Managing Nature in the Age of Enlightenment: The Practice of Natural History in Britain, 1760-1820

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The relationship between printed books, manuscripts and specimens dominated the practice of natural history during the late eighteenth century. This dissertation explores the complex connections between these materials and shows how they were used to apply systematic structure to nature on a global scale. Central to shaping a variety of diverse paper-based media used to arrange and record information across different formats were alternate systems of classification, one of the more prominent being that developed by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus that was widely adopted in Britain from the 1760s. Concentrating on three of the most prominent natural historians of the late eighteenth century, Joseph Banks (1743–1820), Thomas Pennant (1726–98) and Gilbert White (1720–93), this dissertation examines the integration of printed books into the practice of natural history. Although there has been significant work on the development of philosophical systems for classifying nature and on the relationship between natural history and British imperial expansion, this dissertation intertwines these with the collaborative practicalities and social hierarchies of knowledge production, emphasising connections between the practices of natural history and the generation of new knowledge. The four chapters of this thesis each concentrate on a major stage in the production of natural-historical knowledge. Chapter one examines natural history expeditions that took place within the British Isles and ranged from national tours to parochial surveys. It suggests naturalists’ use of paper developed alongside different scales of time, classificatory systems and geopolitical areas. Journeys within Britain inspired the state sponsored voyages of discovery discussed in chapter two, the main example being the use of different paper technologies by Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander and their field assistants to collect, record and describe thousands of new species during James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific (1768–1771). The third chapter reassesses of the processes that went into converting the information and objects collected on expeditions into illustrated natural history books. It shows how the views of specific authors and compilers shaped approaches to production that do not conform to the more general commercial publishing models often used by historians to characterise this period. The final chapter looks outwards once more, assessing the divergent strategies for distributing natural history publications. Books were designed to be used across a global network; many were redistributed for use on national and intercontinental expeditions, intertwining the means for collecting and classifying nature with imperial expansion as the eighteenth century drew to a close.

Secord, James
history of science, history of natural history, book history, material culture, travel and exploration, Joseph Banks, Thomas Pennant, Gilbert White, paper technologies, information management
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
AHRC (1791919)