S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Osbeck, Rev Pehr (natural history)

Born: 9 May 1723, Oset, Sweden.
Died: 23 December 1805, Hasslov, Halland, Sweden.

Pehr (or Per) Osbeck, Swedish clergyman and naturalist, was educated at Goteborg and Uppsala during 1840-1845. Among others he studied under the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Through his connections with the Swedish East India Company, Linnaeus managed to place his pupils as surgeon-naturalists on board the Swedish East India Company's ships bound for the East. As a result he, and the Swedish Academy of Sciences, regularly received natural history specimens, also from the Cape. Though Osbeck was not a surgeon, he was selected to sail as chaplain on the Swedish East India Company's ship Prins Carl on a voyage to China and the East Indies from November 1750 to June 1752. His selection was mainly based on his knowledge of natural history, while one of Linnaeus's assistants provided detailed instructions on the observations and collections to be made. The ship arrived in Canton (now Guangzhou) in August 1751. Despite restrictions on his movements and the hostility of the local population Osbeck collected a considerable number of animals and plants, recorded detailed descriptions of plants, birds, fish and other animals, and described the agricultural practices and economy of the region. It appears that the company's ships avoided landing at the Cape at this time, preferring to call at Madagascar, Ascension and St Helena. On the return journey the Prins Carl visited Java and Ascension. Osbeck was therefore not able to disembark at the Cape, though he passed it on both the outward and return journeys. After his return to Sweden he published an account of the voyage in Swedish, Dagbok ofver en ostindisk resa aren 1750, 51, 52 (Stockholm, 1757). A German translation appeared in 1765 and this was in turn translated into English and published as A voyage to China and the East Indies (London, 1771). Most of the specimens he collected were given to Linnaeus.

In his account of the waters around the Cape Osbeck provided some good observations of sea birds and marine invertebrates. On the return journey, on 10 March 1752, he observed a species of sea-weed which the sailors called Trumpet-weed, and described it as Fucus maximus. During one of his passages he found the remarkable shrub-resembling lichen Combea mollusca at Saldanha. He was commemorated in the plant genera Osbeckia and Osbeckiastrum.

In 1760 Osbeck settled in Hasslov as a pastor and remained there for the rest of his life. He was married to Susanna Dahlberg. His son, Carl Gustaf Osbeck*, was also a naturalist.

List of sources:
Brinck, P. Swedish exploration of South African animal life during 200 years. In B. Hanström, P. Brinck & G. Rudebeck (eds), South African animal life: Results of the Lund University Expedition in 1950-1951 (Vol. 1, pp. 11-59). Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1955.

Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Pehr Osbeck. Svenskt biografiskt lexicon (Swedish Biographical Dictionary). Retrieved from https://sok.riksarkivet.se/Sbl/Mobil/Artikel/7809 on 2019-1-18.

Windquist, A.H. Scandinavians and South Africa: Their impact on the cultural, social and economic development of pre-1902 South Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1978.

Compiled by: C. Plug