Sunday, October 4, 2009

Narbrough’s £300,000 diary

The British Library has launched an appeal to raise over £300,000 to save a 17th century diary from being sold abroad. According to the Library, the journal, by Sir John Narbrough, contains the fullest known account of his voyage to South America, and is particularly significant because it demonstrated ‘the apparent viability of the English dream of trade in the Pacific’.

Narbrough (or Narborough) was descended from an old Norfolk family, according to Wikipedia’s information, and received his naval commission in 1664. He was promoted to lieutenant during the Second Anglo-Dutch war, and then, after the battle of Solebay during the Third Anglo-Dutch War, he was made rear-admiral and knighted. In the late 1670s, he had further naval successes against North African pirates. He was appointed commissioner of the Navy in 1680, an office he held till his death in 1688. The most comprehensive information about Narbrough online is available from the second volume (of eight) of The Naval History of Great Britain by Dr John Campbell published in 1818, which is freely available on Googlebooks.

Between the second and third Anglo-Dutch wars, though, Narbrough led an important voyage of exploration to the South Seas in HMS Sweepstakes. He was instructed to investigate the possibilities of trade with, and in that context to survey and map, the coasts of South America but without provoking the Spanish. He successfully sailed the treacherous Straits of Magellan, and fulfilled two of the three objectives. However, he ran into trouble with the Spanish authorities, and consequently had a somewhat inglorious return to England.

A narrative of this journey was first published some 20 years later in An Account of Several Late Voyages and Discoveries to the South and North. Towards the Streights of Maggellen, the South Seas, the Vast Tracts of Land beyond Hollandia Nova, &c. also towards Nova Zembla, Greenland or Spitsberg, Groynland or Engrondland, &c. Copies are available, at a price - around £2,000 for a 1711 edition - on Abebooks.

Earlier this year, Narbrough’s original journal, which includes the period of his voyage to South America, was discovered alongside a series of illustrated maps and drawings with the family papers of the Earls of Romney at the Centre for Kentish Studies. It was subsequently sold to a foreign private collector for £310,000, but the government placed a temporary bar - until 7 November - on exporting the manuscript. So far the British Library has raised £290,000 (£200,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund), but is appealing for a further £30,000 to improve on the sale price.

A press release from the British Library (available here) says: ‘The beautifully illustrated journal together with intricate maps and drawings of animals and natives of the region enables Narbrough to be seen more clearly as a crucial figure in the history of English exploration. If his search for gold and dealings with the Spaniards look back to the heroic days of Francis Drake, his preoccupation with the welfare of his crew and his scientific interests look forward to the achievements of James Cook. On top of that, Narbrough, a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, was an excellent diarist.’ History Today has a good summary of the story.

Peter Barber, the head of map collections at the British Library, told MailOnline that the diary’s discovery was ‘fantastically exciting - this is an historical icon of the future and it was unknown, visually so good, scientifically excellent and of such high research value’. And he explained why the diary is so important: ‘Narbrough’s journey proved it was possible for Britain to get involved in the Pacific trade, which set the direction of our foreign policy for the next 50 years . . . The repercussions [were] extraordinary - if Sir John hadn’t made his trip, Britain probably would not have gone into the War of the Spanish Succession and there would never have been the South Sea Bubble of 1720-21 - the biggest financial crisis of the 18th century.’

It was Barber who put the case to The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council for Narbrough’s diary and charts to be considered of national importance. In his expert submission he gave three reasons (nb: Barber and the British Library seem to use both spellings of the name):

‘1. Narborough’s successful passage of the Straight in both directions proved that the South Seas trade was technically feasible for the English. . . 2. The manuscript enables Narborough, one of the few English-born explorers of the later seventeenth century, to be seen more clearly as a crucial figure in the history of English exploration. If his dealings with the Spaniards suggest a latter day (and much less successful) Francis Drake, his precise measurement of coastlines and depths, his lively ethnographical and wild life curiosity and his active interest in the welfare of his crew, well illustrated in the maps, foreshadow the achievements of James Cook. 3. The charts from the voyage are of considerable importance as amongst the earliest English large-scale maps of Spanish America. Those of Valdivia and particularly of Port St Julian are especially important for their ethnographical and wild life illustrations.’

Finally, here are several short extracts from the diary, taken from the article at MailOnline.

‘This island is of indifferent height and full of large timber trees, like ash.’

‘And there are those trees, as in the Straits of Magellan, of which the rind is like hot ginger.’

‘Here is good fresh water - the island is about two leagues long from the North West to the South East. . . The earth is a black mould.’

‘I killed many ducks and geese and hars and ostorages here. There are good fowls in the winter, a great store of mullets in the summer and very good salt in the ponds.’

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