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Oct/Nov 2010 Book Reviews

From Antarctica to Africa

Per Wastberg.
Translated by Tom Geddes.
The Journey of Anders Sparrman: A Biographical Novel.

Granta. 2010. 401 pp.
ISBN: 9781847081308

Reviewed by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! "On the 28th of January [1774] we penetrated into the southern regions as far as we could possibly go... no person before us had had the frozen honour of being further south." So wrote twenty-six-year-old Anders Sparrman, who was sailing as an assistant zoologist, botanist and physician on Captain James Cook's ship, Resolution. It was typical of his honest recording of the natural world that he also noted, "I could smell rotten penguin meat."

Sparrman's diary entries describing the light, the noise, the terror and the beauty of glacier-filled Antarctic seas are amongst the most compelling in this book. Yet this voyage to Tahiti, the Antarctic and New Zealand was not his first venture into unmapped territory, and this description is only one of many of his vivid, acute and fascinating observations of the natural world, the people and the cultures which he encountered on his travels.

Anders Sparrman was a most remarkable Swedish natural scientist, whose early travels had taken him to both China and South Africa before he boarded the Resolution. He was just fourteen when he left the countryside where his great-grandfather, grandfather and father had all been church ministers, and went to Uppsala with his older brother to study medicine at the university. There he became the youngest disciple of the great Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus, who commissioned him (at the age of nineteen) to travel to China to collect and observe the natural phenomena. Since early childhood, Sparrman had been fascinated and absorbed by the world of nature, so he was superbly qualified for this task. And he continued his biological observations all his life, although he travelled little after the age of thirty.

After returning from Antarctica, Sparrman sailed once again on Linneaus's commission. This time he ventured far into unmapped territory in Southern Africa, mapping and collecting specimens, and observing the natives and the Boer settlers as he went. In his surviving diaries, he gives readers a delightful picture of himself trekking into the bush to "observe the lilies on the ground and the daughters of the land" with a "whole regiment" of insects pinned around the brim of his hat because his insect box was full. The collection which he sent back to Sweden at the end of his trip was "the largest ever sent from Africa to any country" but his notes on the culinary delights of such things as fried elephant's trunk, rhinoceros flesh and hippopotamus-fat soup, would horrify modern conservationists. His observations of the people he met, their cultures, customs and illnesses, are as acute as his descriptions of the country and its botanical specimens. Most of all, the horrors and cruelty of the slavery which he encountered and recorded made him a passionate abolitionist.

On his return to Sweden at the age of thirty, he set up practice as a doctor and midwife, and was given a 'pension' as the Keeper of the Museum at the Academy in Stockholm. Later he was elected to the Swedish Academy of Science and paid a stipend, which allowed him time to order and describe his collection. Subsequently he was appointed Curator of the Cabinet of Natural History, a position which he held against strong opposition until just before his fiftieth birthday. In contrast to the freedom of his early childhood and the independence and adventure of his early life, these appointments exposed him to bureaucratic corruption, pettiness and social commitments which he scorned. Fortunately, it also brought him into contact with Lotte, a young woman with whom he shared love and friendship until his death in 1820.

Per Wästberg's weaving together of the strands of Sparrman's remarkable life from his books, diaries and letters, and Wästberg's own empathetic imagination, rescues a good and modest man from obscurity. His achievements in botany, the important part he played in the abolition of slavery, and his lifelong work for the ordinary, poor people whose doctor he chose to be, all make him a man who deserves to be remembered.

This book is not always easy to read. Wästberg's prose, initially, seems rather abrupt but his descriptions of nature are lyrical, and gradually his 'voice' begins to seem natural to his subject. The excerpts from Sparrman's own diaries and letters are always absorbing and often funny. They offer a clear picture of a sensitive, intelligent, determined and honest character whose heart, always, was attuned to nature and who viewed all humankind as equally deserving of respect. This is a book to savour slowly—and to remember.

 

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