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Paradise Revealed : Natural History in Nineteenth-century Australia

By Finney, Colin, M

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Book Id: WPLBN0100301683
Format Type: PDF (eBook)
File Size: 10.65 MB.
Reproduction Date: 5/16/1993

Title: Paradise Revealed : Natural History in Nineteenth-century Australia  
Author: Finney, Colin, M
Language: English
Subject: Non Fiction, Science, Natural history Australia
Collections: History, Authors Community, Most Popular Books in China, Favorites in India, Education
Publication Date:
Publisher: Museum of Victoria
Member Page: Denise Rennis


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Finney, C. M. (1993). Paradise Revealed : Natural History in Nineteenth-century Australia. Retrieved from

The early generations of European visitors to Australia found themselves surrounded by a flora and fauna entirely different from anything they had seen before. For naturalists, this land in which ‘all things were queer and opposite’ was a cornucopia, and from Joseph Banks onwards they avidly collected the novelties that abounded in order to classify and name them according to the principles of order established by Linnaeus or his successors. Short-term visitors carried away vast numbers of specimens to fill the drawing rooms and museum cabinets of Europe. Some of those who came and stayed made money by becoming professional collectors to supply the popular market ‘at home’. Others, less commercially inclined, sought out new species for the purpose of serious scientific study, either by themselves or, as was almost always the case in the early years, by patrons in the upper echelons of European science. As the settler population grew, so too did the number of residents who took a systematic interest in Australia’s unusual natural forms. This made feasible the formation of scientific societies where like-minded people could seek support and encouragement, and exchange information and ideas. Colin Finney in his new book explores how this worked out in practice, from the coming together of the tiny but ambitiously titled Philosophical Society of Australasia, founded in Sydney in 1821, to the formation of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (forerunner of ANZAAS), established in 1888 with very different objectives and embodying a rather different view of what the scientific investigation of nature amounted to. He offers us, in short, a social history of natural history in Australia during the nineteenth century. In the early days, Finney shows, when the population of the various colonies remained small, any scientific society that was formed depended for its strength and legitimacy upon gaining the support of the local governor. Scientific societies flourished under scientifically inclined governors such as Sir Thomas Brisbane in New South Wales, 1821–25, or Sir John Franklin in Van Diemen’s Land, 1837–43, but otherwise they languished. Yet in a small community, their depending so closely on gubernatorial support also meant that such societies quickly became involved in the factionalism and political in-fighting that invariably surrounded the governor’s office, and rarely survived for very long. The rapid rise in population during the gold-rush years and the granting of responsible government to the various southeastern colonies in the 1850s created a very different atmosphere for scientific work and for the formation of scientific societies. Especially in the now separate colony of Victoria, a series of new scientific appointments provided a nucleus of professional scientists around whom strong central institutions could form. Finney describes how personal rivalries on a scale that had proved fatal to earlier scientific societies were here overridden by the interests of the larger group who wanted their institutions to survive, but how the group’s early optimism was then seared by the disasters of the exploring expedition they sponsored under the leadership of Burke and Wills. Finney goes on to discuss the impact of Darwinian theory on Australian natural history and the controversies it engendered, and also the emergence of natural history as a popular activity for the middle classes in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. In this context, he considers both the gradual introduction of systematic science teaching in some schools in the different colonies during this period, and the establishment of various field naturalists’ clubs to cater for the enhanced public interest. Finally, he describes the rise of biology as a new, experimentally oriented and professionally based life science during the final decades of the century, the relegation of the old-style natural history to the status of an amateur pursuit, and the uneasy tension that developed between the two approaches, which persists to the present day. The story Finney tells is an important one that brings new insights into how earlier generations of immigrant Australians went about studying nature’s astonishing productions in the island continent that they had made their home. Natural history like any other science is an essentially social activity, the successful prosecution of which requires appropriate supporting institutions. Finney’s work demonstrates this anew, and in the process tells us as much about the evolution of Australian society as it does about the history of Australian science.

In the Australian colonies, early natural historians worked in isolation. Far from the latest in European ideas and books, the collegiality afforded by established societies, and even fellow colonial practitioners, individuals pressed on as best they could with the resources at hand. Their focus was firmly on collection —most of the fruits of which were dispatched ‘back home’ for others to analyse and evaluate. By the 1850s, however, the picture had changed. A colonial infrastructure of societies and institutions was emerging. Local practitioners were beginning to make their own evaluations, and publications with substantial local content were not uncommon. Australian natural history was coming of age. And it would further mature as the controversy over evolutionary theory was fought out. By the turn of the century, with Darwinist principles accepted in schools, teacher education programmes and universities, old-style natural history had been displaced by the new professional discipline of Biology. Focusing on the social relations between Australian naturalists, this study ‘provides a window through which the evolution of natural history in Australia may be discerned’.

The second decade of the nineteenth century saw a qualitative change in natural history as practised in the fledgling colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Before the early 1820s natural history was carried out by individuals; men such as David Burton, George Caley or Allan Cunningham, working in isolation.1 All too infrequently the tedium and problems of working alone were broken by the arrival of that hallmark of early nineteenth century science—the globe-girdling scientific-exploratory expedition. When Matthew Flinders’ Investigator, with botanist Robert Brown aboard, touched at Sydney for a second time in 1803, George Caley wrote to his patron, Joseph Banks: I know I shall be much benefitted by Mr Brown, for in general, until the present, I have had nobody to discourse upon the same pursuit, for want of which, the pleasures of the study were obstructed.2 Yet the arrival of colleagues brought its own share of problems, including the introduction of rivals into areas which the resident naturalists considered to be their exclusive domain. Governor Philip Gidley King noted that the irascible Caley, despite his desire for discourse on botany, objected to interloper Robert Brown’s presumption in collecting in what Caley considered to be his own territory: ‘I believe he is very angry at having Mr Brown here, who he cannot help considering as a laborer in the field that ought to be wrought by himself.’3 During the early years of Australian settlement the number of naturalists resident in either New South Wales or Van Diemen’s Land was insufficient to spark the development of the formal infrastructure normally associated with science. There were no scientific societies, museums or scientific journals. This initial period was the Banksian era of Australian natural history, a time devoted to the collection of specimens for despatch to England, usually to Joseph Banks, who then dispersed them to European naturalists. Only a limited number of individuals domiciled in New South Wales in January 1820 could claim more than a peripheral interest in natural history, among them: Allan Cunningham, Charles Fraser, Phillip Parker King, John Oxley, John Jamison and George Harper. A majority of this group, Cunningham, Fraser, King and Oxley, were often away from Sydney on extended exploratory or collecting expeditions. In the coming decade, however, the number of those interested in natural history and who were resident in New South Wales expanded considerably. This increase led to the beginning of an infrastructure for natural history with the formation of a museum and a scientific society, and the commencement of the scientific organization of the Botanic Gardens. The decade witnessed a further change. The frontier of natural history, the continual discovery of new plant and animal species, was pushed beyond the doorstep of Sydney and out into the hinterlands. Natural history could now be organized, plucked from the realm of the heroic and seated in the prosaic. The camaraderie of a shared interest partially replaced the excitement of discovery. A social history of natural history could begin.

Table of Contents
List of illustrations Foreword Preface 1 The heroic age of natural history: England and Australia, 1790–1860 2 The beginning of an infrastructure: New South Wales, 1820–26 3 A rash of cultural institutions: Van Diemen’s Land, 1826–50 4 A renaissance of natural history: Van Diemen’s Land, 1837–43 5 Australia Felix: Port Phillip District, 1840–54 6 Societies and concerns: Port Phillip District, 1850–60 7 The issue of progressive development: Intercolonial, 1860–70 8 Natural history in schools and clubs: Intercolonial, 1850–1900 9 The rise of biology: Intercolonial, 1850–1900 General references and endnotes Index


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