Naturalists Abroad: Three on the Amazon

Hemming, John. 2015. Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon. Thames & Hudson. [I read the Kindle edition]

There was not a lot paradisiacal about the Amazon basin when three young, lower middle class Englishmen arrived there in the late 1840’s. It was a backwater of the Empire of Brazil, still recovering from a bloody civil war and not yet experiencing the rubber boom. Travel was difficult, often impossible, and living conditions ranged from merely hot and humid to nearly intolerable. No motorboats, no canned food, no bug repellents. Yet the three naturalists, the first from Great Britain to travel extensively and for many years in the Amazon region, could live cheaply and enjoyed the help of both Brazilian and foreign residents. They lived by the sale of the specimens they collected, something not commonly done today, at least by academic scientists, but then it was quite respectable. This was possible, in Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace’s case, because they had a reliable and energetic agent in London, Samuel Stevens, who marketed the exotic animals and plants they supplied to an eager and growing circle of collectors. Thomas Spruce enjoyed the support of George Bentham and William Hooker, director of Kew Gardens. They also accumulated personal collections of great value and volumes of notes, drawings, sketches, and accounts of the rivers, forests and the native peoples, of whose languages and cultures they learned much, to their great advantage, and ours. They relied on the skill of native boatmen and hunters, and procuring their services was a constant preoccupation for all three.

They generally worked alone, each going his own way and following different styles of exploration. Bates was mainly an entomologist and the most sedentary, working intensively in one area for months at a time. Wallace and Spruce ranged more widely, Wallace after birds and all other animals, as well as plants. He also accumulated extensive geological and ethnographic information. Spruce hunted new species of plants, including his favorites, mosses and liverworts. Wallace was accompanied at times by his brother, but Bates and Spruce were out of contact with their own countrymen for long periods.

The adventures described in this account are exciting, inspiring, and frequently hair-raising. The rivers and their falls and rapids were the greatest danger to the explorers and their precious collections, but the everyday toll of hunger and sickness on the men and of wet, mold and insects on their specimens probably did the most damage. Wallace’s brother died of yellow fever before he could return to England. All three had malaria, sometimes very severe, and in 1858 Spruce suffered an unexplained illness that left him crippled for life.

Catastrophe dogged Wallace: heading home in 1852, a shipboard fire destroyed almost all his personal specimens and records, except for the few he managed to grab as he abandoned ship. Still he went on to a successful voyage to the Malay Archipelago (modern Indonesia) during which he worked out the theory of natural selection, which he and Darwin jointly announced in 1858. In the second half of the 1850s, Spruce pushed far into the Andes, where he learned much about the hallucinogenic plants used by the natives, a topic later investigated by Richard Schultes and Wade Davis. He also made vital collections of Chinchona, the source of the antimalarial quinine, contributing to the establishment of plantations in India and the East Indies. He did this despite the hardships of the country, a civil war and his own prostration by that mysterious illness.

Hemming’s account is consistently lively and an excellent companion to reading the naturalists’ own work, like Bates’s wonderful Naturalist on the River Amazons. It has the advantage of weaving their travels together and providing the background of Brazilian history and the development of natural science in Great Britain. Hemming is an anthropologist, historian and geographer, whose own extensive travels in the region add much to the story.

The work accomplished by these three men in their time in the field was phenomenal: thousands of new species of animals and plants along with detailed descriptions of a country largely unknown to the learned world. They are deservedly members of the pantheon of the greatest naturalists in history.

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