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The Voyage
of Naturalists

In 1735, Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus pioneered a new method of species classification and advocated the use of Latin Binomial Nomenclature for naming living organisms. Riding on the enthusiasm for expeditionary exploration sparked by the Age of Discovery and the Renaissance, discoveries resulting from naturalists’ travels were no longer mere descriptions of exotic species, but instead formed valuable scientific records of the observation, classification, and naming of species.
The growth of natural history came at a time when European and American empires saw the need to expand. Many military and commercial sea voyages were accompanied by naturalists, who saw these journeys as valuable opportunities. One of the most famous voyages was the one of HMS Beagle in 1831, with amateur naturalist Charles Darwin onboard. The five-year global expedition led to Darwin's influential theory of evolution by natural selection.
The HMS Sulphur, a Royal Navy survey ship like the Beagle, landed on Hong Kong Island during the First Opium War in 1841. While surveying Hong Kong waters, Captain Edward Belcher was able to draw a nautical chart of Hong Kong; naval surgeon Richard Hinds, on the other hand, collected nearly 140 specimens of plants. 



Voyage map

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The map below marks several voyages that journeyed through Hong Kong from the early to mid-19th century, according to historical records left by field naturalists.

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Standard equipment for 19th century field naturalists

The study of natural history involved a division of labour, from taxonomists who identify specimens to field naturalists who go on expeditions. Field naturalists were usually accompanied by professional botanical collectors or gardeners sent by official agencies. On site, they sought guidance from local merchants, officials, and villagers. Meyen, for example, was guided by children on Lantau in 1831. 

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Replica of catalog of plant specimen collection and production tools (in German, date unknown)


Various styles of aluminium specimen collection boxes, walking sticks, tools for making pressed specimens, and shovels. Field naturalists at the time brought reference books, notebooks, specimen bottles, magnifying glasses, specimen collection boxes, and walking sticks to naval expeditions. Other necessities included compasses, telescopes, barometers, thermometers, and pistols.