First published in Germanic Notes and Reviews, vol.36, no.2,
Reproduced by kind permission of the author
In 2005 the Hakluyt Society of London in cooperation with the Museo Naval of Madrid published the third and final volume of their edition of the journal of Alexandro Malaspina, written during the “politico-scientific” expedition to the South Atlantic and Pacific Oceans he commanded from 1789 to 1794. Part of the work of a contributing editor researching the expedition’s visit to the newly settled English colony at Sydney or, as it was more commonly referred to at that time, Port Jackson in New South Wales, was to gather information on Thaddaeus Haenke, the expedition’s botanist. Alone among the expedition’s personnel, Haenke was an Austrian subject. Investigation of how he came to be appointed to the expedition led to the discovery that there had been an attempt in 1782 to organize an Austrian round the world scientific expedition, inspired by the example of the three great Pacific voyages of James Cook. Although there has been scholarly attention given to the Austrian botanical expeditions to the Americas, South Africa and the Indian Ocean in the 1780s and 1790s, the origin of these in the hopes of Kaiser Joseph II and his savants for an Austrian scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean and round the world has been almost completely overlooked by historians. The episode is a revealing tale from the last years of the Austro-Belgian empire.
The story begins just after Joseph II had succeeded his mother Maria Theresa as monarch in 1780. The collection of tropical plants in the Palace of Schoenbrunn, whose seeds had been brought back to Vienna by the naturalist Nicholas Jacquin from his 1755-1759 tour of the Caribbean, was the pride of the Austrian Court. During a cold night in November 1780, the hothouse in the Palace was overheated, killing the tropical plants. It was decided that Jacquin should attempt to re-establish the collection, and a proposal was drawn up for an expedition. Jacquin’s colleague, the eminent savant and state councillor Ignaz von Born, suggested this expedition be enlarged to a circumnavigation of the world, an Austrian enterprise to rival those undertaken by James Cook which had added lustre to the crown of George III. Jacquin and Born corresponded with Joseph Banks, whose role in Cook’s expeditions they perhaps hoped to emulate. Born himself hoped to lead the expedition, but the poor state of his health meant that he had to relinquish the post of leader in favour of Franz Josef Maerter. The historian of the Hofnaturalienkabinet (Natural History Collection), Leopold Joseph Fitzinger, explained Born’s role:
Born’s genialer Geist entwarf aber bald einen andern, weit umfassenden Plan...Von dem Wunsche beselt, Cook nachzueifern, entschloss er sich selbst zu einer Reise um die Welt….Als ihm aber seine Freunde abrieten jene langwierige Reise selbst zu unternehmen, und ihn auf die Gefahren und Beschwerden aufmerksam machten, denen sein kränklicher Körper unterliegen müsste, gab er den Plan, die Reise selbst mitzumachen wieder auf, und brachte Professor Märter als Leiter dieses Unternehmens in Vorschlag. Capitän Bolts, ein Engländer, welcher das Schiff Cobenzl, das zu jener Weltumsegelung bestimmt war, von Triest aus führen sollte, reiste selbst nach Wien, um unmittelbar beim Kaiser die Reise zu betreiben.
The British Ambassador in Vienna, Sir Robert Keith, reported the project to his Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox, in a letter dated 26 June 1782:
I am informed that a Vessel is now building at Trieste which will be finished in the month of August, and is to be employed in the immediate service of His Imperial Majesty, for the very liberal Purpose of making the Tour of the World, in imitation of Captain Cooke’s Voyages. The Captain of the Vessel will be an Austrian Subject, but a Mr. Dickson (an Englishman, who went round the World with Captain Wallis), Mr. Maerter Professor of Natural History, a Mr. Haydinger, a Botanist, a Painter, and some other Persons of Learning & Curiosity are to carry the Emperor’s Orders into Execution. I am told that they are to double Cape Horn, visit the Islands in the South Sea, and then proceed to China, where their Vessel (which is said to carry the Name of young Prince Kaunitz) will be sold, and the whole Crew will return to Europe in a large Vessel, to be held in readiness at Canton, and loaded with the Merchandize of China.
Kaiser Joseph’s hopes for an Austrian circumnavigation apparently were based on the possibility of marrying the commercial aims of William Bolts with the scientific ambitions of Ignaz von Born and Nicolas Jacquin. This was explained by Franz von Pollack-Parnau:
Die Cooksche Weltumseglung ließ seine leicht erregbare Phantasie nicht mehr zur Ruhe kommen. Das Schiff Cooks war erst vor Jahresfrist zurückgekehrt. Fieberhaft arbeitete [Bolts] an dem Projekt, ein Schiff in Triest auszurüsten, das die Südspitze Amerikas umsegeln sollte, dann wollte er es nach dem äußersten Norden der Westküste Amerikas senden….Diese Expedition sollte aber auch finanzielle Vorteile bringen, über China und Indien sollte das Schiff nach Europa zurückkehren. In England kaufte er ein taugliches Fahrzeug, das “Cobenzl” genannt und nach Triest geschafft werden sollte….Dagegen glaubte Joseph die Expedition Bolts’ nach den nordamerikanischen Gebieten unterstützen zu sollen. Auch naturwissenschaftliche Interressen bewogen ihn zu dieser Auffassung. Jacquin und Born bestimmtem einige Leute, welche die Expedition für ihre Zwecke ausnützen sollten (Über die naturwissenschaftlichen Interessen des Kaisers vgl. die Noten Jacquins und Borns im HKA [Hofkammerarchiv], Litorale 104).
The Wiener Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv have located the memorandum of Kaunitz to Joseph II of 20 June 1782 (“Rapport, 20 Juin 1782, Pour rendre compte des Sept Suppliques du Sr. Bolts, qui concernant differents Points relatifs à la Navigation aux Indes”), on which the Emperor noted his agreement to a petition from Bolts that he be given lettres de mer for “le Vaisseau le Cte. de Cobenzl avec Sa Chalouppe d’exploitation pour sa voyage projetté aux Cotes du Nord-Ouest de l’Amerique et de rétour par Canton à Trieste”, with the proviso that “avec ce même batiment, comme j’en ai deja parlé debouche avec lui, je ferai le voyage aux trois hommes qui auront pour objet l’augmentation du Cabinet de l’Histoire naturelle et les plantes et Semences pour le Jardin botanique”. The three naturalists—Maerter, Karl Haidinger and Franz Boos—would be assigned a young gardener, Franz Bredemeyer, to help them with the work of looking after the plants and perform domestic duties for them. The Emperor wrote to Vice-Chancellor Kaunitz: “Je vous envoye ces deux notes de Jacquin et de Born, a fin que vous poussiés adresser à Bolts les deux sujets qu’ils proposent, et pour que Jacquin et Born reglent avec lui tout ce que est relatif a leur [Maerter, Haidinger et Boos] destination” .
A vehicle for the conduct of the expedition was seen to be ready to hand in the form of the East India trading company of William Bolts, the “Société octroyée par sa Majesté pour le commerce entre les ports de la Mer Adriatique et les Indes Orientales”. This venture had been set up in 1775, when the Empress Queen of Austria and Hungary, Maria Theresa and her son and co-ruler, Joseph, accepted a proposal Bolts made through the Imperial ambassador in London for a commercial venture. William Bolts, born in Amsterdam of German descent in 1739, had spent the years from 1759 to 1768 India in the service of the English East India Company. After falling out with the Honourable Company he was sent back to England, where he became one of its most severe critics. He offered his services to the Imperial government, putting forward a proposal for re-establishing Austrian trade with India from the Adriatic port of Trieste. From June 1776 to May 1781, Bolts was engaged in this business. Upon his return from India in May 1781, Bolts went to the Austrian Netherlands to negotiate with his financial partners, with whom he had fallen into dispute, and to discuss the future of his charter at audiences with Joseph II, who was then visiting Belgium. At an audience with Emperor Joseph II in Brussels on 28 July 1781, Bolt and his Belgian financial partners agreed to the transformation of their association into a share company, and in August Bolts surrendered his charter to the new Imperial Company of Trieste and Antwerp for the Commerce of Asia (Société Impériale pour le Commerce Asiatique de Trieste et d’Anvers). Under the terms of the agreement erecting the new company, Bolts ceded his charter to his Belgian partners in return for a loan of 200,000 florins (that is, his 200 shares in the Company) and the right to send two ships on his own account to China. This “new India Company, under the direction of Mr. Boltz”, known as the Triestine Society, was announced by the press in Trieste on 17 August 1782, with a reference to the two vessels it would possess. The first of these ships was the Cobenzell (or Kobenzel), which Bolts had bought in England in November 1781 and which he hoped to send to the North West Coast of America. At an audience on 23 July 1781, Bolts asked the Emperor to take the place of his financial partners by underwriting the entire cost of his enterprise to the extent of a hundred and twenty to a hundred and fifty thousand florins. This the Emperor refused to do, leaving Bolts to conclude that he was “little seized of the importance of the trade of Austria to the Indies”. The Emperor’s interest was limited to seeking passage on Bolts’s ship for his naturalists, and this matter was discussed at an audience he gave Bolts in Vienna in late May 1782.
Bolts had returned in 1781 from India with ideas for a voyage to the North West coast of America to engage in the trade in sea otter furs to China and Japan. At Mauritius or at Cape Town during his return voyage to Europe in 1780, he had heard of the success the crew of James Cook’s ships, Resolution and Discovery, had had at Canton in November-December 1779 in selling the sea otter pelts they had obtained for trinkets on the American coast in the course of the great navigator’s celebrated third expedition. It is probable he had been sent a report on this by John Reid, whom he had set up as agent of the Imperial Company and Austrian consul at Canton earlier in 1779. Bolts’s plan, which he discussed with the Emperor at his audience in Vienna in May 1782, was for the Cobenzell to go round Cape Horn, take on furs at Nootka, sell in China and Japan, and return by the Cape of Good Hope.
Bolts wrote to the Emperor on 30 June 1782, declaring that, “animated by the desire to open a most lucrative branch of commerce, although one completely novel, and at the same time to enjoy the glory of being the first among his faithful subjects to carry his August Standard around the Globe, he has purchased and fitted out a new Ship called the Comte de Cobenzell, to depart Trieste to make a voyage to the Coast of the North-West of America”. He renewed his request for 150,000 florins from the Imperial treasury to finance the voyage. The Emperor refused to involve himself in the internal affairs of the company, declaring: “I am unable to depart from the principle that the Administration….should only give general protection to trade and facilitate the means for all subjects without interesting itself in them individually”.
The Emperor eventually nominated five naturalists to give a scientific character to the expedition and to fulfill his aim of replenishing the gardens of Schoenbrunn. They were Maerter, Boos, Bredemeyer, the physician Matthias Stupicz and the artist Bernhard Albrecht Moll (Haidinger withdrew from the enterprise when Maerter was appointed leader). Joseph Mayer, a leading member of the Natural History Cabinet and friend of Born, was also prepared to join the Emperor’s “grosse Reise”. Their expenses were to be paid for out of a consignment of fifty quintals (hundredweight) of Idrija quicksilver to be held by Bolts, “at an agreed price, at the disposition of the said Naturalists, either in China or wherever else they may have need of it for the service of His Majesty”.
As mentioned in Robert Keith’s letter to Charles James Fox, one of the British sailors engaged by Bolts was George Dixon, who subsequently commanded the Queen Charlotte on a voyage to the North West coast for the Etches Company of London. The Wiener Zeitung of 29 June 1782 carried a report from Fiume that, “in the early days of this month, Mr. von Bolts, Director of the Triestine East India Company, together with the English captain, Mr. Digson, arrived in this city”. The Wiener Zeitung of 17 July 1782 announced:
Ein Schreiben aus Livorno vom 3ten dieses meldet, dass das sehr schöne und grosse k.k. Schif, Graf Kobenzel genannt, unter dem Kommando des Hrn. Joh. Jos. Bauer, eines Ungars von Geburt, mit 22 Kannonen und vieler Mannschaft am Borde glücklich in dasigem Hafen eingelaufen. Manvernimmt, dass es eine Reise nach Nordwest von Amerika machen, und von da über Canton seinen Rückweg nach Triest nehmen werde.
The Gazeta de Madrid of 20 August 1782 carried a report that Märter’s selection had been announced in Vienna on 17 July:
Viena, 17 de Julio. En todo el mes próximo deben salir de aquí Mr. Marter Profesor de Historia Natural en el Colegio Teresiano, y su adjunto Mr. Haidinger para dar la vuelta al mundo de orden y á expensas del Emperador. Esta expedicion literaria será sin duda utilísima para el adelantemiento de las artes y ciencias.
The 11 September edition of the Wiener Zeitung announced the arrival of the Kobenzl at Trieste from Livorno on 2 September. Bolts described the venture retrospectively in 1787:
Le Roi d’Angleterre, par les célebres expéditions exécutées par l’immortel Cook, avoit ouvert cette nouvelle carriere pour le commerce; Bolts eut l’ambition de vouloir être le premier à en profiter. Son vaisseau, sa cargaison, une Chaloupe Bermudienne de quarante cinq tonneaux, avec quatre Officiers expérimentés, des équipages du feu Capitaine Cook, étant préts à Trieste, Sa Majesté l’Empereur non seulement avoit nommé cinq naturalistes pour accompagner ce vaisseau, mais avoit assuré son bon accueil dans tous les Ports étrangers où l’accident auroit pù le conduire. Dans cette situation, Bolts ambitionnoit l’honneur de donner à l’AUTRICHE son premier “CIRCUMNAVIGATOR” en combinant la gloire du Prince avec les interêts du commerce de la Société [Asiatique de Trieste et d’Anvers]. Cette expedition du Navire Cobenzell, à la côte du Nord Ouest de l’Amerique Septentrionale, n’ayant pas eu lieu, on chercha d’autres occasions, pour faire passer ces Naturalistes, avec economie, aux lieux de leur destination.
Although the Emperor was initially enthusiastic, the venture eventually proved impossible to realize. As Fitzinger put it: “Demungeachtet verzögerten sich die Vehandlungen gegen ein Jahr, ohne dass es zu einem Resultate kam”. The opposition of Bolts’s Belgian financial partners in the Imperial Asiatic Company of Trieste and Antwerp was a principal cause of its not going ahead, and in the autumn of 1782 it was abandoned. As well, the Emperor had soon realized the inadvisability of becoming directly involved in a commercial venture, hence his refusal to provide the finance Bolts asked for.
Bolts later wrote, “other occasions were found for obtaining passage for the Naturalists, with economy, to their places of destination”. The hopes of the Austrian botanists were renewed by the arrival at Trieste in February 1783 of “the Imp. and Royal Trieste merchant ship the Stadt Wien, under the command of Don Anton Gheriza, which 19 months ago (namely on 6 July ), was sent to the East Indies freighted with domestic products”. She had departed Mauritius in July 1782 with a consignment of plants sent from the Jardin du Roi at Pamplemousses. The Stadt Wien/Ville de Vienne had been outfitted by one of Bolts’s rival partners from Antwerp, Pierre de Proli, who went on the ship to Mauritius as supercargo. Aware of the Emperor’s interest in replenishing the tropical plants collection at Schoenbrunn, and no doubt hoping to score a point against Bolts, Proli suggested to the Director of the Jardin du Roi, Jean Nicolas Céré, that he send a selection of the Jardin’s plants to Vienna. None of the living plants that were sent by Céré survived the voyage, but the arrival of the seeds and catalogue were deemed significant enough to be recorded by Jacquin in his Plantarum Rariorum Horti Caesarei Schoenbrunnensis Icones et Descriptiones.
The voyage of the Ville de Vienne demonstrated that, in the hands of capable botanists, there was a feasible way of bringing exotic plant species back to Austria. Instead of sending out a scientific expedition on an Austrian ship as Born had proposed, as an alternative way of replenishing the gardens of Schoenbrunn with exotic plants the Austrian naturalists under Maerter’s leadership went from Le Havre in April 1783 on the American frigate General Washington (Captain Joshua Barney) to Philadelphia and thence to South Carolina, Florida, the Bahamas and Santo Domingo (Hispaniola). Besides plants, they were to collect animal and mineral specimens. Reflecting the origins of the enterprise, their instructions gave them the option (which was not taken up) to take ship from Acapulco in Mexico to the Philippines, thence to the Sunda Islands in the Dutch East Indies, the coasts of Bengal, Coromandel and Malabar, and the Iles de France and Bourbon. Maerter’s reports back to Vienna were published by Born in the 1785 and 1786 issues of the journal he edited, Physikalische Arbeiten. The same journal had in 1783 published correspondence relating to the expedition. 
The pattern of sending out individual or pairs of botanists in chartered foreign ships was followed during the rest of the reign of Joseph II and in that of his brother and successor, Leopold II: Franz Bredemeyer and Joseph Schuect being sent in 1784 to Martinique, Santo Domingo, Jamaica and Venezuela; and Franz Boos being sent in 1785 to the Cape of Good Hope and Mauritius. In July 1789, Born, Mayer and Jacquin successfully recommended Thaddaeus Haenke to the Spanish Government for appointment as botanist on the expedition to the Pacific commanded by Alexandro Malaspina (Joseph II rightly foresaw that Haenke would never return to his homeland, and for that reason initially refused to approve his participation). In a final attempt at a commercial and scientific expedition under the Austrian flag, Nicolas Baudin (a Frenchman holding an Austrian commission) was sent out in command of La Jardiniere in October 1792 on a voyage to the Indian Ocean and China. Franz Bredemeyer and Joseph van der Schot were the expedition’s botanists. After a voyage that included stops at the Cape, Mauritius, Bombay, the Persian Gulf and Mozambique, the ship foundered in a storm while attempting to return to Cape Town. Subsequently Baudin, who had survived the wreck of the Jardiniere, was given a commission in the navy of his homeland and in 1800, following a proposal he put to First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, he was appointed commander of a voyage of discovery to the western and southern coasts of Australia.
The Emperor consented in November 1782 to a request from Bolts to place his proposal before the court of Catherine II of Russia, then on friendly terms with Austria. In his petition to the Emperor seeking his permission, Bolts promised that the expedition would sail from Trieste under the Russian flag. He sent a letter dated 17 December 1782 to the Russian Vice-Chancellor Ivan Andreyevich Ostermann, explaining his proposal. The details of his plan were set out in a separate document, but it appears to have been essentially the same as set out in the proposal he subsequently put to the French Court in 1785. He outlined to Ostermann his plan to send the Cobenzell from Trieste to the North West Coast of America by way of Cape Horn under the officers who had made the voyage with Captain Cook, of whose charts and plans Bolts had obtained copies. The North West Coast should be claimed for Russia, and this would enable a most advantageous commerce between that region and Kamchatka, all the coasts of Asia and as far as East Africa, as well as all the intermediate islands along the way. He also held out the prospect of discovering “the communication strongly suspected to exist between Hudson’s Bay and the Pacific” in the region to be taken possession of for the Empress. Some of the Pacific islands along the way could be suitable for sugar plantations to provide Russia with a first hand supply of that commodity. For the conduct of this enterprise, Bolts required an advance of 150,000 roubles, against which as security he offered the Cobenzell and her cargo, then at Trieste preparing for her voyage to India and China.
When the Russian Court proved unresponsive, probably because Trieste was an unacceptable home port for a Russian expedition, Bolts put his proposal before the courts of Joseph’s brothers-in-law, Ferdinand I of Naples, and Louis XVI of France. The French Government had already received information on Bolts’s project from their consul in Trieste, who reported in July 1782 that, with the support of the Court of Vienna, the Cobenzell would depart from Trieste for a voyage by way of South America to “California” (using that term, of course, in its contemporary sense of meaning the North West of America), and afterwards going to explore the islands of the South Sea. The consul said that the voyage was inspired by those of Cook, and that Bolts had assembled a group of naturalists and geographers and had brought to Trieste from Greenwich an astronomer who had accompanied Cook on his last voyage.
Bolts outlined his plan for an expedition, adapted from that he had put to the Austrians and Russians, in letters to the Maréchal de Castries on 25 January and 9 April 1785. He told the Maréchal, with some bitterness:
[Bolts] bientot après la publication du second voyage du Capitaine Cook conçut le projet de faire pour son compte, une expedition sur les traces de ce celebre Navigateur. En consequence dans le mois de Novembre 1781 il fit l’acquisition d’un navire de 600 Tonneaux, des qualités recommendées par ce Capitaine pour faire le voyage….Sa Majesté l’Empereur, sans lui donner aucun sécours, cépéndent alla jusqu’à nommer & établir quatre Sçavants pour accompagner le vaisseau. Mais le peû d’encouragement que le soussigné obtint en Allemagne, où l’on est encore dans l’ignorance la plus grossiere, relativement à ces sortes d’entreprises, l’obligea, avec grande perte, d’abandonner ce projet après que son vaisseau nommé le Cobenzell se fût trouvé à Trieste tout prèt à partir.
The French Court adopted the concept (though not its author) leading to the sending out of the expedition commanded by Jean-François Galaup de Lapérouse. Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu, Directeur des Ports et Arsenaux, stated in the draft of the memorandum on the expedition he submitted to the King: “the utility which may result from a voyage of discovery….has made me receptive to the views put to me by Mr. Bolts relative to this enterprise”. However, as Fleurieu explained to the King: “I am not proposing at all, however, the plan for this voyage as it was conceived by Mr. Bolts”. It was not appropriate that ships of the King’s Navy engage directly in trade; the task of the Lapérouse expedition was to prepare the way for French traders to follow, as well as serving the much broader objectives of the Government of carrying out a general survey of the state of affairs in the Pacific, and especially of the activities of the other European powers. Bolts was paid 1,200 louis for “the communications useful for the Service which he has given”, but was given no part in the preparation or execution of the expedition.
Even though the hopes of Joseph II for an Austrian circumnavigation were not realized, the preparations in 1781-1782 led to the expeditions of the Austrian naturalists Franz Josef Maerter and his companions in 1783 to North America and the Caribbean, of Franz Bredemeyer and Joseph Schüct in 1784, of Franz Boos in 1785, of Thaddaeus Haenke who went with the Spanish expedition led by Alexandro Malaspina in 1789-1794, and of Franz Bredemeyer and Joseph van der Schot in 1792. The Austrian project was also the genesis of the French expedition led by Lapérouse.
Robert J. King
Updated: June 13, 2018