John Gascoigne
School of History
University of New South Wales

    What was it that prompted Europeans of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to condemn themselves to long and dangerous voyages in wooden ships which, as Cook found on the Barrier Reef, were all too vulnerable to the vagaries of unknown lands? The perennial motives of a quest for strategic and economic advantage played a large part in this as in most ages but what is interesting is the extent to which such motives were combined or, at least to some extent, masked by the quest for knowledge of both the natural and human world. Consequently, exploration could be regarded as consistent with the goals of the Enlightenment and the motto that Kant attributed to it: ‘Aude sapere’, ‘Dare to know’.
    The Pacific voyages of the late eighteenth century had, of course, been preceded by the extraordinary explosion outwards of the Spanish and Portuguese in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Their motives were evident enough and often stated: the quest for gold, God and glory as the crusading spirit which had led to the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims then spilt out onto the larger global arena with the burning ambition to claim new souls for the Holy Catholic Church and new wealth and territory for the King of Spain. In this period, then, idealism of another sort combined with and, to some extent, coloured the quest for direct economic or national advantage as religion justified action. Nor did religious idealism always suit national needs, as the King of Spain found when his nation’s reputation was blackened by the impassioned denunciation of the behaviour of the conquistadors by the missionary, Las Casas.

   However, the almost manic determination of the conquistadors waned by the seventeenth century and the attempts by Mendana (1568 and 1595) and Quiros (1606) to open up new territories in the Pacific in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries met with little response from the Spanish Crown (Beaglehole, 1966, 106). Part of the reason for this was the fact that the Pacific islands seemed to hold few riches but even Quiros's impassioned plea to bring these new souls to Christ was received with scant enthusiasm by a regime which was increasingly the creature of its own bureaucracy and which had more than enough work cut out to absorb the vast territories added to its domains in Central and South America.

    So, after this frenetic wave of activity, principally in the sixteenth century, Europe's involvement in the Pacific was largely quiescent apart from the Spanish consolidation of its power in the Philippines and the growth of the Dutch rigorously commercial hold on the East Indies. The initiative of the energetic Dutch governor of the East Indies, Van Diemen, to send Abel Tasman in 1642 on a voyage of exploration to New Holland and New Zealand, as the Dutch termed these territories, only confirmed the Dutch view that little wealth was to be gained from these uncharted lands and that, like the Spanish, they should devote their energies to making money out of the territories they already possessed. Other European regimes on the whole were willing to accept Spanish claims that the Pacific was part of their sphere of influence largely out of indifference — thus the Pacific remained a Spanish lake (Schurz, 1922).
    The Pacific was, however, to be awoken from its slumbers and brought firmly into the mixed cross-currents of European imperial expansion in the period from 1763 onwards. In that year Europe concluded one of the major chapters in the ongoing 'second hundred years' war' for world dominance between France and Britain , with Britain left largely secure in its dominance of North America and, to a lesser extent, of India. Pressures that had been building up for Britain to use its naval might more effectively in securing new territories were now more likely to be realised as the burden of war was removed and as Britain could bask more self- confidently in its great power status. Both eighteenth-century French advocates of Pacific exploration like de Brosses and British like Callandar and Dalrymple had urged the possibility of a Great Southern Land the mass of which would balance the vast tracts of land in the Northern Hemisphere (Dunmore, 1965, 47, 50, 190). Having largely secured dominance in North America Britain was anxious to do likewise in any new large territory that the Pacific might harbour and it was confident that, if necessary, it could defy Spain in achieving that goal. The result was the voyage of John Byron from 1764 to 1766, which achieved little, and the joint voyages of Wallis and Carteret in 1767, which opened up Tahiti to the gaze of Europe.
    Not to be outdone the French soon afterwards, in 1768, dispatched the voyage of Bougainville, which further confirmed in European minds the myth of Tahiti as a new Garden of Eden. The defeat in the Seven Years' War made France more determined than ever not to allow the British to gain an advantage in the quest for new territories and riches. Appropriately, Bougainville had been one of those involved in the surrender of the French stronghold of Québec in one of the key battles of the Seven Years' War. He was driven, too, by the hope of reducing British dominance in the ‘new world’ of the Pacific with the Falklands, armed either by the French or their then allies the Spanish, serving as a brake on British ambitions in the Eastern Pacific (Dunmore, 1965, 59). Such voyages were to be the curtain-raisers, as it were, of the great voyages of Cook and, from the French side, of the voyages of La Pérouse (1785-8) and, subsequently, of D'Entrecasteaux (1791-3) and Baudin (1800-4).
    So the motives for exploration were, in part, the familiar ones of great power rivalry and the quest for new territories as sources of wealth. But what was striking about the Pacific voyages of the late eighteenth century and what distinguished them from the earlier voyages of the Spanish and the Portuguese was the extent to which they were linked to the advancement of science and knowledge more generally. Such a conjunction of motives is apparent in Bougainville’s letter to the minister for the marine in 1773, urging further Pacific exploration. On the one hand he acknowledged the need for further surreptitious activity against the British but, on the other, he stressed the worth of such exploration to assist in ‘perfecting the knowledge of the globe’ (B[ibliothèque] N[ationale] , NAF 9439, 70v, Bougainville to minister of the marine, 27 Feb. 1773.) At very much the same time the great naturalist, Buffon, was also endeavouring to advance the cause of Pacific exploration by appealing to similarly mixed motives — the glory that could accrue to France by the promotion of scientific enquiry which could also rebound to its commercial advantage (A[rchives] N[ationales], B/4/317, no.111, Buffon to M. le Duc.)
    In the late eighteenth century it was not enough, as it had been in the past, to cJune 13, 2018y raising a flag or a cross. True dominion required that one gain mastery over new areas of the globe by possessing it scientifically — by constructing back in the metropolitan power what Latour calls 'centers of calculation which extended the reach of imperial power' (Miller 1996). In the first place one had to map such new territory and here the superb cartographical skills of Cook gave Britain a considerable advantage, as they had early in his career when he had mapped the St Lawrence River - thus assisting the British victory at Quebec in 1759. Having mapped the territory one's claim to it was further consolidated by collecting and classifying its flora and fauna. Ideally, too, the true student of natural history would extend his study of the natural realm to that of humankind and include an analysis of the societies that he encountered. Joseph Banks, for example, not only collected vast numbers of plants and animals but also ethnological specimens, and included in his journal lengthy descriptions of the peoples and, where possible, the languages of the Pacific.
    Painfully the Spanish were to learn that their claims to Pacific dominance carried little weight unless they could show that they had truly explored it in a scientific fashion — a view that ran counter to their traditional belief that the best method of securing control was through secrecy, in order to ensure that no other nation could gain an advantage through their discoveries. Mendana, for example, had encountered the Solomons in 1568, giving it that name in the belief that it might contain gold mines like those of King Solomon's mines — a claim that sent many Pacific explorers on a wild goose chase. For in the primitive state of cartography that then existed Mendana had provided no effective way of allowing others to find these territories again. As far as the eighteenth century was concerned, then, Spanish claims to the Solomons dissolved in the absence of any effective maps which translated such aspirations into reality. As the Spanish faced increasing intrusion of the British and the French into the Pacific, an area they regarded as their own, they began to realise that it was a case of 'if you can't beat them join them.' Hence in 1788 they accepted an offer by Malaspina, an Italian naval officer in the service of the King of Spain, to mount a voyage of scientific discovery to outshine that of Cook's. In his 'Plan for a Scientific and Political Voyage around the World' Malaspina gently alluded to the fact that Spain had fallen behind in the race for Pacific dominance by scientific means. 'For the past twenty years', he urged, 'the two nations of England and France, with a noble rivalry, have undertaken voyages in which navigation, geography and the knowledge of humanity have made very rapid progress.' The agenda laid down for the voyage, which lasted from 1789 to 1794, also indicates the extent to which in the late eighteenth century exploration was conceived of in scientific terms, for it was intended that it should bring 'new discoveries, careful cartographic surveys, important geodesic experiments in gravity and magnetism, botanical collection, and description of each region's geography, mineral resources, commercial possibilities, political status, native peoples, and customs.' And, indeed, this great and rarely remembered voyage did achieve many of these aims though to little effect. For on his return Malaspina was arrested and the fruits of his voyage consigned to oblivion since his political liberalism, especially in regard to the position of the Spanish colonies in the New World, made him suspect at a court whose reactionary tendencies had been heightened by the reaction against the nearby revolution in France.
    Though the Malaspina expedition did little to arrest Spain's downhill slide, as its claims to Pacific dominance were largely brushed aside by the British, French and Russians, it was indicative of the extent to which the view that exploration should be scientifically based had gained ground. For its aims were those of the Enlightenment, the belief that human progress was possible through the application of reason. It was a movement of ideas which, in different ways, coloured the thought of much of eighteenth-century Europe, drawing on the scientific achievements of the seventeenth century which had culminated in Newton's great Principia Mathematica Naturalis Philosophiae (1687). For Newton's work seemed to reveal an orderly universe obeying a set of laws largely derivable from the principle of universal gravitation and explicable in that most potent product of human reason, mathematics. For the educated elite of eighteenth-century England and of Europe more generally Newton's achievement opened up the possibility that the same methods might bring order to the problems of human society — the self-confidence and intellectual energy imparted by Newton being captured by the poet, Alexander Pope, in his obituary to the great scientist:
            Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night
            God said, 'Let Newton be and all was light.
    Together with the possibilities of human reason revealed by Newton the Enlightenment drew on another great English icon of the late seventeenth century, the philosopher and friend of Newton, John Locke. In his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) Locke set out to provide a way of understanding the workings of the human mind which did justice to the growing achievement of science and, in particular, scientific observation. Where traditionally it had been argued that we are born ready programmed with a set of innate ideas, Locke argued that at birth the mind was a clean slate which was shaped by the impressions to which it was exposed. From this foundation flowed a number of profound consequences for society. In the past the traditional view had been that not too much could be expected of human beings since our behaviour and even our capacity to reason had been marred by the fact that all were subject to original sin, the curse of Adam. But though in his own way a devout Christian, John Locke opened up the possibility that human beings were not subject to such limitations: that, at least in principle, they were capable of perfection if they were exposed to the right influences. It was, then, a profoundly optimistic view of human nature which underlay much of the educational and social theorising of the eighteenth century. If human beings were the product of the influences to which they were exposed then institutions, whether they be schools, gaols, lunatic asylums or whatever, could be the source of a fundamental and beneficial transformation of the lives of their inmates by exposing them to salutary influences. In short, human progress was possible if one only had the will and the determination to reform society in the appropriate ways. Thus from Newton the Enlightenment derived its confidence in the possibilities of reason and from Locke it drew its belief in the possibility of progress and the ultimate goodness of human kind.

   Such a mindset shaped the conduct of the voyages of the Pacific. True, as we've seen, such voyages owed much to the familiar motives of human greed and the quest for domination. But just as the conquistadors had part rationalised and part justified such motives by invoking the support of the Church and the Crown so, too, the voyagers of the late eighteenth century felt it incumbent on them to point to the ways in which their endeavours could be seen as advancing the cause of science and humanity. The Enlightenment provided much of the language with which to justify one's actions even though contemporaries were well aware of the range of motives of very varying highmindedness which prompted such exploration.

    Thus Cook's great Endeavour voyage was, in the first place, prompted quite genuinely by the desire for Britain to take its part in the observation of the transit of Venus in 1769 — a rare event which, by enabling astronomers to focus on the black dot of the planet as it passed across the disk of the sun, opened up the possibility of calculating with much greater accuracy that most basic of astronomical yardsticks, the distance from the earth to the sun. It was a project that transcended national interests as, in a display of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, most of the major nations of Europe contributed to such observations, for the more observations that were made from as many different widely-separated vantage points, the more accurate the ultimate results were likely to be.
    But, as always, such Enlightenment-based beliefs in the nobility of advancing science were mixed with other motives. In the first place Britain and France were, to some extent, playing out their great power rivalry in the realm of science, just as in our own age the USSR and the USA played it out in the field of space exploration. Britain and France might suspend their differences to cooperate in the advancement of science but it was important for Britain not to allow its rival to gain too much of an astronomical lead by completely dominating the project. Thus the President of the Royal Society had urged involvement by blending scientific and patriotic motives urging that it was something which would serve 'the Improvement of Astronomy and the Honor of this Nation'.
    And, of course, the need for astronomical observations in the Southern Hemisphere in 1769 enabled Britain to consolidate its hold on Tahiti and the Society Islands more generally which, from a European perspective, had been discovered by the Englishman Wallis in 1767, this however having been very rapidly followed up by the French Bougainville in 1768. The voyage to Tahiti, in turn, offered the opportunity for Cook to explore the largely unknown lands of New Zealand and New Holland and possibly even make contact with the Great Southern Land, thus giving Britain an advantage in its commercial and strategic struggle with France. Such goals were plainly spelt out in Cook's secret instructions: 'Whereas the making Discoverys of Countries hitherto unknown and the Attaining a knowledge of distant Parts which though formerly discover'd have yet been but imperfectly explored, wil redound greatly to the Honour of this Nation as a Maritime Power, and may tend greatly to the advancement of the Trade and Navigation thereof'.
    But it was also part of the rhetoric of Cook's instructions to show the humanity of the British nation and its Enlightened credentials in his treatment of the peoples of the Pacific, thus distinguishing themselves from the behaviour of the conquistadors of old. He was urged 'to endeavour by all proper means to cultivate a friendship with the Natives' and his secret instructions included what was to prove the ironic provision that 'You are also with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain.' Behind such rhetoric lay a considerable change in outlook towards non-European peoples. The attitude of superiority based on religion and culture which had been evident in Spanish behaviour to the peoples of the Americas, or indeed the British to the American Indians in the seventeenth century, had waned by the eighteenth century. The once insular Europe had begun to appreciate that there was much to learn from other peoples and cultures though in the nineteenth century attitudes of racial superiority based on pseudo- scientific grounds began to reassert themselves as the tide of European imperialism gathered force. Relative openness to other cultures and especially those of the Pacific was further strengthened by the rather mixed attitude to the benefits of civilization that was the outgrowth of one strand of Enlightenment thinking.
    If human beings are born with minds unsullied by good and evil as Locke claimed, it followed, then, that bad human behaviour was the product of a bad society. Since it was evident that European society had plenty of faults it could be argued that the course of civilisation had in many ways led humanity astray by creating false goals based on greed and ambition. Hence the hope of philosophers like Rousseau that a society might be discovered that had not taken such wrong turnings and which preserved the essential goodness of humanity. The explorers of the Pacific thus came ready to find such a society and with it the Noble Savage — Rousseau's image of the naturally good human being uncontaminated by civilisation. With such rose-tinted spectacles at the ready, Tahiti appeared to some European voyagers as the confirmation of what they had been looking for. Bougainville's voyage in true Enlightenment style included both a naturalist and an astronomer, the former of whom, Commersen, as a disciple of Rousseau, viewed Tahiti as a confirmation of his faith in the primitive goodness and simplicity of humankind, believing he had found 'The state of natural man, born essentially good, free from all preconceptions.' Tahiti he described as 'the only place on earth where people live without any vice or prejudice, without any requirements and dissensions.'
    Banks and Cook also painted Tahiti in bright colours but with rather more light and shade than the French. During their three months there the British had more opportunity to study the society in detail than the French on their fleeting visit. Thus Banks's admiration for the islanders is mixed with reserve about practices such as infanticide. His briefer encounter with the Australian Aborigines did, however, elicit something of a declaration of a belief in the ennobling virtues of simplicity. Aboriginal society, wrote Banks, catered to the 'real wants of human nature' but avoided the 'anxieties attending upon riches, or even the possession of what we Europeans call common necessaries.' Aboriginal society revealed, then, the basic simplicity of the natural order which had become obscured in European societies — the latter, continued Banks, attempted to defy the natural order by multiplying luxuries, but did so in vain since such 'Luxuries degenerate into necessaries.' The result, then, was that despite outward appearances all societies were more or less on an equal footing: 'In this instance again providence seems to act the part of a leveller, doing much towards putting all ranks into an equal state of wants and consequently of real poverty.' Cook went even further arguing that Aboriginals 'are far more happier than we Europeans, being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe.' Like Banks, Cook saw such happiness as a result of the way in which Aboriginal society catered to the fundamental natural laws which underlay all human societies, without providing any unnecessary extras. The fact that the Aboriginals were not interested in the European goods that the crew of the Endeavour attempted to use for trade greatly impressed Cook and other late eighteenth-century observers. As Cook wrote: 'they seem'd to set no value upon anything we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of life and that they have no superfluities.'
    The Pacific voyages were, then, in a certain sense voyages by a society in search of its own origins and the accounts of the voyages were eagerly pored over by those endeavouring to construct what the 18th century called a 'Science of Man' and what today we would call sociology. The evidence of the Pacific islanders was regarded as shedding light on the development of civilisation and thus as casting light on an abiding preoccupation of the age: what were the sources of human progress. The Scots, particularly, with their concern to modernise their own society, were much involved in such early ventures into sociology and the work of figures such as Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and Lord Monboddo (who closely interrogated Banks on his voyages) has been satirised as being focused on the transformation from savage to Scotsman. But, as we've seen, it was by no means taken for granted that the path to European-style civilisation was the only or indeed the best path to take. The querulous but immensely learned scholar, Johann Reinhold Forster, who acted as the resident man of science on Cook's second voyage took the view that 'in the South Sea we find the natives of the Society Isles in the highest state of civilisation.' In a passage that indicates the wide aspirations of Enlightenment-inspired exploration Forster made plain how fundamental was his pursuit of the study of the origins and development of human society. For, as he wrote in the opening of his Observations made during a voyage round the world (1778), 'My object was nature in its greatest extent; the Earth, the Sea, the Air, the Organic and Animated Creation, and more particularly that class of Beings to which we ourselves belong.' It was a description that also aptly summarised the wide view of the province of the naturalist taken by Forster's predecessor on Cook's first voyage, Joseph Banks.
    For to both naturalists voyaging into the Pacific offered the opportunity to provide the raw materials for both the science of nature and the science of man. Reared on the precepts of Locke and, before him those of Francis Bacon with his adage that 'Knowledge is power', Banks and Forster regarded observation and collection as the necessary preliminaries to any soundly based system of scientific theory and the Pacific offered the intoxicating prospect of adding whole new areas to the map of knowledge . Thanks to the recently developed Linnean classification, which Banks could learn from his travelling companion, Daniel Solander, a pupil of Linnaeus, it had become possible, too, to bring to the study of nature a degree of order and system which lifted the study of natural history out of the realm of the amateur enthusiast and gave it a truly scientific foundation. By building up a vast data-base of specimens in the metropolitan capital and incorporating them into the existing system of classification, Banks and his fellow naturalists were effectively taking control of the lands they encountered not only for directly scientific purposes but also for imperial ends, as the new species were scrutinised for possible economic advantages.
    So, once again we are confronted by the mixed motives of Pacific exploration. For, on the one hand, they were voyages prompted by the familiar spurs of great power rivalry and the quest for commercial advantage. But such ambitions have existed in all ages and what is interesting is how a period justifies to itself what often appears in retrospect as self-interest. In the great age of Pacific exploration in the late eighteenth-century we have seen that the ideological justification for pursuing such ends drew heavily on the language of Enlightenment — on the possibility of promoting human progress through the exercise of reason. Nor was this entirely rhetoric — to gain Enlightenment credentials required considerable expense in the form of a complement of scientific personnel and equipment on board ship and, ideally, one should display one's Enlightened credentials by keeping to a minimum the number of native peoples killed as a consequence of European intrusion. The fact that this was not always realised occasioned real heartache in the journals. Cook, for example, wrote sadly after the landing on the island of Erromanga in Vanuatu, when several natives and two of his own crew were killed: 'It is impossible for them to know our real design. We enter their parts and attempt to land in a peaceable manner. If this succeeds all is well, if not we land nevertheless and maintain our footing by the superiority of our firearms. In what other light can they first look upon us but as invaders of their country?'
    The remarkable series of Pacific voyages which occurred between 1764 and 1806 and which included the work of Byron, Wallis and Carteret, Bougainville, Cook, Laperouse, Malaspina, Vancouver, D'Entrecasteaux, Baudin and Flinders took place in a very different intellectual climate to the earlier great age of European oceanic exploration associated with the Spanish and Portuguese entry into the Americas and Asia. It was one in which the quest for gold was still strong though the quest for God had been weakened if not altogether extinguished. European attitudes of superiority had been lessened by long contact with other cultures, though such attitudes could be easily reawakened. Exploration was conceived of in terms which gave greater prominence to science, as the need to map the territory not only in geographical terms but also in terms of flora, fauna and even its human population became part of any claim to have effective superiority over newly encountered lands. Underlying such attitudes was a confidence in the power of reason and the possibilities of progress which drew on Enlightenment roots. European intrusion into the Pacific represented not only the power of ships and firearms but also of a body of ideas which gave purpose and direction to a new phase of European expansion, which for good and ill drew a whole new sector of the globe into the larger course of human history.

Updated: June 13, 2018