On Robert Kerr’s ‘General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels’, or the Necessity to Author an Eighteen-Volume History of Exploration and Travel After Nearly Going Broke

Kerr Voyages-1

While on a search for free travel books for Kindle yesterday, I happened upon A General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels, Arranged in Systematic Order: Forming a Complete History of the Origin and Progress of Navigation, Discovery, and Commerce, by Sea and Land, from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time, an appropriately early 18th century title for an 18-volume series by Robert Kerr, a man whose name was new to me and likely is to you, too.

Born in Edinburgh in 1755, he was the son of James Kerr, a second generation jeweler and goldsmith who also served as an MP for Edinburgh city. The younger Kerr studied medicine and eventually became a surgeon at Edinburgh Foundling Hospital, working in partnership, according to nineteenth century Scottish historian Robert Chambers, “with an aged practitioner named Wardrope”, whose daughter he later married.

His hands, it turned out, were equally adept with a pen as they were with a scalpel. Literary ambitions led to a hefty production line of scholarly translations, beginning with French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry, published in 1789. Others followed, including a translation of another French chemist’s work, Essay on the New Method of Bleaching by means of Muriatic Acid and Oxygen, by Claude-Louis Berthollet. (I haven’t read either.)

Neither was an indication of the massive work he would undertake two decades later.

Wrote Chambers in Lives of illustrious and distinguished Scotsman, forming a complete Scottish biographic dictionary:

The approbation with which these publications were received, induced him to commence a translation of Linnaeus’s Zoological System; two volumes of which were published in 1792, but which did not meet with so much success as to tempt him to proceed with the rest.

Having failed with the dry classifications of the Swedish philosopher, he commenced a translation of the more popular work of Buffon on Oviparous Quadrupeds and Serpents, the first volume of which appeared in 1793, and the fourth and last in 1800. The execution of these translations was highly extolled in the reviews of the time, and caused Mr Kerr to be respectfully known in the world of letters.

But not well enough for him to settle for a career as a translator in the sciences, nor to lead to much of a trail or trace on Google.

In 1794 he was convinced –apparently, by forces whose identities remain unknown to search engines– to invest his fortune, “which was not inconsiderable”, in a paper mill, an enterprise which after a handful of years turned sour, reducing him, as Chambers noted, “in the latter part of life to circumstances very inconsistent with his merits, either as a man or as an author.”

In other words, he lost everything. So he took up writing again, which would lead to this massive work that remains largely obscure outside of the realm of the most specialized scholars, historians and academics.

He began the series in 1811; I could make this a dramatic ending by saying that the undertaking, the largest attempted in Scotland up to that time, killed him, as he passed away just two years later, with the majority of the volumes published posthumously. But that would be a lie, or at best, a claim I can’t find any evidence of. Boring, I know.

Whether it led directly or indirectly to his deathbed at 58, the work will be remembered, as Kerr points out in his preface, as a first:

It certainly is the only General History and Collection of Voyages and Travels that has been hitherto attempted in the English language, upon any arrangement that merits the appellation of a systematic plan.

With that said, for the benefit of those who may find portions of this useful at some point –I’m sure I’ll be referencing it from time-to-time anyway– I’ve included below the complete “General Plan” of the series, an easy place to begin with a simple text search for a region of the world where your interests lie. Also included are links to the related volumes on both Gutenberg.org and to free Amazon Kindle versions.

And finally very much worth noting: Frances Pritchett from Columbia University did a lot of work to put several of the early volumes, most dealing specifically with Asia, into a more organized form on her website here. Be sure to read her editor’s note and also check out Kerr’s dedication and preface.

And one final end note: some of the biographical info above was also culled from an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography whose site, after a short bit of stubbornness, I managed to somehow enter through a back door but to a page that I’m unable to link to.

Volume I. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Discovery of Iceland by the Norwegians.
  • Voyages of Ohthere to the White Sea and the Baltic.
  • Remarks on the situation of Sciringe-heal and Haethum, by J.R. Forster.
  • Voyage of Wulfstein in the Baltic.
  • —— of Sighelm to India.
  • Travels of John Erigena to Athens.
  • Geography of the known world as described by King Alfred.
  • Travels of Andrew Leucander.
  • Voyage of Swanus to Jerusalem.
  • —— of three ambassadors from England to Constantinople.
  • Pilgrimage of Alured to Jerusalem.
  • —— of Ingulphus.
  • Original discovery of Greenland by the Icelanders in the ninth century.
  • Early discovery of America by ditto, in 1001.
  • Travels of two Mahometans into India and China, in the ninth century.
  • —— of Rabbi Benjamin from Spain to China, in the twelfth century.
  • —— of an Englishman in Tartary, in 1243.
  • Sketch of the Revolutions in Tartary.
  • Travels of Carpina to the Moguls, &c. in 1246.
  • —— of Rubruquis into Tartary about 1253.
  • —— of Haitho, in 1254.
  • —— of Marco Polo into China, &c. from 1260 to 1295.
  • —— of Oderic, in 1318.
  • —— of Sir John Mandeville, in 1322.
  • Itinerary of Pegoletti between Asofand China, in 1355.
  • Voyages, of Nicolo and Antonio Zeno, in 1380.
  • Travels of Schiltberger into Tartary, in 1394.
  • —— of the Ambassadors of Shah Rokh, in China, in 1419.
  • Voyage and Shipwreck of Quirini, in 1431.
  • Travels of Josaphat Barbaro from Venice to Tanna (now Asof), in 1436.

Volume II. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Various early pilgrimages from England to the Holy Land, between 1097 and 1107.
  • Discovery of Madeira.
  • Discovery and conquest of the Canary Islands.
  • Discoveries along the coast of Africa; and conquests in India, from 1412 to 1505.
  • Discoveries of the world, from their commencement to 1555, by Antonio Galvano.
  • Journey of Contarini into Persia, in 1473-6.
  • Voyages of discovery by the Portuguese along the western coast of Africa, during the life of Don Henry.
  • Original journals of the Voyages of Cada Mosto, and Pedro de Cintra, to the coast of Africa, from 1455.
  • Voyages of discovery by the Portuguese along the coast of Africa, from the death of Don Henry, in 1463 to the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope in 1486.
  • History of the discovery and conquest of India by the Portuguese, between 1497 and 1505, by HermanLopes de Castanecla.
  • Letters from Lisbon in the beginning of the 16th century, respecting the discovery of the route by sea to India, &c.

Volume III. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • History of the discovery of America, and of some of the early conquests in the New World.
  • Discovery of America, by Columbus, written by his son Don Ferdinand Columbus.
  • —— written by Antonio de Herrera.
  • An account of the Voyages of Americus Vespucius to the New World, written by himself.
  • Discoveries and settlements of the Spaniards in the West Indies, from the death of Columbus, to the expedition of Hernando Cortes against Mexico.
  • History of the discovery and conquest of Mexico, written in 1568, by Captain Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of the conquerors.

Volume IV. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • History of the discovery and conquest of Peru, written by Augustus Zarate.

Volume V. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Continuation of the history of Peru, extracted from the Commentaries of Garcilosso de la Vega.
  • History of the discovery and conquest of Chili, taken from various sources.
  • Discovery of Florida, and ineffectual attempts to conquer that country by the Spaniards,—from the
  • General History of America, by Herrera.

Volume VI. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Early English Voyages of discovery to America.
  • Voyages of Jacques Cartier, from St. Maloes to Newfoundland and Canada, in 1534-5.
  • Continuation of the discoveries and conquests of the Portuguese in the East; with some account of the early Voyages of other European nations to India.
  • Discoveries, &c. &c. from 1505 to 1539.
  • A particular relation of the expedition of Solyman Pacha, from Suez to India, against the Portuguese; written by a Venetian officer in the Turkish service on that occasion.
  • Account of the Voyage of Don Stefano de Gama, from Goa to Suez, in 1540; written by Don Juan de Castro.
  • Continuation of the account of the Portuguese transactions in India, from 1541 to the middle of the 17th century; from De Faria’s Asia.

Volume VII. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Voyages and Travels in Egypt, Syria, Arabia, Persia, and India, by Ludovico Verthema, in 1503-8.
  • —— in India, &c. by Cesar Frederic, in 1563-81.
  • Second Voyage to Barbary, in 1552, by Captain Thomas Windham.
  • Voyages to Guinea and Benin, in 1553, by Captain Windham and Antonio Anes Pinteado.
  • —— in 1554, by Captain John Lok.
  • —— in 1555, by William Towerson, merchant, of London.
  • Second Voyage to Guinea, in 1556, by William Towerson, merchant, of London.
  • Third, in 1558.
  • Instructions for an intended Voyage to Guinea, in 1561.
  • Voyage to Guinea, in 1562; written by William Rutter.
  • Supplementary account of the foregoing Voyage.
  • Voyage to Guinea, in 1563, by Robert Baker.
  • —— in 1564, by Captain David Carlet.
  • —— and to the Cape de Verd Islands, in 1566, by George Fenner.
  • Account of the embassy of Mr. Edmund Hogan to Morocco, in 1577; by himself.
  • Account of the embassy of Mr. Henry Roberts from Queen Elizabeth to Morocco, in 1585; by himself.
  • Voyage to Benin, beyond Guinea, in 1588, by James Welsh.
  • Supplement to the foregoing.
  • Second Voyage of ditto in 1590.
  • Voyage of Richard Rainolds and Thomas Dassel to the Senegal and Gambia, in 1591.
  • Some miscellaneous early Voyages of the English.
  • Voyage to Goa, in 1579, in the Portuguese fleet, by Thomas Stevens.
  • Journey over-land to India, by Ralph Fitch.
  • Supplement to ditto.

Volume VIII. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Voyage of Mr. John Eldred to Tripoli, and thence by land and river to Bagdat and Basorah, in 1583.
    Account of the Monsoons in India, by William Barret.
  • First Voyage of the English to India in 1591, by Captain Geo. Raymond and James Lancaster.
  • Supplement to ditto, by John May.
  • Voyage of Captain Benj. Wood towards the East Indies, in 1596.
  • —— of Captain John Davis to the East Indies, in 1598.
  • —— of William Adams to Japan, in 1598.
  • —— of Sir Edward Michelburne to India, in 1604.
  • First Voyage of the English East India Company in 1601, under Captain James Lancaster.
  • Account of Java and of the English at Bantam, from 1603 to 1605.
  • Second Voyage of the Company, in 1604, under Captain Henry Middleton.
  • Third Voyage of the Company, in 1607, under Captain William Keeling.
  • Narrative by William Hawkins during his residence in the dominions of the Great Mogul.
  • Observations of William Finch, who accompanied Hawkins.
  • Voyage of Captain David Middleton, in 1607, to Bantam and the Moluccas.
  • Fourth Voyage of the Company, in 1608, under Captain Alexander Sharpey.
  • Voyage of Captain Richard Rowles.
  • Fifth Voyage of the Company, in 1609, under Captain David Middleton.
  • Sixth Voyage of the Company, in 1610, under Sir Henry Middleton.
  • Journal of the same, by Nicholas Downton.
  • Seventh Voyage of the Company, in 1611, under Captain Anthony Hippou.
  • Notices of the same, by Peter Floris.
  • Eighth Voyage of the Company, in 1611, under Captain John Saris.

Volume IX. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Ninth Voyage of the Company, in 1612, under Captain Edward Marlow.
  • Tenth Voyage of the Company, in 1612, by Mr. Thomas Best.
  • Observations made on the foregoing by different persons.
  • Eleventh Voyage of the Company, in 1612, in the Salomon.
  • Twelfth Voyage of the Company, in 1613, under Captain Christopher Newport.
  • Voyage of Captain Downton to India, in 1614.
  • Supplement to ditto.
  • Journey of Richard Steel and John Crowther, from Agimere to Ispahan, in 1615-16.
  • Voyage of Captain Peyton to India, in 1615.
  • Proceedings of the factory at Cranganore, by Roger Hawes.
  • Journal of Sir Thomas Roe, ambassador from James I. to the Emperor of Hindoostan.
  • Voyage to India, in 1616, by Mr. Edward Terry.
  • Journey of Thomas Coryat from Jerusalem to the Court of the Great Mogul.
  • Wrongs done the English at Banda by the Dutch, in 1617-18.
  • Fifth Voyage of the Joint-Stock by the Company, in 1617, under Captain Pring.
  • Voyage of the Ann-Royal from Surat to Mokha, in 1618.
  • Voyage to Surat and Jasques, in 1620.
  • War of Ormus, and capture of that place by the English and Persians, in 1622.
  • Massacre of the English at Amboyna, in 1623.
  • Observations during a residence in the island of Chusan, in 1701, by Dr. James Cunningham.

Volume X. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Historical account of early circumnavigations;
  • of Magellan, in 1519-22.
  • of Sir Francis Drake, in 1577-80.
  • of Sir Thomas Cnmlish, in 1586-8.
  • of Van Noort, in 1598-1601.
  • of George Spilbergen, in 1614-17.
  • of Schouten and Le Maire, by Cape Horn, in 1615-17.
  • of the Nassau fleet under Jacques Le Hermit, in 1623-6.
  • of Captain John Cooke, accompanied by Captains Cowley and Dampier, in 1683-91.
  • in 1703-6, by William Funnell.
  • in 1708-11, by Captain Woods Rogers and Stephen Courtney.
  • in 1719-22, by Captain John Clipperton.
  • in 1719-22, by Captain George Shelvocke.

Volume XI. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Voyage round the world, in 1721-3, by Commodore Roggewein.
  • —— in 1740-4, by Lord Anson.

Volume XII. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Commodore Byron’s Voyage, in 1764-6.
  • Captain Wallis’s Voyage, in 1766-8.
  • Captain Carteret’s Voyage, in 1766-9.
  • Captain Cook’s first Voyage, in 1768-70.

Volume XIII. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Captain Cook’s first Voyage continued and concluded..
  • Abstract of Bougainville’s Voyage, in 1766-9.

Volume XIV. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Captain Cook’s second Voyage towards the S. Pole, in 1772-5.

Volume XV. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Captain Cook’s second Voyage concluded.
  • Captain Cook’s third Voyage, in 1776-80.

Volume XVI. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Captain Cook’s third Voyage continued.

Volume XVII. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

  • Captain Cook’s third Voyage concluded.
  • Commodore Byron’s narrative of his shipwreck, &c.; written by himself.
  • Bulkeley’s narrative of the same.

Volume XVIII. [Gutenberg] [Amazon Kindle]

    Historical Sketch of the Progress of Discovery and of Commercial Enterprise, from the earliest records to the time of Herodotus
    From the age of Herodotus to the death of Alexander the Great
    From the Death of Alexander the Great to the time of Ptolemy the Geographer; with a digression on the Inland Trade between India and the Shores of the Mediterranean, through Arabia, from the earliest ages
    From the time of Ptolemy to the close of the Fifteenth Century
    From the close of the Fifteenth to the beginning of the Nineteenth Century
    Preliminary Observations on the Plan and Arrangement pursued in drawing up the Catalogue
    Instructions for Travellers
    Collections and Histories of Voyages and Travels
    Voyages and Travels round the World
    Travels, comprising different Quarters of the Globe
    Voyages and Travels in the Arctic Seas and Countries
  • INDEX to the Catalogue.
  • INDEX to the Historical Sketch.
  • INDEX to the 17 Volumes of Voyages and Travels
  • CONTENTS of the 17 Volumes


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