Thursday, September 07, 2006

Item of the Day: Guthrie’s Geographical Grammar (1786)

Full Title: New system of modern geography: or, a geographical, historical, and commercial grammar; and present state of the several kingdoms of the world. Containing, I. The figures, motions, and distances of the planets, according to the Newtonian system and the latest observations. II. A general view of the earth considered as a planet; with several useful geographical definitions and problems. III. The grand divisions of the globe into land and water, continents and islands. IV. The situation and extent of empires, kingdoms, states, provinces, and colonies. V. Their climates, air, soil, vegetable productions, metals, minerals, natural curiosities, seas, rivers, bays, capes, promontories, and lakes. VI. The birds and beasts peculiar to each country. VII. Observations on the changes that have been any where observed upon the face of nature since the most early periods of history. VIII. The history and origin of nations; their forms of government, religion, laws, revenues, taxes, naval and military strength. IX. The genius manners, customs, and habits of the people. X. Their language, learning, arts, sciences, manufactures, and commerce. XI. The chief cities, structures, ruins, and artificial curiosities. XII. The longitude, latitude, bearings, and distances of principal places from London. To which are added, I. A geographical index, with the names and places alphabetically arranged. II. A table of the coins of all nations, and their value in English money. III. A chronological table of remarkable events from the creation to the present time. By William Guthrie, Esq. The astronomical part by James Ferguson, F.R.S. Third edition, with great addtions and improvements, and a copious index, illustratd with a set of large and accurate maps. London: Printed for C. Dilly, and G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1786.

[In his Travelling Memorandums, Lord Gardenstone makes the following observation regarding this work of William Guthrie: “Gurthrie’s geographical grammar is the best book of its kind so far as I know. It is concise, accurate, and instructive. –And I think it is one very proper Vade mecum for travellers.”]


To a man sincerely interested in the welfare of society and of his coutnry, it must be particularly agreeabe to reflect on the rapid progress, and general diffusion of learning and civility, which, within the present age, have taken place in Great Britain. Whatever may be the cae in some other kingdoms of Europe, we, in this island, may boast of our superiority to those illiberal prejudices, which not only cramp the genius, but sour the temper of man, and disturb all the agreeable intercourse of society. Among us, learning is no longer confined within the schools of the philosophers, or the courts of the great; but, like all the greatest advantages which Heaven has bestowed on mankin, it is become as universal as it is useful.

This general diffusion of knowledge is one effect of that happy constitution of government, which, towards the close of the last century, was confirmed to us, and which constitutes the peculiar glory of this nation. In other countries, the great body of the people possess little wealth, have little power, and consequently meet with little respect; in Great Britain the people are opulent, have great influence, and claim, of course, a proper share of attention. To their improvement, therefore, men of letters have lately directed their studies; as the great body of people, no less than the dignified, the learned, or the wealthy few, have an acknowledged title to be amused and instructed. Books have been divested of the terms of the schools, reduced from that size which suited only the purses of the rich, and the avocations of the studious; and adapted to persons of more ordinary fortunes, whose attachment to other pursuits admitted of little leisure for those of knowledge. It is to books of this kind, more than to the works of our Bacons, our Lockes, and our Newtons, that the generality of our countrymen owe that superior improvement, which distinguishes them from the lower ranks of men in all other countries. To promote and advance this improvement, is the principal design of our present undertaking. No subject appears more interesting than that we have chosen, and none seems capable of being handled in a manner that may render it more generally useful.

The knowledge of the world, and of its inhabitants, though not the sublimest pursuit of mankind, it must be allowed, is that which most nearly interests them, and to which their abilities are best adapted. And Books of Geography, which describe the situation, extent, foil , and productions of kingdoms; the genius, manners, religion, government, commerce, sciences, and arts of all the inhabitants upon earth, promise the best assistance for attaining this knowledge. . . .

Next to Great Britain, we have been most particular upon the other states of Europe; and always in proportion as they present us with the largest field of useful reflection. By comparing together our accounts of the European nations, an important system of practical knowledge is inculcated; and a thousand arguments will appear in favour of a free government, religious toleration, and an extended, unrestrained commerce.

Europe having occupied so large a part of our volume, Asia next claims our attention; which, however, though in some respects the most famous quarter of the world, offers, when compared to Europe, extremely little of our entertainment or instruction. In Asia, a strong attachment to ancient customs, and the weight of tyrannical power, bear down the active genius of the inhabitants, and prevent that variety in manners and character, which distinguishes the European nations.

In Africa, the human mind seems degraded below its natural state. To dwell long upon the manners of this country, a country immersed in rudeness and barbarity, besides that I could afford little instruction, would be disgusting to every lover of mankind. Add to this, the inhabitants of Africa, deprived of all arts and sciences, without which the human mind remains torpid and inactive, discover no great variety in manners or character. A gloomy sameness almost every where prevails; and the trifling distinctions which are discovered among them, seem rather to arise from an excess of brutality on the one hand, than from any perceptible approaches towards refinements on the other. But though these quarter of the globe are treated less extensively than Europe, there is no district of them, however barren or savage, entirely omitted.

America, whether considered as an immense continent, inhabited by an endless variety of different people, or as a country intimately connected with Europe by the ties of commerce and government, deserves very particular attentions. The bold discovery, and barbarous conquest of this New World, and the manners and prejudices of the original inhabitants, are objects, which, together with the description of the country, deservedly occupy no small share of this performance.

In treating of such a variety of subjects, some less obvious particulars, no doubt, must escape our notice. But if our general plan be good, and the outlines and chief figures sketched with truth and judgment, the candour of the learned, we hope, will excuse imperfections which are unavoidable in a work of this extensive kind. . . .

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