Thursday 18 January 2024

George Finlayson (1790-1823) on travel, curiosity and science - plus his eponymous bulbul

In a recent article I wrote on George Finlayson’s eponymous squirrel. Finlayson had written notes before his death on board the ship carrying him from Calcutta to London. Sir Stamford Raffles, who edited Finlayson’s account of his travels in south-east Asia as part of the East India Company’s diplomatic/trade mission in 1821-22, thought the notes were intended for inclusion in a book to be written by Finlayson after his return to Britain. In an introduction Raffles included the following, which, apart from the supervention of Charles Darwin, is an apt a statement today as it was over 200 years ago:

In a greater or less degree, there is, perhaps, inherent in the minds of most men, a desire to visit foreign countries,—desire which neither storms nor tempests, deserts, wilds, nor precipices, with all their appalling fears, have been able to counteract or to check. Cast naked and helpless on this earth, man has aspired to scan its limits, to ascertain its bounds, and even to scrutinize its nature: he has risen superior to the contending elements, which might seem to have opposed an insuperable barrier to his restless ambition, to his ever-active, never-satisfied curiosity; and even the great globe itself no longer seems to offer a theatre too great or too extensive for the exertion of his activity. 

Insatiable ambition, boundless curiosity, are to be reckoned among the more prominent of the attributes with which man is endowed. To what mighty ends have they not led? If they have brought upon him, and upon the race, unnumbered evils, they have also had their attendant good. His share of peace, perhaps of happiness, had been greater had he indulged these propensities less; but it is not in his power to resist the unalterable impulse, conferred upon him, doubtless, for the best of purposes. The curiosity that is gratified with inquiring into the laws implanted in organized beings, or into the general phenomena which characterize the material world at large, admits of, and is usually attended by gratification as permanent as it is unmixed; every step is attended with unalloyed pleasure, every new acquisition leads and stimulates to further discovery. 

This disposition of the mind is particularly observable in those who have made nature and natural objects their study. Hence the eagerness with which men engage in them: no one capable of reflection but has at one time or other experienced this laudable curiosity, and wished for the power to gratify it. To this source we must refer the encouragement held forth in the present day to voyagers and travellers, and in general to every one engaged in matters of discovery. It is not extraordinary, therefore, that persons should readily be found eager to enter upon the investigation of new and distant countries, and of the various objects of knowledge which they contain. It is the lot of few to indulge their inclinations this way; and of these few, how scanty is the proportion of individuals qualified for the important task, either by original endowment, by previous pursuits and habits, or by the necessary education, or by a proper train and temper of mind! Fortunately, however, the objects of pursuit are as numerous as the taste of man is various, and something is left even to the most humble intentions. A proper consideration of this matter would lead to the most important acquirements both on the part of the most humbly endowed, and for the benefit of science and knowledge in general. The principle need not be enforced by argument: let us follow it, if possible, with alacrity, and make the most of the opportunities which fall in our way. Let us devote to the task those abilities, however moderate, with which the Almighty has endowed us, and we shall rarely fail altogether of deriving benefit from our exertions. We may rest secure that the labours so bestowed will seldom fail to be duly appreciated; that our observations will be received with candour, and our alignments, if urged with modesty, will rarely fail to be listened to by the circle of our friends and acquaintances, to the approbation of whom no one can be altogether indifferent. It is in this temper of mind that we may hope to avoid a two-fold evil; that of exaggerating the importance of the feeble exertions of an individual on the one hand, and of thinking too meanly of his capacity on the other,—since both are alike hurtful, and alike oppose the acquisition of useful knowledge. 

Since I can find no portrait of Finlayson I include a photograph of his eponymous bird, Pycnonotus finlaysoni, the Stripe-throated Bulbul. He collected it on the mission. Thomas Horsfield, curator of the East India Company’s museum in London and who described Finlayson’s Squirrel, sent the specimen to High Edwin Strickland (1811-1853) who got round to describing it in 1844, over 20 years after Finlayson’s death.

Streak-throated Bulbul in Thailand
Photograph by JJ Harrison*

Finlayson G. 1826. The Mission to Siam, and Hué the Capital of Cochin China in the Years 1821-2. London: John Murray.

Strickland HE. 1844 Descriptions of several new or imperfectly-defined genera and species of Birds. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 13, 409-415.

*JJ Harrison Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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