- A Voyage to Newfoundland
As Scott Jamieson makes clear in the introduction to his translation of Julien Thoulet's A Voyage to Newfoundland, the French geologist is an important if largely forgotten figure in the development of the discipline of oceanography. From the late-1880s onward Thoulet published hundreds of papers on bathymetry, marine geomorphology, and related subjects, attracting the patronage of Prince Albert i of Monaco, and becoming a driving force in efforts to chart the contours of the world's oceans, presently embodied in the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (gebco) project. When he sailed for a six-month cruise of Newfoundland waters on the French naval frigate Clorinde in May of 1886, however, he was a young professor at the land-locked University of Nancy whose research interests in cartography and geology were distinctly terrestrial rather than marine in nature. His experience in the foggy coastal waters and stunted landscapes of Newfoundland evidently set him on a course for oceanographic distinction.
Thoulet's Voyage, first published in France in 1891, is no bildungsroman and recounts no life-altering epiphanies. Its twelve chapters present a sequential narrative of Clorinde's cruise interspersed with extended commentaries on the history, politics, and culture of Newfoundland and of the cod fishery. Thoulet's imagination is highly visual, and he offers vivid and sharply observed portraits of life aboard a French man-of-war, in overseas provincial towns, in bare outports, and on distant, unpopulated coasts. He is a keen observer of the material culture of the fisheries and presents lively details of contemporary Newfoundland folkways and toponymy, accompanied by his own photographs of places and persons described. His descriptions of marine and geological phenomena are ample and exact.
Thoulet's narrative comes alive when he gets beyond merely factual taxonomic inventory. Indeed, his writing generally eschews Enlightenment conventions of plain description in favour of self-consciously literary and imaginative rumination, constantly seeking through metaphor and allusion correspondences between the world of external nature and the condition [End Page 498] of the consciousness that perceives it. In Thoulet's case (as with many of his fin-de-siècle contemporaries) that consciousness was characterized by reflection on impermanence and death: as much as it is a travel narrative, A Voyage to Newfoundland is an extended meditation on mutability. The societies of St Pierre, Miquelon, and Newfoundland – especially the last island's disputed west coast, where permanent habitation was officially prohibited and structures were designed to be quickly dismantled – are ideally suited to such reflection.
Seen from Clorinde's deck, these societies were for Thoulet nearly indistinguishable from the limestone strata upon which they perched: they were equally subject to seasonal cycles of freeze and thaw, of rainfall and erosion that constitute the mechanisms of geological change. The key mechanism of change in Newfoundland society, however, was, as it is now, the fisheries. This causes him to reflect, for example, on the unnumbered handliners who died from infections resulting from minor, untreated abrasions on remote coasts. It leads him to a precocious environmentalism in which destructive fishing practices become the means through which the human societies depending on Newfoundland's coastal waters accelerate their own destruction. Accordingly, it makes him pessimistic about the prospects for France's outposts in the northwestern Atlantic. In Thoulet's narrative, late-nineteenth-century French intellectual life confronts outport Newfoundland, transforming the latter into an unlikely but strangely appropriate fin-de-siècle icon.
Jamieson is well suited to the task of translating and editing Thoulet's Voyage. His rendering of the author's sharp physical descriptions and murkier philosophical musings are fluid, conveying the exuberant, occasionally overripe quality of the originals. Jamieson's introduction examines the Voyage in the wider contexts of Thoulet's biography, of oceanography's development as a discipline, of the exigencies of contemporary scientific expeditions, of international diplomacy, and of the contemporary North Atlantic fishery. His notes explicate Thoulet's many classical and contemporary allusions, and draw on current scholarship in several disciplines to...