Outlines of the Globe

‘Thus far has passed my active life…in which I have advanced half way of my 67th year. My body may have abated of its wonted vigor; but my mind still retains its powers, its longing after improvements, its wish to receive new lights through chinks which time hath made. A few years ago I grew fond of imaginary tours, and determined on one to climes more suited to my years…’ 

Writing in his autobiography, The Literary Life of the Late Thomas Pennant, Esq. (1793), this is how Thomas Pennant introduced his final major literary project. The ‘Outlines of the Globe’ is presented as a bit of an eccentricity (‘The reader may smile at the greatness of the plan’), but its c.21 manuscript volumes—including two that were published in his lifetime—represent more than an old man’s quixotic retirement project. His self-declared ‘magnum opus’, comprising a series of ‘ideal’ voyages around Europe, Russia, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Oceania, is unabashedly ambitious. It attempts to gather up-to-date knowledge across a vast swathe of the world, taking advantage of the author’s well-stocked library, and his impressive network of well-travelled friends and correspondents. The volumes also demonstrate the intersection of Pennant’s enlightenment project with European imperial knowledge production, and provide an opportunity to think about his ‘domestic’ tours in their wider global context. 

Pennant created most of the ‘Outlines’ in the last decade of his life, beginning in earnest around 1788. Clearly significant in his mind was the change from physical travel (of the kind which had yielded the tours in Scotland and Wales from the late 1760s to the mid 1780s) to armchair travelling, better suited to a man acutely aware of his arrival at the ‘grand climacteric’ of old age. However, this armchair approach was not unprecedented in his career: Pennant notes one of his earlier works, the Arctic Zoology of 1784-5, as a model for the ‘Outlines’, but extends its geographical focus ‘to climes more suited to my years, more genial than that to the frozen North’. His initially stated destination was India, for which ‘All the world is growing mad’ (1791)—and two volumes on ‘Hindoostan’ were the only ones to appear in print before Pennant’s death. But the final set of volumes reaches even further east to the ‘Malayan Islands’, China, Japan, and Oceania: as with his earlier tours, which went through several editions and expansions, the desire to add more material was difficult to resist. 

Pennant’s singling out Arctic Zoology as a model might suggest a predominantly natural-historical approach, but he noted in the Literary Life his intention to ‘mingle [with it] history…accounts of the coasts, climates, and every thing which I thought could instruct or amuse’.  He also advertised his use of information gathered from as broad a basis as possible—from ‘books antient and modern’ to first-hand accounts provided by contemporaries—and boasted that the manuscript volumes were ‘illustrated, at a vast expense’ by prints and original artworks (including many by Moses Griffith). 

This introduction, in Pennant’s own words, to the ‘Outlines of the Globe’ gives only a tantalising glimpse of its scope and detail: it was a monumental undertaking, and remains an under-appreciated (and only partially published) section of Pennant’s oeuvre. Housed at the National Maritime Museum since the sale of Downing library in 1938, the manuscript ‘Outlines of the Globe’ features as P/16/1–25 in the museum’s catalogue, a numbering which includes a box of excerpts and miscellaneous related materials (/25), as well as two unused volumes (/16 and /21). The first of these empty volumes was intended for an account of the Western coasts of America, the British colonies, and the United States, and described by Pennant as ‘Being the remaining part of the Introduction to the Arctic Zoology, enlarged’. The Arctic Zoology itself features in ‘Outlines of the Globe’ (/24) in the form of an extra-illustrated volume from the second edition of 1792, with several additional plates. 

Despite Pennant’s suggestion that the project was created, in part, for his own amusement, the ‘Outlines’ was in fact a highly ambitious and wide-ranging scholarly endeavour. It was compiled by a sexagenarian in full control of his faculties, and able to gather information from a wealth of mercantile and imperial contacts, including naturalists from Scandinavia, Russia, and Bengal, colonial judges and East India Company employees, Admiralty secretaries, coffee traders, and enslavers. As this list indicates, the ‘Outlines’ is a project often deeply implicated in this era’s European colonialism, and offers insight into Pennant’s own relationship with the imperial world order: he is occasionally anguished or ambivalent about colonial oppression, but is nevertheless fundamentally enmeshed in imperial frameworks of power. As his ‘Outlines of the Globe’ benefits from greater engagement by specialists in disciplines ranging from history to natural history, art history, geography, and cartography, and is opened up to perspectives silenced by its overwhelmingly European outlook, it should provide a treasure trove of information on the place of Wales and Britain within the eighteenth-century world.