The Limits of Book Learning

In 1737, the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus bitterly complained about the haphazard naming practices of his contemporaries. “The names bestowed on plants by the ancient Greeks and Romans I commend,” he wrote, “but I shudder at the sight of most of those given by modern authorities: for those are for the most part a mere chaos of confusion, whose mother is barbarity, whose father dogmatism, and whose nurse prejudice.”1 But even after the many editions of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae ostensibly brought order to the chaos of naming things in the natural world and structuring Western scientific understanding of it, the problem of accurately describing new natural phenomena persisted.

The problem of naming is thrown into even sharper relief when we consider it in the context of translation. In the preface to the 1787 German edition of Captain Cook’s last voyage, the translator Johann Ludwig Wetzel, for example, explained that the delayed publication of the German edition was caused by a prolonged lawsuit arbitrating claims about “the supposed illegitimacy of translation.” The problem, he continued, lay in “the shifting … denominations of natural products appearing in the volume.”2 The anonymous French translator of the same account grappled with similar problems and concluded, “As long as there is not a dictionary in which one can find the names of birds, plants, fish, etc. in the jargon of the sailors, in the tongue of particular regions, and in the language of the … naturalists, translators will be strongly embarrassed.”3

The potential stakes of such misrepresentations were higher than merely risking a lawsuit. Knowledge about the natural world came at a premium and European governments and the nascent United States invested fortunes in bioprospecting voyages sent out to collect information on natural resources in far-away places. Upon an expedition’s return, government agencies presided over the intelligence gathered, attempting to closely monitor the publication and dissemination of expedition records. But despite these efforts, information about important natural resources seeped into published expedition accounts and circulated across Atlantic print and publishing networks, winding its way to imperial rivals. In this context, the accuracy of a translation, it seemed, was especially important. The correct designation and description of an animal or a plant in a translated text, government officials believed, helped bioprospectors to identify and exploit the resource in question without wasting time and money on less desirable commodities. These assumptions, however, may not always have been accurate. Examining the case of the North Pacific sea otter, I would like to question the importance of print culture and translation for the circulation of knowledge on the Pacific natural world and instead suggest that first-hand practical experience and personal involvement often trumped book learning and the theoretical knowledge gathered in the perusal of Pacific exploration accounts.


Sailing along the coast of Alaska in 1741 as a member of the second Russian Kamchatka expedition, the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller encountered a curious animal that was soon to become the ocean’s most profitable natural resource. The Enhydra lutis, or sea otter, was a marine mammal that looked like a bearded cross between a dog and a cat. Its most conspicuous feature was a jet-black, dense fur coat with amazing insulating properties that could be sold, as the expedition’s members soon discovered, at an extremely high price on the Russian-Chinese border. In his expedition notes, Steller gave a lengthy description of the animal, but struggled to name and classify the species.4

Sea otter in the water and on land, in Georg Wilhelm Stellero, De bestiis marinis, or The Beasts of the Sea (1751), via Wikimedia Commmons. For excerpts of the text, see DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

When James Cook and his crew left England more than thirty years later to explore the same northern reaches of the Pacific, the English admiralty had sent them on their journey without a trained natural historian on board.5 This absence of natural history expertise, though, soon proved problematic. Although Cook and his crew knew about the sea otter and its profitable fur, they were unable to clearly identify the animal. When members of the Nootka tribe brought out sea otter pelts to barter, the crew, in Cook’s words, “entertained doubts, whether the many skins … really belonged to this animal.”6 No member of the expedition had yet seen a whole sea otter, let alone a live animal. What the crew knew about the sea otter’s “size, colour, and fineness of the fur” they had taken from Russian expedition accounts.7 These pieces of information, though, when put to practice, were evidently insufficient. Still, Cook and his crew loaded a couple of hundred furs onto their ships. And when they arrived in Canton, China in October 1778, the men could finally be sure that the furs they had brought with them on a mere supposition were really the furs of the sea otter and high in demand. One crewmember “sold his stock, alone, for eight hundred dollars” and two sailors deserted because they wanted to return to the North Pacific to collect more furs.8

The news of the soft sea otter gold soon reached Europe through the translation and dissemination of a variety of reports, journals, and narratives about Cook’s third voyage. Despite the plethora of publications that mentioned the animal and its precious fur, however, it was still not quite clear what a sea otter really was or looked like. In some English-language accounts, the sea otter appeared in the guise of a “weazle,”9 “glutton,”10 or “beaver,”11 while the official publication of Cook’s third voyage classified the sea otter as a member of the porpoise or phocena family.12 This classification seemed curious, if not blatantly incorrect, and caused further ambiguity in the German version of the text, where “purpoise” is translated as “Meerschwein”13 or “sea pig,” a designation that turned the sea otter either into a member of the dolphin family or into a cousin of the sea swine, a mythical creature of the North Atlantic that had risen to considerable fame in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.14

The various designations, classifications, and occurrences of mistranslation in texts that talked about the sea otter mattered little when it came to the animal’s exploitation as a commodity, however. Those truly interested in making money through the transpacific fur trade knew that the information contained in Cook’s Voyage and other accounts was merely an approximation, a rough guide to the rich natural resources of the North Pacific. The sailors, prospectors, and traders who came to the North Pacific in the wake of the publication and dissemination of Cook’s Voyage had little time for the nuance and complexity of the natural environment that surrounded them. They did not care if the text they had perused in preparation represented the sea otter as a beaver, a weasel, a glutton, or a dolphin. The test of the market in Canton would tell if they had skinned the right animal. The rest of the stock was given away for a fraction, or simply dumped over board.


Another example for the precedence of personal experience over book-learning is the story of John Ledyard, an American sailor, entrepreneur, and adventurer who approached the government of the newly independent United States with a proposition to invest in the transoceanic sea otter skin trade. Ledyard had sailed with Cook on his third and fatal voyage and thus witnessed first-hand the enormous riches that could be gained from the sale of North Pacific sea otter pelts in China. Upon returning to the United States, Ledyard published his own account of the journey. His Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean appeared in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1783, one year before the official account was published in London. Unlike Cook’s account, however, Ledyard’s Journal does not seem to have circulated widely. It only appeared in one edition and was never translated into another language. Yet, despite his limited success as an author, Ledyard became a key figure in the creation of the American transpacific fur trade.15 He had correctly anticipated the young U.S. government’s self-perceived need for first-hand, unmediated information from its own informants rather than depending on written accounts fresh off the presses of rival powers.

John Ledyard’s account of Cook’s last voyage, via BC Historical Books, University of British Columbia,, where the full text is available.

To get his fur-trading scheme off the ground, Ledyard first enlisted the help of Robert Morris, a Philadelphia merchant and superintendent of finance for the U.S. government and then sailed to Europe to find more backers. He hoped to go into business with the American expatriate community in France, which included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones. Ledyard argued that an American outpost on the North Pacific coast was not only necessary for establishing the transpacific fur trade but also essential for containing the colonizing activities of the Russians, English, and French.16 Thomas Jefferson, at the time U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to France, was also concerned about the activities of rival powers in the North Pacific and agreed to back the venture. Upon meeting Ledyard, Jefferson had been impressed with his “roaming disposition” and “energy of body and mind,” so when the initial financing of Ledyard’s fur trading scheme fell through, he entrusted him with another mission.17 In order to stake the American government’s claim on the northern parts of the American continent, Jefferson proposed to John Ledyard that he “go by land to Kamschatka, cross in some of the Russian vessels to Nootka sound, fall down into the latitude of the Missouri, and penetrate to, and thro’ that, to the United States.”18 In Jefferson’s mind, Ledyard was the ideal candidate for this enterprise because, as he wrote to Paul Allen, Ledyard “had accompanied Captn Cook on his voyage to the Pacific ocean, and distinguished himself on that voyage by his intrepidity.”19

Jefferson’s personal encounter with Ledyard and the latter’s own first-hand experience with the transpacific fur trade, then, not information gathered from a book, convinced Jefferson that Ledyard was the right person to establish an American outpost on the Pacific coast. Having a published record of his journey with Cook almost certainly lent Ledyard some measure of authority and it may have even opened the doors of Jefferson’s Parisian salon. Yet the story behind the Journal’s slow circulation and minimal dissemination provides us with a useful lesson on the limitations of knowledge transmission through print culture. Ledyard’s text remained relatively stationary, but he himself continued to move. It took Ledyard’s personal involvement, his one-on-one encounters with politicians and investors, and his tireless efforts to convince them of the profitability of his fur-trading scheme. Ledyard’s story, then, suggests that knowledge circulates not only through print but is also embedded in the practices of the people who produce it, their own lived experiences, and real-life personal connections and networks.

The example of the sea otter shows that the expedition accounts produced by eighteenth-century Pacific travelers were often fraught with inaccuracies, misconceptions, and terminological errors. And although these imprecisions impaired the transmission and circulation of knowledge on the Pacific Ocean, it is not clear how, if at all, such considerations mattered to those most directly involved in its exploitation. Instead, explorers, sailors, and bioprospectors chose a practical solution that had devastating consequences for the people, plants, and animals they encountered. By slaughtering fur-bearing creatures with abandon, they overcame the limitations of theoretical knowledge and book learning by simply ignoring them.

Juliane Braun is a Tandem Fellow in the History of Knowledge and Knowledge Cultures at the German Historical Institute Washington DC. In fall 2018, she will take up a position as Assistant Professor of English at Auburn University.

  1. Quoted in Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 194. ↩︎
  2. Johann Ludwig Wetzel, “Vorbericht des Übersetzers,” in Capitain Cooks dritte und letzte Reise, vol. 1 (Anspach, 1787), n.p. (“Um den schwankenden Begriffen bey den deutschen Benennungen der in diesem Werke vorkommenden Naturproducte vorzubeugen …”) ↩︎
  3. M.D.********, “Preface du Traducteur”in Troisième Voyage de Cook, ou Voyage à l’océan Pacifique, ordonné par le Roi d’Angleterre (Paris: Hôtel de Thou, 1785), 1:vii. ↩︎
  4. Georg Wilhelm Steller, Ausführliche Beschreibung von sonderbaren Meerthieren, mit Erläuterungen und nöthigen Kupfern versehen (Halle: Kümmel, 1753), 161–208. ↩︎
  5. Instead, the surgeon William Anderson was to serve part–time as naturalist, alongside his medical duties. See Glyn Williams, Naturalists at Sea: Scientific Travelellers from Dampier to Darwin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 124–25. ↩︎
  6. James Cook, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Undertaken, by the Command of His Majesty, for Making Discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere… . (London: Strahan, Nicol, and Cadell, 1784), 2:295. ↩︎
  7. Ibid. ↩︎
  8. Cook, A Voyage, 3:437. ↩︎
  9. John Ledyard, A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean; and in Quest of a North–West Passage, between Asia & America … (Hartford: Patten, 1783), 70, available at BC Historical Books, University of British Columbia, ↩︎
  10. Ibid. ↩︎
  11. William Coxe, Account of the Russian Discoveries between Asia and Russia. To Which Are Added, The Conquest of Siberia, and The History of the Transaction and Commerce between Russia and China (London: Cadell, 1780), 12–13. ↩︎
  12. Cook, A Voyage, 2:294–95. ↩︎
  13. James Cook, Capitain Cooks dritte und letzte Reise (Anspach, 1789), 2:237. ↩︎
  14. See instances of “Meerschwein” in Deutsches Textarchiv, ↩︎
  15. See Edward G. Gray, The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 2007; Juliane Braun, “‘Strange Beasts of the Sea’: Captain Cook, the Sea Otter and the Creation of a Transoceanic American Empire,” Atlantic Studies 15, no. 2 (2018): 238–55, ↩︎
  16. Braun, “‘Strange Beasts,’” 245–46. ↩︎
  17. Thomas Jefferson to Paul Allen, August 18, 1813, Founders Online, National Archives, Washington, DC,–06–02–0341–0002. ↩︎
  18. Ibid. ↩︎
  19. Ibid. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Juliane Braun, “The Limits of Book Learning,” History of Knowledge, July 11, 2018,