Explorers 6. Delegorgue

Louis Adulphe Joseph Delegorgue (1814-1850) – French hunter, naturalist, collector and author, was orphaned at the age of four and brought up in the home of his grandfather at Douai, where he largely educated himself and was introduced to natural history.

Though he had inherited enough to be well provided for, Delegorgue joined the merchant navy at the age of sixteen, traveling among other places to West Africa and the West Indies. Five years later, probably inspired by Le Vaillant’s books, he decided to undertake a journey of exploration in southern Africa. He acquired the skills of a naturalist, including taxidermy, preparation of specimens, keeping records and drawing illustrations. He intended to collect specimens to sell in Europe, and of course to hunt for sport.

Arriving in Simon’s Bay in May 1838, he explored the by now relatively well-known Cape Colony till May 1839, when he sailed for Natal in the Mazeppa, in the company of J.A. Wahlberg and F.C.C. Krauss. He traveled, hunted and collected widely in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), sometimes with Wahlberg. His description of a hunting trip southwards to the Umzinto River in his book especially fascinated me, as he described the beauty of the area around the present Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve.

He traveled into Zululand to the Tugela River and on to Lake St. Lucia. In the Berea forest in present Durban he collected the type specimen of the Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon which he cheekily named after himself, Columba delegorguei. Hey, if I find a new animal I’m going to call it Something swanepoeli. Maybe even subsp. koosi. It took me ages before I finally saw my first ‘Delegorgue’s Pigeon,’ above a mist forest at Mbona in the Natal Midlands.

In May 1843 he traveled to the Free State – must have passed through Harrismith! – and on into the Transvaal. From Potchefstroom he crossed the Magaliesberg and followed the Limpopo River down to its confluence with the Marico River and on northwards as far as the tropic of Capricorn. During his travels in the Transvaal he collected the Harlequin Quail, Coturnix delegorguei.

– Harlequin Quail in Nambiti Natal; Our guide Tascha’s pic; Mine was nearly as good! –

Returning to Port Natal in April 1844, Delegorgue left South Africa for France, via St. Helena. For the next few years his time was taken up with the preparation and publication of his two-volume book, Voyage dans l’Afrique Australe…, which was published in Paris in 1847.

His book – the first of these explorers whose actual account I read – sparked my interest in finding out more about these lucky souls who saw Southern Africa before the anthropocene!

– I only have Vol. 1 – looking for Vol. 2 –

It contains a detailed account of his travels and adventures, and includes a sketch map of KwaZulu-Natal, a Zulu vocabulary, a catalogue of lepidoptera, entomological notes, and a description by an anonymous author (maybe himself!?) of the new pigeon species Columba delegorguei.

Early in 1850 he left France on another expedition, this time to West Africa, but died of malaria on board ship along the West African coast. .



Explorers 5. Levaillant

I love reading about these early European explorers of Southern Africa, so I decided to write short sketches on some of them. Here’s my fifth, perhaps the most flamboyant and famous of the bunch. His accounts, like mine, may occasionally need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but his contributions were definitely huge. His main researcher – Ian Glenn, Levaillant expert – rates him highly as South Africa’s first explorer, first real ornithologist, first travel writer, anthropologist, humanitarian and first investigative reporter! That’s an impressive list – and all for soundly explained reasons. He might even have added accurate, talented cartographer too! Glenn lays the blame for his adverse reputation on Anglo-centric and Afrikaner-centric misunderstanding and mis-translation – some likely deliberate; certainly plenty of deliberately censoring some of his writing to leave out observations critical of European conduct and admiring of the Africans’ decency, knowledge and skills.

François Levaillant (1753-1824) – explorer, author, naturalist, and ornithologist extraordinaire was born in Paramaribo, the capital of Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) on the Atlantic coast. So he was the first fellow-colonist to write about exploring the Cape. My previous explorers were from old countries: Sweden, Scotland and Holland, but Levaillant was born in a colony and grew up in that freer society. His French father, originally from Metz in NE France, was a rich merchant and served as French Consul. His parents had a great interest in natural history, and the family frequently traveled to various parts of that beautiful South American Dutch colony.

As a youngster, Levaillant began collecting insects and caterpillars, which he arranged according to his own system. Later when he focused on birds he used a similar system to identify them, giving only appropriate and descriptive French names to species that he discovered and refusing to use the systematic nomenclature introduced by Carl Linnaeus. Some of the names he used remain in use today as common names for birds.

When Levaillant was twelve, his family left Dutch Guiana and traveled to Europe. They landed at the Netherlands and eventually went to Metz where Levaillant began to study the art of preserving animals. Prior to this time, Levaillant had dried and preserved the skins of birds, but in Metz he began to discover how taxidermy allowed birds to be stuffed so that they looked life-like.

Levaillant then spent about two years in Germany and about seven years in the Alsace and Lorraine regions near the French-German border. During that time, he not only killed immense numbers of birds but also spent an inordinate amount of time observing birds and animals. Dutch-speaking Levaillant now spoke three languages: The Dutch he grew up with fluently and his father’s French and now German very well.

Back in Paris he fondly remembered his time as a boy in the forests of Dutch Guiana and, deciding to obtain feathered inhabitants from unexplored regions of the earth, he left Paris for Amsterdam, where he became acquainted with Jacob Temminck, treasurer of the Dutch East India Company and also a collector of natural history objects. Levaillant examined Temminck’s impressive bird collection and aviary. From Amsterdam he embarked for the Cape of Good Hope.

He arrived in South Africa in March 1781 and described many new species of birds – several are named after him. Levaillant was one of the last people ever to see a Bloubok or Blue Antelope as one of his hunters killed one of the last ever recorded specimens near Swellendam. I wonder if he ate Blaauwbok steak? For birds he preferred to use descriptive French names such as ‘bateleur’ (meaning ‘tumbler or tight-rope walker’) for this distinctive African eagle, and ‘vocifer’ for the fish eagle, for its loud ringing call. A collage of his drawing of the bateleur and a photo of one flying make up the featured picture. For his books he was among the first to use colour plates for illustrating birds and wisely used much better artists than himself. Compare his bateleur to this toucan:

Read his description of just three cuckoos – of the 2000 birds he collected – and compare to any British explorers’ dry accounts:

– Levaillant’s Didric cuckoo call

I found a great many of the golden cuckoos described by Buffon under the name of the green-golden cuckoo of the Cape. This bird is undoubtedly the most beautiful of its species, for its plumage is enriched with white, green, and gold. Perched on the tops of large trees, it continually repeats, and with varied modulation, these syllables, di, di, didric, as distinctly as I have written them; for this reason I have named it the Didric.

– Levaillant’s Criard cuckoo call

I killed also several pretty birds; and among others . . a cuckoo which I named the Criard, because its (loud and) shrill cry may indeed be heard at a great distance; this cry, or, to express myself more correctly, this song, has no resemblance to that of our cuckoo in Europe, and its plumage also is entirely different.

– Levaillant’s Pit-Me-Wrou cuckoo call

Pit (Piet) having brought me the bird, which was a female, I ordered him to return instantly to the spot where he had killed it, not doubting that he would find the male; but he begged me to dispense with his services upon this occasion, as he durst not venture to fire at it. I however continued to insist upon his obeying; but what was my astonishment when I saw him with an affected air, and in a tone almost lamentable, declare that some misfortune would undoubtedly ensue; that he had scarcely killed the female, when the male began to pursue him with great fury, continually repeating Pit-me-wrou, Pit-me-wrou! The syllables it seems to pronounce are three Dutch words, which signify Peter my wife; and Pit imagines that the bird, calling him by his name, requested him to return his mate.

On his return he published Voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique (1790, 2 vols.), and Second voyage dans l’intérieur de l’Afrique (1796, 3 vols.), both of which were best sellers across Europe, translated into several languages. He also published Histoire naturelle des oiseaux d’Afrique (1796–1808, 6 vols.) arguably the best bird book ever. Certainly the best at the time and for a long time after – available, if you can get it, at around R650 000.

Levaillant’s famous map (below) was almost 9ft wide by 6ft high. The geographical part of the map was designed by Perrier, the five inset drawings and the animals by Van-Leen and the birds by Reinold. His books were hugely popular – in part perhaps because he didn’t mind embellishing! He told a good story, and he himself was a good subject, never mind his pet baboon Kees! In his map Levaillant also portrays himself as having gone further east and north than in reality.

– in the middle of the King’s Map is Levaillant, nattily dressed and holding a rifle; Ian Glenn called this his ‘selfie’

On his way north Levaillant slept at the well-known ‘Heerenlogement’ or ‘Gentlemen’s lodging’, a cave or rock overhang, where he chiselled his name (‘F. Vailant’) into the rock. With its unfailing nearby spring, the wild but hospitable camp was so named by travellers along the old route through the Sandveld, about 300km north of the Cape of Good Hope in the direction of Namaqualand. Explorers, including Van der Stel, Thunberg, Masson, Zeyher and Paterson, camped on the level area below the rock-shelter. There are also faded paintings in red ochre made by San travelers many years before European vistors. From an overhead rock-crevice grows a gnarled wild fig, Ficus salicifolia var. cordata, which is probably the same hoary old tree described by Levaillant during his visit there in 1783.

Controversy: Fifty years later an analysis of Le Vaillant’s collections made by Sundevall identified ten birds that could not be assigned definitely to any species, ten that were fabricated from multiple species and fifty species that could not have come from the Cape region as claimed. His reputation has understandably suffered as a result of these errors (or fabrications? or was he misled?), but recent re-evaluations, such as by Peter Mundy and especially, Ian Glenn, have argued that he deserves the high reputation as the first great modern ornithologist, and as the father of African ornithology. Here’s his book, the first – or anyway best-to-date-by-far – book on African birds; Ahead of its time, it set trends followed to this day and was truly the ‘Bewick’ (1797), the ‘Audobon’ (1838) or the ‘Roberts’ (1940) of its day!

– Levaillant’s travel book and bird plates collage –
– le mangeur de serpents – ‘muncher of snakes’ –

Levaillant retired to a small property located at La Noue, near Sézanne. Persistent rumours had him ‘dying in poverty in an attic’ in 1824, aged 71. Ian Glenn’s research shows that though Levaillant may have been short of cash at times, he never lived in an attic and at his death he left a not in-substantial country estate to his heirs.


Almost everything written about Levaillant – especially in English will have some errors, this post included! So the book to read if you really want to know about Levaillant is Ian Glenn’s The First Safari – jacana media (I’ve ordered mine from raru.co.za).

Later: It arrived! It’s wonderful! Twenty five years of researching this amazing and often misrepresented explorer led Ian Glenn to publishing a beautiful hard cover, dust-jacketed, old-fashioned, matt-paged (not glossy – yes!), real book full of fascinating findings. Do read it – there’s even a surprise 1781 Swanepoel in it! **


Some sources: http://www.vanriebeecksociety.co.za; wikipedia; http://www.pletthistory.org; http://www.somerset-east.co.za; http://www.francoislevaillant.com; http://www.bidsquare.com; Ian Glenn; Levaillant’s book on african birds; http://www.geriwalton.com; Levaillant was alright; http://www.capeorchids.co.za/history.htm; cuckoo calls: xeno-canto.org; https://www.geni.com/people/Johannes-Swanepoel/6000000001873039608#;


** When le Vaillant arrived at the Cape the local ‘magistrate’ gave him an experienced local guide to show him around. As I have repeatedly said in this amateur ‘explorer’ series of mine, none of these explorers would have achieved much had they not had local guides. This chosen guide had experience – he had acted as guide in 1776 for a Mr Swellengrebel, son of a Cape Governor, but he now happened to be in prison, sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a lady. And yet he was released – it does seem temporarily – in 1781 to show the young le Vaillant around. Why?

Turns out le Vaillant had connections in high places; and the prisoner had ‘only’ killed a Hottentot lady. The name of the lucky prisoner who got a furlough from his life sentence: Swanepoel.


Explorers 3. Masson

As I travel around Southern Africa I often think, ‘I wonder what it was like here before we spoilt it’. I especially would love to have seen the open grasslands, one of the habitats we have changed the most. I imagine the highveld grasslands unfenced; miles of grass with koppies; very few trees, but wherever there was a south-facing valley there’d be little damp folds with trees and tree ferns and special plants and animals.

So whenever I can, I read the early explorers’ accounts with great interest and a pinch of salt. Here’s my short pen-sketch number three – the third lucky fella, our first Scot, who saw new places and discovered new things (fair warning: amateur historian on the loose!).

Francis Masson (1741 – 1805) – was a Scottish botanist and gardener, and Kew Gardens’ first plant hunter.

Masson was the first plant collector to be sent abroad by King George III’s Kew Gardens and his unofficial director, Sir Joseph Banks; Masson sailed with James Cook on the HMS Resolution to South Africa, landing in October 1772. Masson stayed three years, during which time he sent over 500 species of plant to England.

– a Masson orchid –

By contrast, he later traveled widely in North America for seven years collecting plants and seeds, visiting Niagara Peninsula and Lake Ontario, but amassed only 24 new species.

In October 1785 he left England on his second voyage to South Africa. The political climate there had altered much since his first visit, owing to the attempt by a donnerse British expeditionary force to annexe the Cape in 1781. The restrictions imposed on his movements by the Dutch Governor caused Masson considerable frustration, and when he sailed for England in March 1795, his plant collections bore little comparison with those of his triumphant first expedition. Quite right, too, bloody Engelse thinking they owned everything!

As it is he discovered in excess of 1700 new species including well known and loved plants such as Agapanthus, Amaryllis, Zantedeschia the arum lily, Strelitzia, the King Protea, Kniphofia the red hot poker, etc.

a few of Francis Masson's flowers of South Africa
– a few of Francis Masson’s flowers of South Africa –
– Masson’s cycad in Kew Gardens –

Not all our explorers were adventurers. Masson was sent to the Cape – this was work! He was paid £100 a year! He whinged a bit: ‘The country is encompassed on all sides with very high mountains, almost perpendicular, consisting of bare rocks, without the least appearance of vegetation; and upon the whole, has a most melancholy effect on the mind.’ In 1773, while botanizing in the mountains near the River Zonderend, Masson described the struggles of the day and his conflicting emotions: ‘Climbed many dreadful precipices until we arrived at the dark and gloomy woods with trees 80 to 100 feet high interspersed with climbing shrubs of various kinds. Trees were often growing out of perpendicular rock and among these the water sometimes fell in cascades over rock 200 feet perpendicular with an awful noise . . . I endured the day with much fatigue, and the sequestered and unfrequented woods, with a mixture of horror and admiration.’

Masson’s only book, Stapeliae Novae, on the South African succulents also known as ‘carrion-flowers’ because of their smell, was published in 1796.

The large collections of living plants and seeds sent back from the Cape by Masson set off a craze for Cape flowers in England at the end of the eighteenth century. Nearly one-third of the 786 plates of flowering plants in the first 20 volumes of William Curtis’s Botanical Magazine were introduced through Masson’s efforts. A wealth of proteas, gladioli, calendulas, xeranthemums, hibiscuses, ericas, tritonias, lobelias, amaryllises, gardenias, pelargoniums, stapelias, and massonias!

Earlier explorer Thunberg named this Cape Massonia pustulata after Masson:

Poor bugger should have stuck to South Africa. He went to Canada and died of the cold!


Lest we forget: All these explorers told tales of derring-do and how THEY explored. Actually they were usually shepherded around by local inhabitants who were generously showing them their ‘backyard.’ None of them would have made it without local knowledge. So when they say they ‘discovered’ things, usually these plants and animals were known to other humans before. That said, we are grateful these guys recorded them for posterity, writing and sketching so we could share in the thrill of their ‘discoveries.’


wikipedia; doaks.org; biographi.ca; explorersgarden.com; thegardenstrust.blog; Kew Gardens; Joseph Banks;

Look at this book!;