrated, 500 species of insects collected, and 520 birds accessioned, together with many botanical and geological specimens (Andrews 1986). Ten volumes of publications were approved containing the finest hand-coloured copper plate engravings.

Thus the Muséum went from strength to strength, enjoying a status and financial support unequalled by any comparable institution in Europe. In 1840 Swainson remarked that the Museum was “… the most celebrated in the world …” The arrangement and accessibility of its collections, combined with their scope, made it the centre for ornithology in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the standard by which other museums were judged. Because it was a permanent, government-funded institution, workers could take advantage of having type specimens in a known, fixed location. In days when travel was difficult, expensive and sometimes dangerous the importance of having a large and accessible permanent collection in a central location was essential for anyone writing a general treatise or monograph.

Throughout this intensive period of cataloguing nature, discoverers of new species increasingly designated particular specimens as ‘types’. Original descriptions were often inadequate, and later authors needed to check exactly which species was being discussed. Fortunately type specimens were generally labelled as such at the Paris Muséum, and can be easily located even today. In England, however, the frequent breakup of important collections and the formation of new private collections throughout the 19th C has greatly impeded zoology and, in particular, ornithology.

Worse still, as the British Museum was part of the Civil Service, all correspondence, including that relating to the acquisition of specimens, was systematically destroyed up till 1965. This means that the only documentation for specimens is usually the brief register entry, or the label, which could be removed or amended. In addition, when the Trustees of the Natural History Museum ordered the demolition of Walter Rothschild's “insect room” laboratory at Tring, in 1970, all documents relating to the Rothschild collections, including the journals of collectors like Henry Palmer in Hawaii and the Chatham Is, were systematically burnt (Rothschild 1983, pp 185, 299, 331). The full implications of this great crime are yet to be recognized.

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The funding of a public natural history museum in 1793 by the revolutionary government of France was a turning-point in the history of science. It provided a proper foundation for the collection and description of natural history specimens by French expeditions and naturalists with the result that, for many years, their collections, displays and publications were superior to, and the envy of, their British counterparts.

Lessons on the effects of the different levels of state involvement in zoological research in the Pacific and on the contrasting organization of British and French natural history museums in these far-off times still have relevance today. State responsibility for funding of biological collections is essential for progress in scientific knowledge.


Ideas for this paper were accumulated during periods of work at the Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge; Sub-department of Ornithology, British Museum (Natural History), Tring; and at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, in 1980 and subsequently. I am grateful to the following curators and staff for their hospitality and many helpful discussions: the late C.W. Benson; I.C.J. Galbraith and P.R. Colston; C. Erard and C. Jouanin. The work of J. Dunmore has been an inspiration. The following kindly commented on this paper: J.R.H. Andrews, J.W. Dawson, J. Dunmore, and J.C. Stahl.


Andrews, J.R.H. 1986. The southern ark: zoological discovery in New Zealand 1769–1900. Century Hutchinson, Auckland.

Bartle, J.A. and P.M. Sagar. 1987. Intraspecific variation in the New Zealand bellbird Anthornis melanura. Notornis 34: 253–306.

Edwards, E. 1870. Lives of the founders of the British Museum with notices of its chief augmentors and other benefactors 1570–1870. Trübner, London.

Farber, P.L. 1982. The emergence of ornithology as a scientific discipline: 1760–1850. D. Reidel, Dordrecht, Holland.

Gunther, A.E. 1975. A century of zoology at the British Museum. Wm. Dawson, Folkestone, Kent.

Hoare, M.E. 1982. Introduction. ppl-122 in The Resolution Journal of Johann Reinhold Forster 1772–1775. Vol. 1. Hakluyt Society, London.

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Lesson, R. P. and P. Garnot. 1828–1830. Zoologie. Atlas and 2 Tom. In Duperrey, L.I. Voyage autour du monde exécuté par ordre du Roi sur la corvette La Coquille pendant les années 1822–1825. Paris.

Mackay, D. 1985. In the wake of Cook, Exploration, Science & Empire, 1780–1801. Victoria University Press, Wellington.

Medway, D.G. 1981. The contribution of Cook's third voyage to the ornithology of the Hawaiian Islands. Pacific Science 35: 105–175.

Panter-Downes, M. 1980. The enormous mind. The New Yorker January 21, 1980, 20 pp.

Rothschild, M. 1983. Dear Lord Rothschild. Balaban Publishers, Glenside, Pennsylvania.

Sparrman, A. 1786. Museum Carlsonianum in quo novas et Selectas Aves … Fasc. 1. No. 5. A.1. Nordstrom, Stockholm.

Stresemann, E. 1975. Ornithology from Aristotle to the present. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

[Traill, T.S.], 1823. [miserable condition of the natural history collections at Montague House]. Edinburgh Review May 1823, p. 397. Cited in Gunther (1975).

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