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Alexander Dalrymple (1737–1808)

This article was published:

Alexander Dalrymple, by George Dance

Alexander Dalrymple, by George Dance

National Library of Australia, 9482269

Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808), hydrographer and propagandist, was born on 24 July 1737 at New Hailes, near Edinburgh, the seventh of sixteen children of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir James Dalrymple and his wife, a daughter of the earl of Haddington. He was educated first by his father, then until he was 14 at the Haddington school. He went to London after his father's death and in 1752, through the influence of an uncle by marriage, General St Clair, was appointed a writer in the East India Co.'s service, being first posted to Madras. While with the company Dalrymple became interested in the possibilities of trade with the East Indies and China, negotiated a treaty with the sultan of Sulu and visited Canton; in 1765 he returned to London where he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

When translating some Spanish documents captured in the Philippines in 1762, Dalrymple had found Torres's testimony proving a passage south of New Guinea; he now showed Torres's route of 1606 on a chart in his An Account of the Discoveries Made in The South Pacifick Ocean, Previous to 1764 (London, 1767). In this work he declared his belief in the existence of a great southern continent, extending into low latitudes in the Pacific; more important, he brought Torres's route to the notice of Joseph Banks. In 1768 it was suggested that Dalrymple should lead the expedition being sent to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus but his insistence that he should command the vessel was contrary to Admiralty regulations. However, his book provided James Cook with valuable knowledge for his successful navigation of Torres Strait. In his major work, An Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean (London, 1770), Dalrymple continued to insist that a great southern continent existed. By circumnavigating New Zealand, Cook on his first voyage had imposed severe limitations on this hypothesis, and on his second voyage in 1772-75, he completely disproved it; nevertheless Dalrymple's writings had done much to maintain official interest in Pacific exploration.

In 1768 the East India Co. had offered Dalrymple management of a new factory it planned at Balambangan in Borneo, in line with the proposals he had earlier put forward and later expressed in A Plan for Extending the Commerce of this Kingdom and of the East-India-Company (London, 1769); but his demands were so extreme that in 1771 the company dismissed him. In 1775 he was again appointed to Madras; after only two years he was recalled. In 1779 he was appointed hydrographer to the company. He carried out valuable work in his prolific publication of charts, but he was also ever ready to indulge in violent controversy on the identification of various Pacific islands. He was convinced that trade in this area would be profitable, arguing by analogy with India and China that the indigenous peoples would be found numerous and wealthy; partly for this reason, he strongly opposed the establishment of New South Wales in A Serious Admonition to the Public on the Intended Thief-Colony at Botany Bay (London, 1786). He insisted that the whole scheme was only an attempt to carry on illegal trade in violation of the monopoly of the East India Co., and ridiculed transportation there as a punishment. However, his criticism was ignored. In 1795 he was appointed hydrographer to the Admiralty, but again his difficult temperament proved his undoing. On 28 May 1808 he was dismissed; as a result, 'in the opinion of his medical attendants, he died of vexation' on 19 June.

That he should be remembered as one who engaged in constant disputes with the East India Co. and the Admiralty, who pursued a foolish and unnecessary vendetta against Cook and who supported erroneous geographical theories is perhaps inevitable; although the latter often reflected skilful deduction, Dalrymple invariably postulated them with a dogmatism unjustified by the evidence. He was over-bearing, opinionated and cantankerous, but also intelligent, enthusiastic and determined. He made major contributions to marine cartography and his writings on mercantile and public affairs show the breadth of his interests.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Beaglehole, Journals of Captain James Cook, vol 1 (Cambridge, 1955)
  • Gentleman's Magazine, vol 78, 1808, p 566
  • C. Jack-Hinton, ‘Alexander Dalrymple and the Rediscovery of the Islands of Solomon’, Mariner's Mirror, vol 50, no 2, May 1964, pp 93-114
  • K. Tregonning, ‘Alexander Dalrymple: The Man Whom Cook Replaced’, Australian Quarterly, vol 13, no 3, September 1951, pp 54-63.

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Citation details

'Dalrymple, Alexander (1737–1808)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alexander Dalrymple, by George Dance

Alexander Dalrymple, by George Dance

National Library of Australia, 9482269

Life Summary [details]


24 July, 1737
New Hailes, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


19 June, 1808 (aged 70)
London, Middlesex, England

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