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Alexander Buchan (unknown – 1769)

Unlike most of the HMB Endeavour crew, Alexander Buchan never saw New Zealand or the east coast of Australia.

One of several artists in Joseph Banks’ scientific party, Buchan died of an epileptic fit less than eight months after the ship left England. 

Although little was understood about epilepsy at the time, it is likely Buchan was aware of his condition but may have chosen to keep it to himself rather than jeopardise his position on the HMB Endeavour as a ‘landscip draftsman’.
 
Sadly, nothing is known of young Buchan’s life before he joined the voyage apart from the fact he was from Scotland.

A legacy worth remembering

Captain James Cook’s 1768 expedition was unique for a number of reasons, not least because it was one of the first exploration voyages to set sail with a team of qualified scientists and talented artists.

In 1771, when the HMB Endeavour returned to England, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were immediately hailed for their discoveries but much less attention was given to the artists—none of whom survived the voyage. 

Sydney Parkinson, Herman Spöring, Alexander Buchan and Tupaia created a comprehensive visual library of life in the Pacific, drawn (primarily) from a European perspective. 

Collectively, they left behind a rich legacy of sketches, drawings and paintings of literally hundreds of plants, fish, molluscs, birds, insects and animals. They also documented coastlines, landscapes, people, crafts, cultural practices and ways of life. Remarkably, most of their work has survived.

Banks journal entry on 17 April 1769— the day Buchan died—indicates he was very well aware of the value of the work done by the ship’s artist:

‘I sincerely regret him as an ingenious and good young man, but his Loss to me is irretrevable, my airy dreams of entertaining my freinds in England with the scenes that I am to see here are vanishd.

No account of the figures and dresses of men can be satisfactory unless illustrated with figures: had providence spard him a month longer what an advantage would it have been to my undertaking but I must submit.’

Tierra del Fuego and the Bay of Good Success

Buchan is perhaps best known for his drawings of Tierra del Fuego, an island region at the southernmost point of South America (part of modern-day Argentina), where the ship stayed for six days.

The quest for science was not without danger for Banks’ party

Going ashore was not without risk for those in Banks’ party. One of the voyage’s earliest inland collecting excursions in Tierra del Fuego, at the not so aptly named Bay of Good Success, ended very badly.

On 16 January 1769, the team had managed to collect many specimens before becoming lost on the way back to the ship and getting caught in a blizzard. Two men did not survive the night and it appears Buchan may have suffered an epileptic seizure. While he was strong enough to make it back to the ship in the morning, his health took a turn for the worse the following day. Sadly, it marked a decline he would not ever fully recover from.

A premature end

Less than three months later, just a few days after the HMB Endeavour arrived in Tahiti, Buchan had another seizure—this time he would not survive.
Banks recorded the severity of the attack in his journal:

‘Poor Mr Buchan the young man who I brought out as lanscape and figure painter was yesterday attackd by an epileptick fit, he was today quite insensible, our surgeon gives me very little hopes of him.’


Two days after the seizure, on 17 April 1769, Buchan died in Matavai Bay and was buried at sea.

Cook, who did not typically write a lot about those who died during the voyage, devoted an uncharacteristically long entry in his journal to Buchan, his ongoing health issues, and the decision to bury him at sea:

‘Monday 17th At 2 oClock this Morning departed this Life Mr. Alex. Buchan Landscip Draftsman to Mr Banks, a Gentleman well skill'd in his profession and one that will be greatly miss'd in the course of this Voyage, he had long been subject to a disorder in his Bowels which had more than once brought him to the Very point of death and was at the same time subject to fits of one of which he was taken on Saturday morning.

This brought on his former disorder which put a period to his life, Mr Banks thought it not so adviseable to Enterr the Body ashore in a place where we was utter strangers to the Customs of the Natives on such Occations, it was therefore set out to Sea and committed to that Element with all the decencey the circumstance of the place would admit of — ’


Although Buchan’s drawings of the Cape Verde Islands have been lost, a number of his works have survived, most notably those from Tierra del Fuego. Following his death, Buchan’s drawings came into Banks’ possession. 

Most of these are now at the British Library.

image of a painting by Buchan of the Endeavour in the water with a Tierra del Fuego coast line behind it.
'Endeavour' off the Coast of Tierra del Fuego. Alexander Buchan. Gouache on paper, 1779. Reproduced courtesy of the British Library.

This drawing is thought to be one of the last Buchan ever worked on.