Hanging around with the naturalists

I see that more than 600,000 plant species have disappeared.  No, not by logging, global warming, pesticides etc. etc., but because botanists have been combing through the listing of plant species, weeding out the duplicates.  I was interested to read that

One of the databases was established using 250 pounds left in the will of naturalist Charles Darwin

I’m sure that Charles would have approved wholeheartedly.  Although, looking at his will, most of his goodies seem to be divided up amongst family. Perhaps it was established later.

Speaking of Charles Darwin, he certainly has a prodigious online presence, spurred on no doubt by the anniversary recently.  There’s Darwin Online – huge! And have you seen the repository of all the letters that Darwin wrote and received up to 1867 at the Darwin Correspondence Project?

Apparently Darwin had over 2000 correspondents from across the globe, and he was not the only one.  Naturalism and collecting was a favoured gentlemanly past-time and for colonial civil servants scattered across the globe, providing information and samples for their highly-placed naturalist patrons was a way of keeping connections open with men in positions that might prove useful in the future.

And so we see our  Resident Judge of Port Phillip- Judge Willis- sitting down and packaging up samples for his patrons at home.  Like other men of his time, Judge Willis  was not averse, as Rolf Boldrewood reminds us, to a bit of the old huntin’ and shootin’  on the Yarra Flats-

This not undistinguished legal celebrity we had known in Sydney, and he presented himself to my youthful intelligence as a good-natured, mild-mannered old gentleman, with whom I used to go quail and duck shooting in the flats and bends of the Yarra over Mr Hawdon’s and the neighbourhood estates.  On these occasions the late Mr Archibald Thom, who rented part of Banyule from Mr Hawdon, often accompanied us.  And a very deadly shot he was.
The judge shot fairly well, and after a decent morning’s sport was genial and generous in a marked degree. But when he doffed the russet tweeds and donned the ermine, he became utterly transformed. It was averred, too, altogether for the worse. ( Rolf Boldrewood, Old Melbourne Memories, p. 159-60)

But he also indulged in- or at least arranged for someone else to indulge in- a bit of naturalistic hunting as well.  Here he is, in April 1843, writing to Derby, the father of the Secretary of State (how convenient!)- sending a- ye Gods, what on earth IS he sending him?

I have the pleasure of sending by the “Arab” an animal, temporarily stuffed, which is not common even here; I think is seems a commixture of Monkey, Opossum and Sloth, more like the Sloth perhaps than any other.  It has a pouch.  I do not forget the Musk Duck & hope my efforts to obtain them may yet prove successful.

And then, on board ship on the way home

The hurry in which I left Australia prevents me collecting such Natural curiosities as might possibly have been acceptable to your Lordship.  I enclose however a good specimen of the Flying Mouse, possibly as curious an animal as inhabits those regions, & a fair illustration of many larger animals of the same Genus.  It can only fly in an angle of 45 degrees- It has a Pouch & the featherlike tail is not a little remarkable. On our voyage we put in at Bahia and I have a few Brazillian Seeds & Roots, which the English Chaplain gave me very much at your Lordship’s Service, if they be worth acceptance.  I have also some of the Wattle Tree, or Mimosa of Australia Felix, which I have no doubt will grow in the Open Air in England with a little care & be a great ornament in a Garden or Shrubbery.  The Bark of it is become a profitable article of Export for Tanning being stronger and preferable to English OakBark.  The flower of the Wattle is fragrant and pretty.

I wonder if the Mimosa of Australia Felix was one of the expunged varieties?  And the flying mouse- probably a pygmy glider of some sort.  Though I prefer this one-

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2 responses to “Hanging around with the naturalists

  1. Ah… the Victorian collectors. I think it was rather nice how 19th century biologicial science was such a communal effort where much of the time enthusiasm and commitment were the only qualifications. This relied on letters and parcels and was an activity where the different classes interacted, though the limitations of class did impact on the exchange. I found Anne Secord’s article in the British Journal for the History of Science gave some interesting insights on this (‘Correspnding interests: artisans and gentlemen in nineteenth-century natural history’, BJHS 1994, pp. 383-408). Iain McCalman’s discussion of the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution, Alfred Wallace, in Darwin’s Armada also gives a picture of the difficulties faced by a budding scientist from the lower classes. Of course the Judge Willis would not have had these difficulties.

    My eyes were first opened to this by Tom Griffiths in his book Hunters and Collectors: The Antiquarian Imagination in Australia. Unfortunately I have only had time to read one chapter, your post has made me think I might go back and read the whole book

    Loved the LOLcat!

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