North American Exploration - Vol. 3

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview

18 / Nature's Gullivers and Crusoes: The Scientific Exploration of British North America, 1800-1870

SUZANNE ZELLER

During the 1800s the British territories in North America were more closely scrutinized than ever before. They piqued curiosity during the Napoleonic Wars because they contained natural resources that the British economy required to continue its war effort. Only through rational, "statistical" surveys, borrowed from the German tradition of statecraft in the late 1700 s, could the nature and extent of these resources be made known as quickly and efficiently as possible. This practical need to take stock in British North America found reinforcement after the peace of 1815, when an overabundance of British military officers turned their skills to peacetime activities. As a result, geographical investigation was transformed from aesthetic description to the systematic collection and classification of information. Science thus did more than generate abstract data; it offered a means of assessing the habitability of the earth and of making better use of its resources to predict and control the quality of life.

Scientific explorations in British North America after 1800 were conducted along two lines, both etched deeply in the British imagination by travel literature of the time. First, as in Jonathan Swift Gulliver's Travels ( 1726), explorers sojourned overseas for imperial purposes that were of little direct concern to the colonies. Like Gulliver, they arrived in new lands eager to "see the country and make what discoveries [they] could," and they reported their observations in terms relative to the familiar standards of home. Like Gulliver, these explorers returned home with corrections to current maps and with other useful contributions that were "honourably received."1 Among the first "Gullivers" were military officers who found themselves underemployed and their positions threatened after the

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