Something for Everyone: Thomas Shaw’s Travels

by sarahkburke

Thomas Shaw, Travels, or, Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant. Oxford : Printed at the Theatre, 1738. [HOLLIS]

Title Page

Thomas Shaw (1694-1751), an early eighteenth-century travel writer, documented his experiences in the Levant, Sinai, Cyprus, and, indeed, most of North Africa.  While working as a chaplain in Algiers from 1720 to 1733, he explored widely and made numerous observations on architecture, antiquities, geography, geology, and natural history.

Temples at Sufetula

Upon his return to England Shaw was elected to the Royal Society on the basis of his early writings on Tunisia (in the 1729 Philosophical Transactions).  He spent much of the rest of his life at Oxford where he was a professor of Greek.  The full Travels, or, Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant was published in 1738, with subsequent editions appearing in 1757 and 1808.  It is a true Wunderkammer of a book, boasting multiple maps, in addition to engravings of animals, plants, coins, temples, and antiquities.  There is even a page of musical notation.


The book was praised by Edward Gibbon, who wrote: “Our blind travelers seldom possess any previous knowledge of the countries which they visit.  Shaw and Tournefort deserve an honourable exception” (Decline and Fall vol. 2, 1914 edition, page 520).  Shaw apparently had both a background in the study of classical antiquity and some working knowledge of Arabic.  But Shaw’s observations of natural history may be the most significant of his contributions.  Johann Jakob Dillenius, a botanist at Oxford, prepared the catalog of Shaw’s plants (over 600 of which are listed at the end of the Travels) and some of Shaw’s specimens were included in Dillenius’s Historia Muscorum.  Both Dillenius and Shaw entertained Carl Linnaeus when he visited Oxford in 1736; Shaw was an early admirer of Linnaeus’s Systema naturae.



Every engraving in the Travels bears a dedication to a patron, preserving and promoting their names in a more prominent way than the typical subscribers list.  Shaw’s collection of curiosities, antiquities, and natural history specimens were left to Oxford on his death.  Many were kept in the Bodleian Library until transfer to the Ashmolean Museum in 1887.