The Voyages and Manifesto of William Fergusson

The Hakluyt Society will soon distribute the first volume of 2021 to members. Edited by Derek Elliott, The Voyages and Manifesto of William Fergusson brings the views and attitudes of an otherwise unknown figure into the historical record.


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Unlike the subjects of most Hakluyt volumes, William Fergusson was not an adventurer, explorer, or a member of a famous expedition. Rather, he was an apprentice apothecary-surgeon sailing the well-plied routes of the East India Company’s growing trans-national commercial network. The volume reproduces – with annotations and an introduction – the twenty-two diaries that Fergusson composed toward the end of his life in 1767, which recount four voyages he made as a young man calling at ports in the British Isles, southern Africa, Yemen, India, Malaya, China, and St Helena in the Atlantic.

Detail of Fergusson’s manuscript showing his title ‘Journals of my Voy. & Manifesto 1767’, reproduced with kind permission from Andrew Gladstone and the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge.

Despite the rather unexceptional voyages Fergusson’s diaries record, his account is nonetheless remarkable. Alongside descriptions of towns and peoples of the Indian Ocean trading-world during the 1730s, he relates local anecdotes and asides concerning the social lives of the inhabitants he encounters. In many ways Fergusson also offers a fresh perspective of how some Europeans saw themselves situated within their contemporary wider world. His observations are framed through the eyes of an individual who does not share in the civilizational hubris that became common amongst Europeans in the later eighteenth century. Sailing in an era before the Great Divergence, Fergusson was open to the ideas, practices, beliefs, and ways of governing that he witnessed on his travels. Interestingly for him, it was not Europe that set the standard for civilization, but rather China. 

Readers of the volume will immediately notice how much space Fergusson devotes to China compared to other parts of the world he visits. Of the four voyages Fergusson describes, he only visits Canton (today’s Guangzhou) once on his final voyage, yet it takes up a full one fifth of his total narrative. Impressed with what he saw, he even presents historical details on China and Chinese thought by drawing on the works of famous contemporary European Sinologists, such as Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s newly published The General History of China. According to Fergusson, ‘there is not a Country in the world […] that has Such a variety and Such Plenty of all the necessary, conveniences & Delights of Life within itself, as China hath’ (Elliott, D., ed., The Voyages and Manifesto of William Fergusson, p.140).

‘A Plan of the City of Canton on the River Ta ho’, 1744. A near contemporary image of the port that so impressed Fergusson when he visited China in late 1738. Courtesy of The Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries, Stanford University, California (http://purl.stanford.edu/dt252rx9323)

Fergusson’s diaries are also remarkable because they are more than simply a travelogue. They are also, as his manuscript and the volume’s title suggest, a manifesto of his beliefs and opinions, which reflect some of the most popular ideas of the early Enlightenment. None more so than the notion of natural religion, which he described as 

A Religion arising from the nature of things and discoverable of its Self by all reasonable Beings; A Religion previous to & us’d as the foundation of all others, whose worth or merit is only estimated in proportion as they are consonant to or recede from this the only Rule of Good & Bad, of Right & Wrong[.]

(Elliott, D., ed., The Voyages and Manifesto of William Fergusson, p.165)

Following the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers John Locke and the now obscure but then influential Samuel Clarke, Fergusson held a rational approach to religious belief. He spoke out against what he considered to be the devotional enthusiasm practised by adherents of the diverse religions he came across, whether they be Hindus, Muslims, animists, or Catholics. This and his universalist assumptions with which he approaches the world, further demonstrate how Enlightenment ideas were embodied by educated men of his era. 

The obscurity of its author, the mundane commercial nature of the voyages he undertook, and the manifesto, which offers a window into the intimate thoughts of an early modern Scotsman, make these diaries rather unique. Unlike with most volume authors, we do not know why Fergusson wrote his diaries. He says only that they were ‘to Serve as private memoranda’ and no other writings of his are known to survive. Indeed, very little is known about Fergusson’s life at all. Most of what is known concerns his retirement on his estate in Ayrshire, to which he moved to from London in 1755. As a result, he largely remains an enigma, with these diaries being the only insight into the person of who William Fergusson was. 

Now almost 200 years later, Fergusson’s ‘private memoranda’ have been made available to the public. Readers will surely find much entertainment and interest in reading Fergusson’s observation of the commercial world of the early eighteenth century and in his diatribes on the virtues of the values and rational thought extolled by the dominant thinking of what would become known as the Enlightenment.


Author Bio

Derek L. Elliott is assistant professor of history at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. Before moving to the Middle Atlas Mountains, he completed a doctorate at the University of Cambridge. His research examines different lived experiences of colonialism at the intersection of law and violence within the British imperial world. His projects have been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, Shastri Indo–Canadian Institute, and the Smuts Memorial Fund, amongst others. He is currently preparing a monograph on the use of extrajudicial state violence in governing early nineteenth-century South India.