Sonnerat, Pierre

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(b. Lyons, France, 18 August 1748;d.Paris, France, 31 March 1814)

natural history.

Sonnerat started his career as secretary to his godfather and relative. Pierre Poivre, enlightened intendant of ile de France (now Mauritius). Through influential patrons he rose from clerk in the overseas service of the Ministry of Naval Affairs to commissioner of the colonies, ending his career as commandant of the French settlement at Yanam, India, then a center for the manufacture of salt and cotton goods. He would have ended his life in affluence if the French Revolutionary Wars had not broken out; the English invaded the French settlement in 1793 and took Sonnerat to Pondicherry. He remained in captivity there until 1813, when he was repatriated on account of the joint intervention of Joseph Banks and Antoine Laurent de Jussieu. Soon afterward Sonnerat died in Paris.

Sonnerat’s fame rests on his determination to adhere, despite the lack of sympathy of his traditionally oriented bureaucratic superiors, to the enlightened policy initiated by the last naval ministers under the royal government: that of collecting essential scientific information on the overseas territories they administered. Indeed, he insisted on his title of “naturalitse pensionnaire du roi et correspondant de son cabinet.”

The right opportunities had been given to Sonnerat by Poivre, who had sent him at the beginning of his career on an expedition to Poelau Gebe, in the Moluccas, in search of the spice plants that he sought to acclimatize in the Mascarenes. This was an auspicious beginning to extensive travels in Asia. The botanical and zoological collections that Sonnerat brought back, mainly from the Philippines and the Moluccas, formed the basis of his first major publication, Voyage à la Nouvelle Guinée, and no doubt promoted his admission to the Académie des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts of Lyons as associate member, and his election on 19 January 1774 to the Académie Royale des Sciences as correspondent of the botanist Adanson (communication of December 1773: “Description du coco de mer [Lodocea maldivica Pers.] de l’lsle Praslin”). His accomplishments were well summarized by Adanson: “sachant parfaitement bien le dessin, la peinture et la miniature.”

Sonnerat’s success with the academies may have been due in great measure to the legend that he created and sedulously fostered: that he had been a student and “disciple” of Philibert Commerson, who was the naturalist on Bougainville’s expedition round the world. Sonnerat also claimed to have accompanied Cornmerson on his explorations of Ile de France, Bourbon (Réunion), and Madagascar. Chronological and contemporary evidence disprove this assertion, however; and official documents invariably cite Paul Philippe Sauguin de Jossigny as Commerson’s constant companion and draftsman. Sonnerat’s awareness of the prestige that science commanded in the Enlightenment is exemplified in his use of his membership in academies to open doors for him. Relying on a chance acquaintance with Joseph Banks in 1771 at the Cape of Good Hope, where Cook’s expedition had called on the last lap of the journey round the world, Sonnerat sought to secure election in 1783 as foreign associate of the Royal Society. He confided to Banks that membership would be of great help to him in the travels he proposed to make in Tibet and Central Asia, and would serve as an introduction to British governors in India. Disappointed in London, he was later honored by Revolutionary France by election as correspondent in the Botanical Section (First Class) of the Institut National on 28 November 1803. In 1806 the Société d’Émulation de I’Île de France elected him corresponding associate.

The success of the Voyage à la Nouvelle Guinée (1776) was doubtless on account of the very powerful, but anonymous, patronage. In the field of natural history, the work appears to have been a supplement to Brisson’s Ornithologie (1760) and a link with Histoire naturelle des oiseaux of Buffon and Guéneau de Montbéliard.

Heartened by this first success, Sonnerat confidently launched his second publication, the Voyage aux Indes orientales et à la Chine (1782), dedicated to his lifelong patron, the Comte d’Angiviller, iniendant of the Jardin Royal des plantes. Severe censure of the frivolity of his observations on the countries he had visited came from many sources: the missionaries of Pekin criticized what he had written on China; J. A. B Law de Lauriston, his account of India; and J. F. Charpentier de Cossigny, his strictures on Île de France. Nevertheless, the success outlasted the critism, for a second, less lavish edition (that does not seem to have been authorized), with critical notes by C. N. Sonnini de Manoncourt, was published in 1806. The work was probably a prey to literary piracy, for as late as 1816 Jean-Amable Pannelier published anonymously a work entitled L’Hindoustan, on reiigion, moeurs, usages, arts et métiers des Hindous, with descriptions of crafts literally transcribed from Sonnerat’s text of 1782.

Sonnini’s edition of the Voyage must not be confused with a proposed publication that Sonnerat planned to entitle Nouveau voyage aux Indes orientales He had worked manuscipt during the part of his stay in India; and he in the publication to be in three, later externded four volumes. After his death the completed manuscript, brought to France on his last journey was entrusted by his daughter to Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, who was requested to edit it. Despite exhaustive searches in the Paris archives, the manuscript has not been traced; and the work is only from a prospectus that was distributed shortly after 1803.

Sonnerat was an avid, if admittedly indiscriminate, collector. Botanical specimens were sent to Adanson. A. L. de Jussieu. Linnaeus the younger, and Lamarck; collections of reptiles from India and of tropical fishes wrere sent to Lacépède; and his notes and drawings were used by Cuvier. Sonnerat had a great interest in tropical fishes —attested by the handsome collection of seventeen undated plates in the collection of Vélins du roi; and he seems to have been among the first to study scientific spirit, those fishes from the lagoons of Île de France that were reported to cause poisoning. Sonnerat was the first to give an account of the indris (I. brevicaudatus) and of the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) from Madagascar. His elegant drawings of exotic birds, if not free from error in attribution or habitat, are fundamental for the study of ornithology. His name is commemorated in the genus Sonneratia (mollusk) and in six or eight species of mangrove swamp plants (Sonneratia L. f) of the eastern tropics.

Unfortunately Sonnerat’s fame rests on his achievements as a young man. Little is mentioned of his accomplishments as a skillful administrator, or of his understanding of contrasting cultures and civilizations that made him a forerunner of modern social anthropologists. In his two major publications it is evident that his insight into other civilizations gave a strong impetus in Europe to the spread of a fashionable interest in the religion, arts, and customs of India and the Indian Archipelago; this marked the second part of the eighteenth century in Europe, in contrast to the interest in the arts and civilization of China that had prevailed earlier. Sonnerat was responsible for nurturing in France a taste for the exotic style of painting known in England as “company painting.” This style is evident in the collections of prints and drawings preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, dating from the end of the eighteenth century to almost the 1840’s, and representing French artistic interest in the racial types and crafts of India and Southeast Asia.


I. Orginal Works. Sonnerat’s published writings are Voyage à la Nouvelle Guinée ... (Paris, 1776), also in English ed. (Bury St. Edmunds, 1781); and Voyage aux Indes orientales et à la Chine fait par order du roi, depuis 1774 jusqu’en 1781..., 2 vols. (Paris, 1782); also rev. ed. by C. N. Sonnini de Manoncourt, 4 vols. (Paris, 1806); other eds. are in German (Zurich, 1783), Swedish (Uppsala, 1786), and English (Calcutta, 1788).

There is also abundant archival material preserved in the following institutions: Académie des Sciences. Paris; Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris; Archives Nationales, Paris and Depôt des Archives d’Outre-Mer at Les Fenouilères, Aix-en-Provence; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; Archives Municipales, Lyons; British Museum, London; Hunt Botanical Library, Pittsburgh; and Archives of the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences of Mauritius.

II. Secondary Literature. A short note on Sonnerat appears in Index biographique des membres et correspondants de l’Académie des sciences, du 22 décember 1666 au 15 décembre 1967 (Paris, 1968), 509. The basic biographical article is Alfred Lacroix, “Notice historique sur les membres et correspondants de I’Academie des sciences ayant travaillé dans les colonies françaises des Mascareignes et de Madagascar au XVIIIe siècle et au début du XIXe ...,” in Mémoires de I’Académie des sciences de l’Institut de France, 2nd ser., 62 (1936), 70–75, also in Figures de savants, IV: L’Académie des sciences et l’etude de la France d’outremer de la fin du XVIIe siècle au dèbut du XIXe (Paris, 1938), 25–31. M. J. van Steenis-Kruseman has given a factual account in Cyclopaedia of Collectors ser. 1 I: Flora Malesiana; The Botany of Malaya, Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Guinea, C. G. G. J. van Steenis, ed. (Groningen, 1950). A short, balanced notice is given by Jean Vinson in Dictionary of Mauritian Biography, no. 18 (Port Louis, 1945), 561–562.

It should be noted that none of these writers gives any account of the latter part of Sonnerat’s life, spent mainly in India. These biographies are based on Sonnerat’s testimony or on his published work. Berthe Labernadie, who has done pioneer work in the Pondicherry archives, has written a spirited account of the French Revolution in Yanam in La révolution et les établissements français dans l’Inde(Pondicherry, 1929).

See also Madeleine Ly-Tio-Fane, “The Career of Pierre Sonnerat (1748–1814): A Reassessment of His Contribution to the Arts and to the Natural Sciences” (Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1973), which is based on a critical study of all the extant archival material preserved in the above-mentioned institutions.

More general works are Adanson. The Bicentennial of Michel Adanson’s “Families des Plantes,” 2 vols. (Pittsburgh, 1963–1964); Mildred Archer, Company Drawings in the India Office Library (London, 1972): L. H. Bailey, “Palms of the Seychelles,” in Gentes herbarum, 6 , fasc, 1 (1942), 9–29; Joseph Banks, The Banks Letters, a Calendar of the Manuscript Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks Preserved in the British Museum, the British Museum (Natural History) and Other Collections in Great Britain, Warren R. Dawson, ed. (London, 1958), 774; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris Trésors d’Orient (Exposition organisée sous l’égide du Comité national des commeémorations orientalistes, ... réalisée avec le concours du 29e Congrés international des Orientalistes) (Paris, 1973); J. F. Charpentier de Cossigny, Lettre à M Sonnerat (Port Louis, 1784); R. Decary, La faune malgache: Son röle dans les croyances et les usages indigènes (Paris, 1950), 19, 26–30; A.-A. Fauvel, “Le cocotier de mer des Îies Seychelles (Lodoicea Sechellarum”),” in Annales du Musée colonial de Marseille, 3rd ser., 1 (1915), 169–307; The Journals of Captain James Cook, J. C. Beaglehole, ed., 5 vols. (London. 1961 - ); Berthe Labernadie, Le vieux Pondichéry (1673-1815) (Pondicherry, 1936), l75–187; Madeleine Ly-Tio-Fane, Mauritius and the Spice Trade: I , The Odyssey of Pierre Poivre (Port Louis, 1958), 13, 34, 96–97, II ,The Triumph of Jean Nicolas Céréand His Isle Bourbon Collaborators (Paris-The Hague, 1970), 26–28, 178–179, 186; Madeleine Ly-Tio-Fane, “Pierre Poivre et I’expansion francaise dans l’ I’Indo-Pacifique,” in Bulletin de l’Ecole francaise d’Extrême-Orient,53 (1967), 453–511, with specific reference to Sonnerat on pp, 473–478; S. P. Sen, The French in India, 1763–1816 (Calcutta. 1958), 486–490:and C. P. Thunberg, Voyages de C. P. Thunberg au Japon, par le Cap de Bonne Espérance, les Îles de la Sonde, etc., I (Paris, 1796), 275–278.

Madeleine Ly-Tio-Fane