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Botany on Ice: Joseph Dalton Hooker's Antarctic Journal

As part of Kew’s celebration of the bicentenary of Joseph Dalton Hooker’s birth in 1817, the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project is pleased to announce that Hooker’s ‘Antarctic Journal’ is now available online via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
29 June 2017
Cam Sharp Jones


HMS Erebus and the Ross Expedition

          Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker as a young man. Chalk portrait by George Richmond, 1855.

Hand written, the Antarctic Journal is a personal account of the sights Joseph Hooker encountered during his adventure on the HMS Erebus, as part of Captain James Clark Ross’s expedition to the Antarctic (1839–1843). 

The expedition was undertaken to determine the exact location of the magnetic South Pole and to perform geographic, hydrographical, natural history and terrestrial research of the region. The Ross Expedition was Hooker’s first major voyage and he joined the mission as Assistant Surgeon on board the HMS Erebus. 

Aged just 22 on departure, Hooker travelled for 4 years as part of the expedition. The HMS Erebus and its sister ship HMS Terror spent the winter months in New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania and during the summer months journeyed into the Arctic Circle to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent. The observations and collections made by Joseph during his travels which are recorded in this Journal and other notebooks formed the basis not only of a published Antarctic flora, but of floras of these wider regions as well. 

Illustration of the one of the Expedition ships amongst the ice in front of Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, from the frontispiece of The Botany of the Antarctic Voyage by Joseph Hooker, published in 1847.

Conservation and digitisation

As part of the project to digitise the manuscript, the Journal underwent a conservation assessment to ensure the long-term safety of this invaluable item. Prior to digitisation, it was agreed that the early 20th century binding that housed the Journal was not suitable and should be removed.

         The Antarctic Journal during its conservation assessment.

Once the binding was removed it was discovered that the Journal was actually made up of a number of ‘volumes’ and certain pages had become loose.

The Journal unbound showing the different ‘volumes’ or ‘parts’ contained within the 20th century binding.

A number of the pages were also treated to stabilise the iron gall ink in a ‘bath’ to allow for more extensive repair work to be undertaken. 

                                   Pages from the Journal being treated to stabilise the ink.

Following this initial stage of the conservation the Journal was digitised in preparation for its inclusion in the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) online resource. We are now organising for the Journal to be rebound sympathetically to its needs and in light of it being one of Kew’s most referenced Archival items.

Botany on ice

The Journal is important as a historical record of early expeditions to the Antarctic region, but also as a record of the day to day routine throughout the journey. Captain Ross kept a close eye on the documentation and collections of the expedition retaining much of the material himself, although much of it was later damaged or destroyed whilst in his possession and after his death. Joseph Hooker’s surviving account and observations of the voyage are therefore of particular significance, and we are pleased to be able to bring them to a wider audience.

From the Journal we learn about the discovery of notable aspects of the natural environment in the region – such as the discovery of two volcanos, one active and one dormant which were subsequently named Mount Erebus and Mount Terror after being sighted on 28th January 1841. 

Watercolour sketches by Joseph Hooker of Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, named for the two ships that were part of the Ross expedition. The volcanos were first sighted on 28th January 1841.

The Journal also reports the various species of wildlife the ships encountered, such as the birds sighted and caught, and the perhaps more monotonous recording of climate and longitude and latitude readings.

As a botanist Joseph Hooker was particularly interested in recording the various ferns, trees, seaweeds and other plants he was encountering – not only from the Antarctic region but also from the places the Expedition stopped at on its journey – such as Madeira, Cape Verde, the Falkland Islands and South Africa.

As such, the Journal remains an important source of information on the flora, fauna and geography of these regions, and a key reference work for botanists and other researchers.

We would like to thank Frederik Paulsen for supporting the conservation and digitisation of Joseph Hooker’s Antarctic Journal and for helping to make it publicaly available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

– Cam Sharp Jones –

(Project Officer – The Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project)