Unexpected Journeys: John White’s Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (1790)

The Linnean Society's Librarian, Will Beharrell, examines this beautiful and well-travelled tome

Published on 3rd February 2023

Miniature of John White Esq, Surgeon General of New South Wales (1792), signed Thomas Watling (1762–c.1814) and dated “N.S.Wales 1792.” CC-BY-1.0. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Miniature of John White Esq. CC-BY-1.0. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This month’s treasure is a fascinating account of 18th century travel, one which—in later years—went on an unexpected journey of its own. John White’s Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales was published in 1790, and represents one of the earliest and most important first-hand accounts of Australian colonial history. White, an Irishman, entered the Royal Navy as a trainee surgeon in 1778, and in 1788 was appointed Surgeon-General of the new British penal colony in New South Wales. An energetic and sympathetic medic, he worked to improve the conditions for those incarcerated on the transport ship Charlotte, as well as founding the settlement’s first hospital.

Aside from his medical duties, White had an abiding love of natural history, and the Journal contains many of the first descriptions of Australian species in western science. The book also boasts 65 engraved plates, produced in England based on specimens and descriptions sent home by White. Many of the illustrations are thought to be based on the work of the British natural history illustrator, Sarah Stone. White was particularly interested in the medicinal properties of the native flora and fauna, and is reported to have been among the first to distil eucalyptus oil from plant samples in 1788.

Engraved plate of Banksia serrata, in the Journal
Engraved plate of Banksia serrata, in the Journal
Engraved plate of the White-pointed spider, in the Journal
Engraved plate of the White-Jointed Spider, in the Journal

Despite its relatively limited print run (only 720 copies of the lavish first edition were produced), the Journal was a modest success, coming at a time of increased interest in Australasia and its natural history. White however is said to have hated Australia, describing it in his journal as “a country and place so forbidding and so hateful as only to merit execration and curses”. He returned swiftly to Britain in 1794, and was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1797. The noted botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert was among his sponsors.

Little details: the book thief attempted to obliterate many of the Linnean Society's marks of ownership, but left Smith's ex libris inscription.

The copy of the Journal in the Linnean Society’s Library has also had an exciting history. Quite possibly a gift from White to our founder, James Edward Smith, it is one of a number of first edition copies to feature plates alluringly coloured by hand. So alluring, in fact, that the book was stolen from the Society by an unknown thief in 1976 (this at a time when the Society’s security measures were considerably less robust than they are now). Here, the fate of this beautiful book could well have remained unknown—squirrelled away in some private collection—but astonishingly the Journal was spotted at a rare books auction in 2015 and retrieved. Clumsy attempts had been made to hide the volume’s provenance, including bleaching the Society's ownership stamps and removing the original binding, but—curiously—leaving Smith's ex libris inscription on the title page (pictured). These crucial details, corroborated with the help of evidence from our archive and historic catalogue, enabled the Society to demonstrate its true ownership. Happily, the book was quickly released from the sale and—after an absence of nearly 40 years—returned to the Society’s shelves, where it can now be read and enjoyed by everyone… with supervision.

Will Beharrell, Librarian

The wanderer returns: White's Journal back home in the Linnean Society Library
The wanderer returns: White's Journal back home in the Linnean Society Library
White's Journal, open


Unless otherwise indicated, all images taken by the author.

Item Reference

White, John, 1757 or 1758-1832. Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales : With Sixty-Five Plates of Non Descript Animals, Birds, Lizards, Serpents, Curious Cones of Trees and Other Natural Productions / by John White Esq.Re Surgeon General to the Settlement. London: Printed for J. Debrett, Piccadilly, MDCCXC [1790].

Shelfmark: R.790.

Linnean Society Catalogue Record [hyperlink].