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
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.
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.
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