Sydney Parkinson’s Journal and a Publishing Nightmare

I am Andrew Brown, I am currently a postgraduate intern working within Rare Books. My project involves working out the provenance of some of the books the National Library of Scotland (NLS) holds. Today I would like to talk about a book which has particularly interested me; Sydney Parkinson’s A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, a book which has a colourful history, and some remarkable contents which give us an insight into travel writing in the eighteenth century and some of the issues faced by publishers if the author died at sea.

Sydney Parkinson was born in Edinburgh in the early eighteenth century and had been commissioned by the botanist Joseph Banks to paint watercolours of materials brought back from earlier expeditions to Newfoundland and Labrador. Banks invited Parkinson on James Cook’s first voyage (Banks was the botanist) as part of his private team, during which Parkinson would be responsible for natural history sketches. Unfortunately, the second artist, Alexander Buchan who was responsible for portraits and topography, died early in the voyage and Parkinson had to do both jobs. Luckily, other crew members were able to help.

Parkinson died of dysentery at sea after contracting it while the ship was docked at Batavia (modern Jakarta). Nevertheless, during the voyage Parkinson had drawn over one thousand pictures, collected botanical samples and had written a journal, all of which came into the possession of  Joseph Banks.

An engraving of a Maori canoe from one of Sydney Parkinson's drawings

An engraving of a Maori canoe from one of Sydney Parkinson’s drawings

This is where it gets interesting. The expedition had circumnavigated New Zealand and explored the East coast of New Holland (modern Australia) and therefore anything relating to the voyage would be of great interest in Britain. This led to a dispute between Stanfield Parkinson, Sydney’s brother and Joseph Banks. Banks, believing he had a duty to allow the family to read the journal (although firmly in the belief that he owned all the rights to it) handed the book over to Stanfield who promptly arranged for its publication. John Fothergill, a family friend of the Parkinsons from their time in Edinburgh, was brought in to arrange a compromise between the two men. The book, however, was published by Stanfield in 1773 with an attack in the preface on Bank’s conduct during the affair.

Fothergill, when he discovered this, was outraged, and immediately bought all remaining copies. He added explanatory remarks to Stanfield’s preface indicating that Banks had done nothing wrong,  maintained his dignity, and made concessions to the Parkinson family throughout the whole affair. The final edition was published in 1784 after both Fothergill and Stanfield had died.

One of the four copies the NLS holds is also bound with maps and charts of the voyages of George Anson, Cook and George Anson Byron, cousin of the infamous Lord Byron. There is also a pamphlet from 1773 and an obituary of Captain Cook, who died in 1779, included in the book. There is a note just inside the back cover explaining that this was done in 1982, maybe in order to keep this collection of memorabilia together.

Fothergill's Letter to Thomas Percy

But perhaps the most interesting part included in the collation is a letter from Fothergill to the future bishop of Dromore, Thomas Percy while he was chaplain to the Duke of Northumberland. The letter is very important. It shows that this copy of the journal was an earlier republication of the 1784 edition. The letter also contains information that Fothergill’s remarks will be inserted into the Duke of Northumberland’s copy of the journal and that Percy, since he has connections to nobility he will be able to supply further copies to people he was acquainted with.

The 1784 edition of the book is not identical to the version in which we find Fothergill’s letter.  Parkinson’s journal was extended following his death and another copy within the Rare Book collection shows that the extended edition published in 1784 contains accounts of other scientific voyages of the eighteenth century, including an account of the circumnavigation of John Byron during the Seven Years War as well as the second and third voyages of Captain Cook. It appears that publishers wanted to cash in on the popularity of naval explorations during the eighteenth century.

Some Further Information

  • The Endeavour Natural History Illustrations, Natural History Museum,