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Herman Diedrich Spöring

It is a little known fact that Joseph Banks hired two other naturalists to be part of his scientific team for the HMB Endeavour voyage. Banks and Daniel Solander’s contributions to science have been widely recognised but much less is known about the third naturalist, Herman Diedrich Spöring.

Yet, without Spöring, it is possible the expedition may not have achieved its primary objective — to observe and chart the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun.

From surgeon to watchmaker to naturalist

Spöring was born in Turku, a Finnish-speaking region of Sweden (now part of modern Finland). At the age of 11, Spöring began medical studies — probably as a surgical apprentice — at Turku Academy, where his father became Professor of Medicine. He continued his surgical studies in Stockholm but there is no record he graduated.

In 1755, at the age of 22, Spöring went to sea — probably as a ship’s surgeon — eventually ending up in London where he obtained work as a watchmaker and instrument maker. It was here he met Solander, who shared his own interest in natural history, exploration and discovery.

Solander later introduced Spöring to the well-connected and wealthy young botanist Joseph Banks, who was preparing for an expedition to the South Pacific Ocean to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti.

The HMB Endeavour manifest lists Spöring as Assistant Naturalist to Banks, but his duties also included clerk and artist as well as instrument maker and fitter.

Who could repair the astronomical quadrant?

A month after arriving in Tahiti, it appears Spöring played a crucial role repairing a critical and complex piece of equipment.

The costly astronomical quadrant had gone missing and there was no way to source a new one before the 3 June transit. When the stolen instrument was eventually found, it had been dismantled and some small pieces were missing. It seems likely Spöring drew on his skills as a watchmaker and instrument maker to reassemble and repair the quadrant, which ultimately made it possible to view and chart the transit. 

The forgotten naturalist and zoological artist

During the HMB Endeavour voyage, Spöring assisted with the collection and documentation of countless specimens of flora and fauna. He was a gifted zoological artist and his drawings of stingrays and sharks at Botany Bay and of Maori canoes and landscapes are thought to be the first such drawings by a European artist.

Trygonorrhina  fasciata. Herman D Spöring (1733-1771). Watercolour on  paper, c 1770. Source: The Natural History Museum, London.
Trygonorrhina  fasciata. Herman D Spöring (1733-1771). Watercolour on  paper, c 1770. Source: The Natural History Museum, London.

On the return voyage to England, fever broke out in Batavia (now Jakarta) and most of the crew became ill with dysentery and malaria. The outbreak claimed the lives of 26 men including Spöring who died at sea, aged 38, on 24 January 1771.

Although Cook and Banks recorded Spöring’s death in their journals, there were very few other mentions of him. An earlier entry in Banks’ journal paints the picture of a ‘grave thinking man’, a serious man not prone to embellishment whose word you could trust.

Many of Spöring’s drawings are now held by the British Natural History Museum in London. A monument in Spöring’s native Turku, Finland, commemorates his achievements and features a rock from the island of Pourewa in Tolaga Bay, New Zealand, which Lieutenant James Cook had named Spöring Island during the voyage.

A fortified town or village called a hippah, built on a perforated rock at Tolaga in New Zealand, Herman Diedrich Spöring & John Hawkesworth. Engraving, c 1773. Source: The National Library of Australia.
A fortified town or village called a hippah, built on a perforated rock at Tolaga in New Zealand, Herman Diedrich Spöring & John Hawkesworth. Engraving, c 1773. Source: The National Library of Australia.