Графични страници
PDF файл

time these imposing spectacles, afford them a recompence for their privations, and excite them to meditation. Iceland is perhaps the only colony in the world that has formed a more original literature than the mother country, or even modern Europe. It is asserted, that one of her navigators discovered America Tiearly five centuries before Columbus; and it is only by consulting her ancient annals, that documents of any authenticity have been found for the history of Scandinavia. Still at the present day, the meanest peasant is instructed in the history of his country; and it is in repeating from memory the songs of their ancient poets, that they pass their long winter evenings.

Our learned caravan employed a month in traversing the island ; and Mr Von Troil published a very interesting account of what they observed. As to Mr Banks, always little solicitous about himself, he gave to Mr Pennant, for his Journey to Scotland, the drawings * which he had caused to be made of the island of Staffa and its cave, as well as the description which he had taken of them. In Iceland, as in the South Sea, and as at Newfoundland, it was sufficient for him that his observations were not lost to the public; and this consideration appears to have satisfied all his wishes. Here, also, he did better than describe; he became to the Icelanders a not less zealous and a more effective benefactor than to the Otaheiteans. Not only did he draw the attention of the court of Denmark to them, but watching over their welfare himself, he twice, at his own expence, when they were afflicted with famine, sent cargoes of grain to their island. Like the personages which were deified by the ancient mythology, it might be said of him, that he became a providence to the places which he had once visited.

On his return from two enterprises, in which he had given such splendid proofs of his disinterested love of science, Mr Banks would naturally find his place in the first ranks of those who cultivate it. Having long been a member of the Royal Society, he now took an active part in its administration and labours. "His house, open with equal hospitality to men of science of his own and of other nations, became a sort of academy. The welcome of the master,—the pleasure of seeing

[ocr errors]

* These drawings are now preserved in the College Museum of Edinburgh. -Edit.

there the meritorious friends whom he had made,-a rich library, accessible to all,-collections which would in vain have been searched for even in public institutions, drew thither the lovers of science. Nowhere was such a point of union more precious, it might be said more necessary, than in a country where the barriers which separate the conditions of society are stronger than in any other, and where men of different ranks meet but rarely, unless some one, for the purpose of bringing them together, puts himself in some measure out of rank, or makes for himself a peculiar and extraordinary rank.

Mr Banks was the first who had the good feeling to give himself this honourable kind of existence, and thus to create a sort of institution, the utility of which was so striking, that it was promptly sanctioned by general opinion. The choice which the Royal Society made of him, some years after, for its president, gave to this sanction all the authenticity which it was capable of receiving. But as is but too common among men, it was at the moment when he obtained this honour, the greatest which he could desire, that the most bitter disputes arose.

Here it becomes necessary that we should give some explanation to our hearers.

The Royal Society of London, the oldest of the scientific academies that subsist at the present day, and, without dispute, one of the first for the discoveries of its members, receives no assistance from government, and is supported solely by the contributions of those who compose it. It is therefore necessary for it to be very numerous, and a not less necessary consequence, (as in all the political associations where the participation of the citizens in the government is in the inverse ratio of their number), the men to whom it confides its administration exercise over its labours, and to a certain point over the march and progress of science, a more considerable influence than we can easily fancy to ourselves in our continental academies. · The situation of a minister in a representative constitution which obliges him to have guarantees in some measure official for all his acts, contributes still more to this influence, and extends it over the lot of individuals. In reality, a ņew election is made every year; but the functions of the president are of so delicate


a nature that few are capable of executing them ; hence it seldom happens, that he who has been once invested with them, is not re-elected so long as he consents to be so. A first choice is therefore a great affair in the learned world; and when it is disputed, it is with great keenness.

At the period of which we speak, the discussions that took place had their asperity increased by a singular, I would almost venture to say a ridiculous incident. The natural philosophers of the Royal Society having been consulted about the form that should be given to a lightning-rod that was to be placed upon some public building, had almost unanimously proposed to have it terminated in a point. A single individual among them of the name of Wilson, took it into his head to maintain that it should terminate in a round knob, and he delivered an incomprehensible harangue in support of this paradox. The thing was so clear, that, in any other country, or at any other time, people would not have listened to him, and the conductor would have been made as all others had hitherto been made. But England was then in the hottest part of her quarrel with her American colonies, and it was Franklin who had discovered the power which points have of drawing off lightning. A question of natural philosophy therefore became a question of politics. It was carried on not before learned men, but before party men. It was only the friends of the insurgents, it was said, that could be for points, and whoever did not support the knobs, was evidently without affection for the mother country. As is usual the multitude, and even the higher classes, were divided, before having examined the matter, and Wilson found protectors, just as protectors would have been found against the theorem of Pythagoras, if geometry had ever become an affair of party. It is even asserted that an august personage, every

other occasion the generous and enlightened friend of science, had, on this occasion, the weakness to make himself a solicitor, and the mis. fortune to plead against the points. He spoke to the then

president, Sir John Pringle, a man of sound judgment and of elevated character. Pringle, it is said, respectfully represented, that the prerogatives of the President of the Royal Society did not go so far as to change the laws of nature. He might have added, that, if it be honourable for princes, not only to protect


the sciences as they ought, but also to amuse their leisure, by informing themselves of the discussions to which they give rise, it can only be on condition that they do not make their rank interfere in support of the opinions which they adopt. The representations of Pringle were not received with the graciousness to which he was accustomed; and, as this unhappy quarrel had already, for three years, involved him in a thousand bickerings, he considered it advisable, for his peace, to give in his resignation. It was in his place that Mr Banks was chosen in the month of November 1778. On what side he had placed himself in the war of electrical points and knobs, we do not well know; but this much every body will comprehend, that, under such circumstances, it was impossible for him to attain the presidency, without encountering many enemies. The circumstance of Mr Banks enjoying the favour of the august personage, whom his predecessor had offended, was employed by his enemies against him ; moreover he was rich and young, and although he had done more for science than many writers, he had written little. What motives and pretexts for attacking him ! What disgrace (it was said) for England and the mathematics ! a mere amateur to fill the seat of Newton! as if it could have been hoped that another Newton should ever occupy it. A naturalist to be put at the head of the mathematics ! as if it were not just that each science should, in its turn, obtain honours proportioned to the fruits which it produced. By degrees these murmurs degenerated into animosities; at length, on the occasion of a law that required the secretaries to reside in London, and of which the consequence was the resignation of Dr Hutton, Professor of Mathematics in the school of Woolwich, these animosities burst forth into a violent tempest. Dr Horsley, a learned mathematician and ardent theologian, who was afterwards, successively, Bishop of St David's and of Rochester, became the principal organ of the opposition. He delivered discourses and published writings remarkable for their asperity; he predicted all the misfortunes imaginable to the society and to science; and, supported by some members of more consideration than himself, such as the astronomer Maskelyne, he thought himself at the point of overturning Mr Banks. Fortunately it was perceived that he also had in view to place himself in the chair, a discovery

[ocr errors]

that proved a sedative to all the passions which he had excited. Such a chief appeared, even to his own friends, an evil more certain than any of those which he had predicted. He was abandoned, and some meetings after, the society, by a solemn deliberation, on the 8th January 1784, declared that it was satisfied with its choice. Horsley, and some violent men like himself, withdrew; and, since that period, Mr Banks, constantly re-elected, filled, in peace, this noble station during fortyone successive years, a duration longer than that of any of his predecessors. Newton himself only occupied the presidency during twenty-four years.

Assuredly, if we cast a glance over the history of the Royal Society during these forty-one years, we shall not find that it had cause to repent of its resolution.

During this epoch, so memorable in the history of the human mind, the cultivators of science in England,—it is honourable for us to say it, for us whose right to render this testimony cannot be disputed, and who can render it without fear for ourselves, -the cultivators of science in England have occupied as glorious a part as those of any other country in those labours which are common to all civilized nations.

They have encountered the ice of both poles ; they have left no region unvisited in either ocean; they have augmented the catalogue of the productions of nature in a tenfold degree; the heavens have been peopled by them with planets, satellites, and unheard of phenomena; they have counted, so to speak, the stars of the Milky Way; if chemistry has assumed a new aspect, the facts with which they have furnished it have essentially contributed to this metamorphosis ; inflammable air, pure air, phlogisticated air, we owe to them; they discovered the decomposition of water; new and numerous metals are the results of their analyses ; the nature of the fixed alkalies was demonstrated by their experiments ; mechanics, at their voice, have brought forth miracles, and placed their country above others in almost every kind of manufacture: and if, as no reasonable person can doubt, such successes result from their personal energy and the general spirit of their nation, much more than from the influence of an individual, in whatever situation he may be ; it must yet be always acknowledged, that Sir Joseph Banks did not abuse his situation, and

« ПредишнаНапред »