John Forbes (1799-1823): The Role of the Royal Navy in Promoting Scientific Exploration

Suter, Franziska. John Forbes (1799-1823): The Role of the Royal Navy in Promoting Scientific Exploration. 2010, Master Thesis, University of Basel, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

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This thesis analyses the connection between the Royal Navy and scientific work at the beginning of the 19th century. It is based on journals and letters written by the British botanist John Forbes (1799-1823), who accompanied an expedition of the Royal Navy to survey the east coast of Africa between 1822 and 1826.
In 1821 the Admiralty and the Hydrographic Office in England had decided that the coasts of Africa should be charted, since the available maps were incomplete or wrong, and chronometers were still a new scientific instrument. For that purpose Captain William Owen was appointed the command of the Leven and he was accompanied by the brig Barracouta. The botanist John Forbes, who was born in 1899, was sent on the voyage by the Horticultural Society of London. He was instructed to collect as many plants, seeds, flowers, insects, minerals, bird skins and any other objects of natural history as possible. He also had the task to write journals. Although the whole voyage lasted about four and a half years, the thesis focuses on the first part, since Forbes died in August 1823 on the banks of the Zambezi River.
John Forbes was appointed by the Horticultural Society of London on the invitation of Captain Owen. This society was founded on March 7th 1804 and among its initial members was Sir Joseph Banks, who had become famous through his voyage on the Endeavour from 1768 to 1771. He was one of the men who greatly pushed the scientific work in the Royal Navy. Another man whose achievements still influenced the surveys in the 1820s was Captain James Cook; his voyages had been ground breaking, especially because of the accuracy of his charts. A second important institution for Captain Owen's expedition was the Hydrographic Office; it was founded in 1795 and responsible for the collection and production of the Admiralty charts. After the Napoleonic Wars, the importance of accurate charts became clear and new efforts were undertaken to improve them.
The main part of the thesis discusses the work of Captain Owen and John Forbes. For this, several sources were used. Owen published the accounts of the survey to the east coast of Africa in two volumes under the title Narrative of Voyages to the Shore of Africa, Arabia and Madagascar. It was not printed until 1831, because Owen was engaged with his next voyage to Fernando Po at the west coast of Africa. He only prepared the notes and did not write the book himself and so almost a third of it is taken from the journals of his officers or from John Forbes. His first lieutenant Boteler's book was published after his death under the title Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery to Africa and Arabia. Published in 1835, it is in most parts the same as Owen's. Captain Owen's letters and the logbooks of the ships amount to an extensive source and are found at the National Archives in London.
The most important sources originating from John Forbes are his journals and letters, which are located at the archive of the Horticultural Society in London. There are eight journals at the archive dating from the 4th of February 1822 to the 1st of April 1823, of which three are duplicates. Among his papers at the archive are also about 40 letters, most of them written to Joseph Sabine, the secretary of the Horticultural Society, but there are also a few letters from Sabine to Forbes. These letters give a good impression of the mutual expectations of this undertaking and also the frustration about the long time it took for a letter to reach its destination. Very interesting are three letters written by Forbes' family, which give a very personal account of the relationship to his parents, two brothers and his sister. Often information on Owen was found in Forbes' journals, but Owen also mentioned Forbes in his writing. Together the different accounts give a profound picture of the proceedings of this scientific survey.
The ships sailed in February 1822 from England to Lisbon, Madeira, and the Cape Verde Island, where they started to take scientific measurements. After crossing the Atlantic, they arrived in Rio de Janeiro, where they commissioned the tender Cockburn to survey the rivers. The passage to Simon's Bay at the Cape of Good Hope took several weeks and they arrived on the 7th of July 1822. They proceeded to Port Elizabeth at Algoa Bay and from there to Delagoa Bay at the coast of today's Mozambique, where they stayed from September to November. A tragic outbreak of malaria lead to the death of almost one third of the crew. Even though they tried bleeding to save the sick, they found no effective cure for malaria. Several notes confirm the fact, that the area was populated with a great amount of mosquitoes, but no one made the connection between the mosquitoes and the sickness. Only when they sailed form Delagoa Bay to Madagascar, the crew restored its health. They continued to the Comoro Islands and Mozambique before they returned to Delagoa Bay and the Cape of Good Hope. The life on board the ships was hard and Captain Owen administrated strict discipline, often enforced with hard punishment. The daily work also included different measurements. They surveyed the coasts, using dead reckoning, astronomical observations and the rocket method which was supposed to help measure the distance between two points by the use of rockets. Especially at the Delagoa Bay, the survey of the rivers was one of their major tasks. While they were working, they also encountered different groups of indigenous people, even getting caught in warfare. The accounts on these experiences are very interesting and represent a 19th century European view on the indigenous people and their way of living. John Forbes often had difficulties to reconcile his work as a botanist with the stresses and strains of surveying rivers and more than once he lost parts of his collection because of rain, mould or bugs. Nevertheless he enjoyed his adventures and was very committed to his work. Important was also Captain Owen's stance against the slave trade. On more than one occasion, he tried to free slaves and went even so far as to annex land for their protection, which was at the same time connected to colonial interests.
The last part of the thesis focuses on the expedition along the Zambezi River on which John Forbes participated and finally died. It was the first time that Europeans tried to get that far up the Zambezi. The expedition started on the 23rd of July 1823 in Quilimane. It consisted of Lieutenant Browne, John Forbes and the assistant-surgeon Kilpatrick. Further they were accompanied by two black servants from the region. On the 2nd of August, they reached the junction where the Quilimane turns into the Zambezi River. A day later, Forbes was the first to get sick. Since his fever did not decline, Kilpatrick bled him. For the next several days, Forbes' state of health varied, while they travelled further. He died on the 16th of August close to the town of Senna, shortly after his two companions got sick too and died as well. It can be said that this expedition was a total disaster and it seems they had not learned much from the many deaths at Delagoa Bay and the danger of ascending the rivers on the east coast of Africa. Captain Owen continued his survey and he sailed again from the Cape of Good Hope, the ships were going as far as the Seychelles, Mauritius, Bombay and Muscat. On their way back home they were instructed to survey parts of the west coast of Africa as well. When the ships finally returned to England, about 30,000 miles of coast line had been surveyed and about 300 charts had been drawn. The output of new knowledge in natural history was also extensive.
Advisors:Harries, Patrick
Faculties and Departments:04 Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > Departement Geschichte > Ehemalige Einheiten Geschichte > Geschichte Afrikas (Harries)
UniBasel Contributors:Harries, Patrick
Item Type:Thesis
Thesis Subtype:Master Thesis
Thesis status:Complete
Last Modified:05 Apr 2018 17:39
Deposited On:06 Feb 2018 11:29

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