A zoological atlas: Voyage autour du monde, sur la Bonite

The great exploring expeditions of the 19th century often published accounts of their voyages in a series of large illustrated atlases. This particular atlas is part of the account of a French expedition, published as Voyage autour du monde : exécuté pendant les années 1836 et 1837 sur la Bonite commandée par m. Vaillant. It was acquired recently by Auckland Libraries and is currently on display in the exhibition Old & New: recent additions to Sir George Grey Special Collections together with another recent atlas purchase: An account of a voyage in search of La Perouse.

In 1836 French naval officer Auguste-Nicolas Vaillant was given instructions for a voyage through the Pacific on the former troopship La Bonite. The main aim of the voyage was political – Vaillant was to maintain a French presence in the area while delivering diplomatic and consular representatives to Chile, Peru and Manila, and visiting trade ports and religious missions in South America and Hawaii.

Science was not forgotten however, and Vaillant was also instructed to make hydrographic and geographic observations when possible, and to gather natural history specimens (of which some 3,500 were brought back to the National Museum of Natural History in Paris). Travelling with the expedition were the naturalists Joseph Eydoux and François Souleyet, and watercolour artists Barthélémy Lauvergne and Théodore-Auguste Fisquet. The atlas documents their work, containing 101 illustrated plates of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, insects, crustaceans, and molluscs. Some, like these Girella, Eydoux and Souleyet named after themselves.

The plates in the atlas are stunning examples of 19th century scientific illustration, created from the specimens and sketches brought back from the voyage. They were produced by a number of professional artists and engravers, including Jean Gabriel Prétre and Paul Louis Oudart. After printing the illustrations were then hand-coloured, achieving the incredibly detailed finish that can be seen in this illustration of a Boa de Chevalier, drawn by Oudart.

You can view more of the plates in a digitised version of the atlas in the Internet Archive, or come and see the book itself, on display from now until February 28, in the Exhibition Room, Level 2, Central City Library.

Further reading: Author: Renee Orr, Sir George Grey Special Collections