Having identified the Prime Meridian, where longitude is defined as 0°, as being Greenwich, we have also acknowledged the starting point of exploration. An imaginary great circle on the earth’s surface passing through the North and South geographic poles places tremendous appreciation to the explorers who first sailed ship from that point going into strange lands. Such an important marker cannot be overlooked by the serious and assiduous collectors of rare books of exploration who place the exploits of British explorers at the core of their collection.
It was an appreciation for such works and the requirement to be in mint condition that drove Franklin Brooke-Hitching into a 46 year long journey of his own to acquire volumes chronicling the exploits of British explorers. From 16th-century explorations of the Northwest Passage to 20th-century pioneering attempts on Mount Everest, the target included books that are not merely traveling books, but are full of adventure and exotic flavor. The collection of 1,400 volumes charting the voyages of adventurers such as William Bligh, Edward Christian, James Cook, Charles Darwin, Francis Drake and David Livingstone was considered as complete as it will ever be. It includes the first book to be printed in the Antarctic; the first map of Australia, commissioned by the botanist Sir Joseph Banks in 1772; the first printed map of Cook’s discoveries from his first voyage, as well as the complete set of his journals; a signed copy of Ernest Shackleton’s The Heart of the Antarctic and much more.
Now 72 years old, Brooke-Hitching, who believes he owns a copy of almost every book on British exploration, has decided to offer his collection to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in three separate events. The initial segment consisting of 345 volumes from authors A-C took place at the end of last month, and managed to reach the high end of its ambitious estimate quite handsomely. The highlight of this first segment was in the offering of the collection of Captain James Cook books, which included the first printed map selling for £134,000, a narrative of his death from 1786 going for £104,500, and the much publicized catalog of the 39 pieces of cloth specimens collected in his three voyages selling for £182,000 (prices include buyer premiums).
Auction bidders pushed prices at twice the high estimates for books covering the controversial transaction that is known as the mutiny on board of the British Royal Navy ship HMS, The Bounty. The “Mutiny on the Bounty,” as it became known, took place on the 28th of April 1789, an attack against the ship’s captain, Lieutenant William Bligh by the mutineers led by Fletcher Christian, who, according to accounts, were attracted to the “idyllic” life and sexual opportunities afforded on the Pacific island of Tahiti. A first edition by Captain William Bligh, Stephen Barney and Edward Christian of the minutes of the court-martial at Portsmouth who charged the men with mutiny on board the ship, sold for £40,000. Another first edition in the series concerning the trial proceedings, A short Reply to Capt. William Blight’s Answer London: J. Deighton 1795, sold for £80,500.
Any first appearance of Blight’s account of the expedition that attracted the public notice is also very popular with collectors of rare exploration. However, these books do not include any drawings or maps or even descriptions of notable coastal discoveries, as the object of the voyage was namely to obtain plants of the bread-fruit, with a view to its acclimatization in the British West India islands. Instead, these are accounts and proceedings of the trial of the crew members of the Bounty, some of which provide the evidence for the prosecution, and others with a full account of the causes and circumstances of the transaction that were written by Edward Christian, the brother of the mutineer Fletcher Christian. These documents were not intended for publication and have been withheld from the public.
Segments 2 and 3 of this fascinating auction are planned for September 2014 and spring 2015.