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The Erebus voyage

Joseph Hooker's first major botanical expedition was on HMS Erebus as part of Captain James Clark Ross' Antarctica expedition (1839-1843).

Hooker’s passions for botany and travel were combined when he was appointed assistant surgeon aboard HMS Erebus, which – commanded by Sir James Clark Ross, and accompanied by its sister ship, the Terror – was to spend four years exploring the southern oceans. The ships took shelter from Antarctica’s winters in places such as New Zealand and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), and also visited the numerous tiny islands around Antarctica. These included Kerguelen’s Land, where Hooker was finally able to gratify his desire to knock penguins on the head (an ambition held since childhood, his grandfather having  shown him an account of one of Cook's sailors killing penguins on the same distant rock). More importantly, the sojourns ashore allowed him to collect plants in relatively unexplored regions.

No future botanist will probably ever visit the countries whither I am going, and that is a great attraction.

J.D. Hooker in a letter to his father before the Erebus set sail, 3 Feb 1840

Before he set sail, Charles Lyell of Kinnordy (father of the geologist) gave Hooker the proofs of Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. As he waited to set sail, Joseph read Darwin’s words eagerly, excited but a little overwhelmed at the ‘variety of acquirements, mental and physical, required in a naturalist who should follow in Darwin’s footsteps’ (Darwin 1888: 19–20).

Hooker's Paintings of  Mount Erebus & Mount Terror after which the Antractic Expedition ships were named. Paintings from Hooker's Antarctic Journal.

From Hooker's Antarctic Journal held in the RBG Kew archive. Watercolours of Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, the volcanoes discovered on the voyage and named after the expedition ships.

Hooker was not the only one who saw Darwin as a role model; Ross wanted ‘such a person as Mr. Darwin’ as the expedition’s naturalist, but felt that Hooker had not yet proved himself of Darwin’s calibre. After Ross appointed him to the inferior position of expedition’s botanist, Hooker complained to his father, ‘what was Mr. D. before he went out? he, I daresay, knew his subject better than I now do, but did the world know him? the voyage with FitzRoy was the making of him (as I hoped this exped. would me)’ (Huxley 1918: 41).

Travel was a major way in which aspiring men of science like Hooker and Darwin could establish themselves. In the absence of established scientific career paths, the long years onboard ship were the first step in crafting careers for themselves. Although Ross was a friend of William Hooker, and encouraged Joseph’s botanical work during the voyage, William’s income would not allow Joseph to travel as a self-financed, gentlemanly companion to the captain – as Darwin had done. Instead, Joseph sailed as a lowly assistant surgeon, subject to naval discipline and with many shipboard duties to perform.

The botany of the Antarctic voyage of H.M. discovery ships Erebus and Terror in the Years 1839-1843. Read the book online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage by J. D. Hooker

 

When HMS Erebus returned to England in 1843, Hooker needed to establish his reputation and find paid, botanical employment. Two years earlier, his father had been appointed first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which had just been brought under government control. However, while the prestigious appointment brought William Hooker to the centres of scientific life in London, it reduced his income and he was still unable to give his son much financial support. Fortunately William’s influence was sufficient to secure an Admiralty grant of £1000 to cover the cost of the Botany of the Antarctic Voyage’s plates, and Joseph received his Assistant Surgeon’s pay while he worked on it. The book eventually formed six large volumes: two each for theFlora Antarctica, 1844–47; the Flora Novae-Zelandiae, 1851–53; and the Flora Tasmaniae, 1853–59.

Nonetheless, Hooker’s Antarctic publications never made any money and much of his time in the 1840s was taken up with searching for paid employment. In 1845, he was a candidate for the chair of botany at the University of Edinburgh. After failing to win the professorship, his father’s contacts helped him secure work at the Geological Survey from 1847–48, but he still had no permanent position.

Text by Dr Jim Endersby. Reproduced with the permission of the author and Oxford University Press. Full biography also available free online on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website.