The 18th Century Search for the Blue Nile

Natural History in Enlightenment Europe

Around the Age of Enlightenment, a public curiosity in natural history took hold in the minds of Europeans, quickly becoming a cultural fad but also a respectable intellectual pursuit. The basis for the increasing interest in natural history stems from the values of the Enlightenment itself: reason, empiricism, measurement, learning, method, When James Bruce departed on his expedition to Ethiopia in the mid-to-late 18th century, the cultural enthusiasm for natural history was already quite prominent. 

Cabinet_of_Curiosities_1690s_Domenico_Remps copy.jpg

This is a painting of a typical cabinet of curiosity as it might have appeared in the 18th century. One notable trait is the presence of red coral, a highly valued specimen among European collectors. 


Arguably the most publically visible manifestion of Enlightenment interest in natural history was the profusion of collectors and their massive collections of exotic and antique curios and natural specimen. From as early as the Renaissance, up to the 17th century and the time of James Bruce's voyages in Ethiopia, wealthy Europeans ammassed collections of rare coins, shells, corals, plants, animal parts, bones, weapons, tools, seeds, and other "natural and artificial rarities." (Huxley 80) These collectors would often show off their curios and possessions by displaying them in "cabinets of curiosities." These cabinets, sometimes portable, other times small rooms in homes, displayed the collectors' prized natural specimens or historical artifacts for the public or select guests. 

Prominent owners of cabinets of curiosities include William Courten, Sir Hans Sloane, Albertus Sebus, Robert Hubert, and even James Cook, whose private collection of specimens ignited an interest in natural history. These collections were often closely related to the work of explorers and the collections of Hans Sloane, who visisted and studied Jamaica, James Cook, who ventured into the South Pacific, and William Catesby, who travelled through the Carolinas, all were impressive, and featured many natural specimen. (Huxley 82 -84). These men represented the older tradition of collecting with an emphasis on the collection of knowledge; however, by the 18th century, collecting had become a fad reserved for the wealthy elite. Others, like explorer Joseph Banks, who accompanied James Cook on his voyages, were wealthy and privately funded, but also interested in the furtherance of science and the study of natural history. Banks' and other collectors' numerous illustrations and natural specimens educated much of the British publc on the flora and fauna of disparate regions of the world. (Huxley 90). 


This is a panting by William Hodges of James Cook's vessels anchored in Matavai Bay, Tahiti. 


  A major catalyst in the European obsession with natural history and specimens was the the expeditions of famed explorers, who mapped disparate corners of the globe and collected invaluable information on the diversity of the world. The values of the Enlightenment were intimately related to exporation and natural history, which was increasingly tied, as well, to imperialism and colonial expansion. The expeditions of men like Hans Sloane, James Cook, Mark Catesby, James Bruce, Mungo Park, Joseph Banks, and many others uncovered the previously dark regions of the map for Europeans, while also prolific natural specimens, illustrations, and detailed information on the far corners of the globe. The exploration expeditions during this time period  reflected and represented the Enlightenment desire to understand the diveristy of the world and the immense curiosity Europeans bore for the far regions of the world. 

The voyages of Hans Sloane illustare this process very well. Sloane visited Jamaica in the 18th century and compiled an impressive and prodigious collection of natural specimens, with realistic and accurate descriptions of the native fauna of Jamaica. Sloane's published travels, like the accounts of many explorers in this time, proved immensely popular with the European public. Many explorers, like Sloane, would begin to employ artists and naturalists on their expeditions to record accurate accounts of the flora and fauna of the regions they visited. James Bruce's sixth volume of his Travels in Search of the Source of the Nile contain dozens of accurate and unique depictions of the flora and fauna of Ethiopia. (Huxley 82)

The celebrated voyages of James Cook also served to cultivate European interest in the natural world. For his three voyages, James employed several artists to help document the flora and fauna he encountered. By the zenith of Enlightenment exploration, talented illustrators and learned naturalists were seen as integral to succesful exploration expeditions, and for the inevitable publishing of the travel accounts. 


This painting by Ignacio Barreda, completed in 1777, depicts the various castas, or racial categories, in 18th century Mexican society. 


A more complex, and even sinister, legacy of the ascendance of natural history was the crystallization of impermeable categories of "race" in the 18th century. For a long time, Enlightenment Europeans sought to systematize and organize the overwhelming diveristy of the world, in order to make it more manageable, structured, and therefore, understandable. Over the course of the 18th century, the systematic models of understanding that had been developed by naturalists to explain the diversity of the natural world were applied to human diversity as well. In this way, Europeans came to view what had long been considered "human varieties" in they same way they understood the categories that separated varieties in the animal world. 

The various European expeditions to Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries illustate this process well. Initially, Europeans had not developed the sociological framework necessary to conceptualize racial difference, and they considered Africans savage in some respects, but not quite racially distinct. This framework developed over the course of the 18th century. 



Gissis, Snait. “Visualizing ‘Race’ in the Eighteenth Century” in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, vol. 41, no 1 (2011), 41-103


Huxley, Robert. “Challenging the Dogma: Classifying and Describing the Natural World” in Enlightenment: Discovering the World of the Eighteenth Century, 70-91. 


Huxley, Robert. “Natural History Collections and their Collectors” in Enlightenment: Discovering the World of the Eighteenth Century, 70-91.


Stern, Phillip. “Exploration and Enlightenment” in Reinterpreting Exploration: The West in the World (2014), 57-79. 



Natural History through the Ages
Natural History in Enlightenment Europe