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Joseph-Paul Gaimard, assistant surgeon on the Uranie, lived for sixty-five years, a respectable total for someone born in the last decade of the eighteenth century. He can certainly be said to have filled those years pretty well, but the extent to which they are documented varies enormously. The well-documented portion  begins with his 3-year circumnavigation on the Uranie, for which we have his own diary up to the departure from Guam, and mentions and extracts from his reports in Louis de Freycinet’s Voyage autour de Monde for the remainder, but for his life before then we have very little, and what we have is suspect. The main source  for that period is a 4-page biographical note published in 1837 by Jarry de Mancy (JdM), in which it is claimed that Gaimard barely knew his father, who had been killed during the revolutionary wars in the Midi. Both these claims are suspect, because local historians simply record that he was killed by bandits, and since Gaimard would have been seven years old when this happened, he probably did know his father quite well.

Documentation continues to be good for the period after the return of the Uranie. Gaimard’s second circumnavigation, under Dumont Durville in the Astrolabe, is covered in, among many other places, a series of letters he wrote to Louis de Freycinet. These continued after his return, and included a description of Paris during the July and of his visit to Russia to report on the outbreak of cholera, but ended after the death of Rose de Freycinet in 1832. until the end of his second expedition to Iceland. There are mentions of him scattered through the memoirs of Jean René Quoy, which were serialised in the Bulletin of the Société de Géographie de Rochefort between 1917 and 1923 (Q37-39), but these do not include the Uranie voyage (the relevant pages were missing) and were unfinished when Quoy died in 1869;  there is nothing in them concerning Gaimard’s life after the publication of the reports on the Scandinavian expedition (‘Voyages … En Scandinavie, En Laponie, Au Spitzberg Et Aux Feroë, pendant … 1838, 1839 Et 1840, Publ. Sous La Direction de P. Gaimard in no fewer than seventeen volumes), or his death in 1858. The easily accessible record is, in general, patchy even for those expeditions. partly because Gaimard features in them relatively little, and partly because, It seems, only the books of illustrations (‘Atlas’ in French) and some other rather specialized parts of the work have been digitized. Various suppliers have recorded the 21st Century publication of parts of the work amongst the British Library Historical Print Editions, but with little or no information on the volumes concerned, and the Library’s own website is silent on the matter.

A timeline for his life, with links, is given below, but there is one very questionable item in it. A number of sources, including the one to which a link is provided, state that Gaimard was nominated or appointed as President of the commission scientifique d’Islande et du Groenland in 1829. It would be remarkable if this were true, because he only returned from the Astrolabe voyage in March of that year, and was then, as his letters to de Freycinet testify, heavily involved in dealing with, and reporting on, the specimens brought back. He had, moreover, no experience at that time, in travel in high latitudes. It seems much more likely that he was selected for the first Iceland expedition, in the report on which he is listed (on p.3-4) simply as chirugien, because of his limited experience of Scandinavia en route to investigating cholera in Russia, and his presidency did not begin until after that, and possibly not until his return from the second expedition.




Joseph-Paul Gaimard dressed for Iceland. Lithograph by Emile Lassalle, from Voyag en Islande et ay Groenland. Source Library of the University of Wisconsin via Wikimedia.

31 January 1793   Born: 31 January/1 February at Saint Zacharie (JdM)

1790   Father killed

1802    Mother (Claire Gasquet) remarries

1803-1810?    Brought up by an aunt called Allard

1810?   Enrolled in the École de médecine navale

1812-1814   Auxiliary surgeon, l’Impérial

1815    Auxiliary surgeon, Néréride

September 1816    Appointed Surgeon, 3rd Class

17 September 1817   Departs Toulon as second surgeon, l’Uranie

18-20 September 1818    Near-death expedition, Peron Peninsula

13 February 1820   Shipwrecked, Berkely Sound

27 April 1820   Departure from Berkeley Sound

13 Novembe 1820   Returns to France on the Physicienne

February 1821   Appointed Surgeon, 2nd Class

14 July 1823   Quoy/Gaimard paper on coral reefs read to the Académie

May 1824   Appointed Surgeon,1st Class

1824   Publication of Voyage autour du monde, Zoologie

15 February 1826   Letter to de Freycinet re Murchison (NLA 01)

26April 1826    Leaves Toulon as chief surgeon on the Astrolabe

4 December 1826    Letter to de Freycinet from Port Jackson (MLNSW)

14 March 1827    Letter to de Freycinet from Bay of Islands re Académie (NLA 02)

16 March 1827    Letter to de Freycinet from Bay of Islands (NLA 03)

12 May 1827    Letter to de Freycinet from Tongatapu (NLA 04)

14 May 1827   Letter to de Freycinet from Tongatapu (MLNSW)

25 December 1827    Letter to de Freycinet from Hobart (NLA 05)

18 October 1828    Letter to de Freycinet from Port Louis, Mauritius (MLNSW)

November 1828   Disembarked sick, Mauritius (Q38)

28 November 1828    Letter to de Freycinet from St Denis, Réunion (NLA 06)

19 March 1829   Letter to de Freycinet from the Bayonnaise, Marseille (NLA 07)

25 March 1829   Meets Quoy and Sainson when Astrolabe arrives in Marseille. (Q38)

31 March 1829    Joint Quoy/Gaimard letter to de Freycinet from Marseille (NLA 08)

April 1829   Takes Quoy to visit Saint-Zachaeie (Q38)

1829 ???   Nominated President, Scientific Commission, Iceland & Greenland ??

13 April 1830  Letter of apology to de Freycinet from Paris (NLA 09)

24 July 1830   Letter with request to de Freycinet from Paris (NLA 10)

3 August 1830  Describes for de Freycinet the start of the July Revolution (NLA 11)

7 August 1830   Describes for de Freycinet the ending of the July Revolution (NLA 12)

 1831    Visit to Rose de Freycinet recorded by Quoy (Q39)

14 June 1831   Leaves Paris for Russia on mission to investigate Cholera epidemic

11 November 1831   Letter to de Freycinet from Memel re Cholera in Russia (NLA 13)

7 May 1832   Attends dying Rose de Freycinet

1832    Publication of Du choléra-morbus en Russie, en Prusse et en Autriche,

July 1832   Publication of Traitement de Choléra-Morbus

17 March 1835   Publication of Voyage de découvertes de l’Astrolabe, Zoologie

27 April  1835   La Récherche sails from Cherbourg on 1st northern expedition.

13 September 1835   La Récherche returns to Cherbourg after 1st northern expedition.

21 May 1836   La Récherche sails from Cherbourg on 2nd northern expedition.

3 September 18361   La Récherche returns to Cherbourg after 2nd northern expedition.

20 September 1837   Recruitment of scientists for Scandinavian expedition begins

1838   Publication of Voyage en Islande et au Groenland, 1835 & 1836

29 March 1838   Writes to Berzelius about plans for Scandinavian expedition

1838 ?   Fails to include Quoy in the science team for the Scandinavian expedition

13 June 1838   La Récherche towed from Le Havre for the Scandinavian expedition.

1838    Ten days spent  in Spitzbergen, not much longer at North Cape.

September 1838   On La Récherche in Stockholm

February 1839   Presented with the Danebrog cross in Copenhagen

May 1839    Meets Léonie d’Aunet, recruits her and François Biard for Spitzbergen expedition

16 January 1839   Poetic banquet given by Icelandic community in Copenhagen

1839? 1840?   La Récherche returns to Cherbourg after Scandinavian expedition.

1840   Initial publication of Voyages de la Commission, 1838, 1839 & 1840

1842   Publication of final volume of Voyages de la Commission

March 1848   Ends active service

10 December 1858   Dies in Paris

The Poetic Banquet of 1839 ws given by the Icelandic community in Copenhagen, which was evidently less than well disposed to Danish rule of their homeland. During it copies of a poem by Jonas Hallgrimsson, one of the island’s premier poets were distributed, and it was also read out loud. An English translation by Dick Ringler, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison  goes as follows:

Standing on Hekla’s stony height                       Riding a steed of rugged stock
you stared at braided rivers gleaming                 you roamed through many an upland valley,
over the peaceful plains and streaming               pausing where tumbling torrents dally
out to an ocean broad and bright,                       dimly with dwellers in the rock,
while Loki lurked among the boulders                while high in steep and stony passes
lying beneath the mountain’s shoulders-             straggle-haired sheep ate fragrant grasses —
were you not awed by Iceland then,                   were you not awed by Iceland then,
this ancient realm of crag and glen?                   this ageless land of moor and fen?

Looking on lava’s vast extent                             Here, beneath Copenhagen’s towers,
along the stream where chieftains hosted            a host from Iceland greets you, knowing
back in the days when Iceland boasted               Frenchmen will never fail in showing
her proud and ancient parliament                       love for a land as free as ours,
(its towering tents are long forgotten,                 where liberty still laughs and dances
their turf foundations wrecked and rotten) —      though lamed by tyrannous circumstances,
did you not ache for Iceland then,                      and all its natives need or want
openly shamed before all men?                          is nourishment from wisdom’s font.

Progress depends on truth and lore.                    Honor to you, Paul, evermore!
Patient research, pursued with rigor,                  Honor for your immense successes
restores a people’s stagnant vigor,                      drawing from nature’s dim recesses
bringing them boons unknown before.                puzzles and prodigies galore!
Therefore we place supreme reliance                 Well-earned renown was never clearer;
upon the work of men of science,                       never has guest of ours been dearer!
who toil up pathways never trod                        God be your aid in all you do —
to tend the holy flame of God.                           Iceland will long remember you