Jules Pierre Verreaux (1807 – 1873) was a French botanist and ornithologist and a professional collector of, trader in, and sometimes thief of natural history specimens.
Verreaux worked for the family business, Maison Verreaux, established in 1803 by his father, Jacques Philippe Verreaux, at Place des Vosges in Paris, which was the earliest known company that dealt in objects of natural history. The company was later run by his older brother Édouard. It funded collection expeditions to various parts of the world. Maison Verreaux sold many specimens to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle to add to its collections.
Jules Verreaux began his training in the family business at just 11 years of age, when he accompanied his uncle, naturalist Pierre Delalande, to the South African Cape. They stayed there exploring and collecting from 1818-1820, among their achievements being the first hippopotamus skeleton acquired for the Paris Museum of Natural History. Back in Paris, Verreaux attended anatomy classes under zoologist Georges Cuvier, and began to show an aptitude for taxidermy.
Verreaux worked in South Africa again in 1825, where he helped Andrew Smith found the South African Museum in Cape Town.
No stranger to scandal in his lifetime, while in South Africa Jules Verreaux was summoned to court after a woman claimed to have borne his son. Verreaux had previously asked Elisabeth Greef to marry him, but revoked the proposal. The young mother then brought a suit against him, but lost the case as Verreaux was still a minor at the time of the proposal in 1827.
He was reputed to have set out on the trail of various already extinct and mythical creatures in the Cape, including the unicorn.
More body-snatching: In 1830, while travelling in modern-day Botswana Verreaux witnessed the burial of a Tswana warrior. Verreaux returned to the burial site under cover of night to dig up the African’s body where he retrieved the skin, the skull and a few bones. Verreaux intended to ship the body back to France and so prepared and preserved the African warrior’s corpse by using metal wire as a spine, wooden boards as shoulder blades and newspaper as a stuffing material. Then he shipped the body to Paris along with a batch of stuffed animals in crates. In 1831, the African’s body appeared in a showroom at No. 3, Rue Saint Fiacre. It was later returned and buried in Botswana in 2000.
Jules’ brother Édouard delivered a consignment of collections back to Paris in 1831, and returned to South Africa with the third Verreaux brother, Alexis. Alexis remained in South Africa for the rest of his life, while the course of Édouard and Jules’ lives over the next decade is somewhat confused. Some sources say that both travelled to China and the Philippines and remained there until 1837, but it is also possible that Jules stayed in South Africa during this time. He seems to have returned to Paris in 1838, in which year a large number of his collections were lost in a shipwreck while being transported back to Paris.
In 1864 he took over as assistant naturalist at the Paris Museum. In 1870 he left France at the start of the Franco-Prussian War, seeking refuge in England. He remained there for the concluding three years of his life.
Jules Verreaux left a particular legacy in ornithology. Verreaux’s Eagle (Aquila verreauxii) and Verreaux’s Eagle Owl Bubo lacteus bear his name; More a trader than a scientist, his specimen labels often give only the country of provenance and are sometimes attributed to localities incorrectly, perhaps to make them more commercially valuable, but diminishing their scientific value.
Sources: JSTOR; wikipedia Anon., 1874, Ibis, 16(4): 467-469 M. Gunn and L.E.W. Codd, 1981, Botanical Exploration of Southern Africa M. Molina, 2002, “More notes on the Verreaux brothers”, Pula Botswana Journal of African Studies, 16(1): 30-36.
Pierre Antoine Delalande (1787 – 1823), French naturalist, explorer, and painter from Versailles, was the son of a taxidermist in the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. He worked for the museum from a young age, and became the assistant of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. He was also a painter who had trained in the studio of animal painter Jean-Baptiste Berré, situated in the Jardin des Plantes, and who exhibited landscapes and animal paintings in the Salons de Paris.
As an employee of the Museum, Delalande travelled to southern Africa in 1818, accompanied by his 12-year-old nephew Jules Verraux. They made three journeys into the interior between November 1818 and September 1820: eastward along the coast from Cape Town; northward to Olifants River; and northeastward from Algoa Bay as far as the Keiskamma River.
On their return in 1821, they took back an astounding 131,405 specimens, among them the museum’s first complete whale skeleton (from a 23 metre beached whale he dissected in situ over a period of two months), as well as giraffes, rhinoceroses, a hippopotamus, and human remains (some of them unearthed (i.e stolen) from an old cemetery in Cape Town and from the Grahamstown battlefield). He also brought back a mineral collection, 10,000 insects, 288 mammals, 2205 birds, 322 reptiles, 265 fish, 3875 shellfish, and various human skulls and skeletons from a Cape Town cemetery and from the 22 April 1819 Battle of Grahamstown between the invasive British forces and the local Xhosa. All the living plants in their collection were abandoned in Cape Town and many specimens of their extensive herbarium were lost in transit.
He returned to France with his health badly damaged by tropical infections. For his efforts he received the Légion d’Honneur but no financial reward. Shortly before his death, he published an account of his expedition in the museum bulletin.
He is honoured in the specific names of a swallowtail butterfly, Papilio delalandei ; three birds, Delalande’s sand frogTomopterna delalandii in the picture above, three lizards, a gecko and a snake.
Sources: JSTOR; wikipedia; M. Prevost and J. Balteau, 1933, Dictionnaire de Biographie Française: 662-663.
Margaret Elizabeth Fountaine (1862–1940) traveled in Southern Africa in 1908 and 1909, collecting, studying, breeding and sketching butterflies. Between 1890 and 1940 she traveled to sixty countries on six continents. She died on a path on Mount St. Benedict in Trinidad; it is said she had a butterfly net in her hand. Whattawaytogo! Doing what you love.
Sure, traveling in South Africa, Rhodesia and Mocambique in 1908 doesn’t really count as ‘exploring’ – she was taken places by train and coach and guided by locals, but she’s my first lady ‘explorer’ and . . . butterflies. Instead of blasting away at a big furry creature with a large blunderbuss, she would stand and watch a butterfly ‘flying rapidly from one plant to another on the hillside, evidently with a view to finding the proper food plant whereon to oviposite; so we stood quite still and watched her and it was not long before, having selected the sapling of a kind of Acacia (Brachstegia appendiculata) she paused, and apparently laid an egg and then flew right away out of sight. But there was her egg alright, a bright green Charaxes ovum.’
Around age 27 she suffered a humiliating love loss she never fully recovered from. At about the same time her uncle died and left her an inheritance that made her independently wealthy. Fountaine’s first annual share of her new fortune was spent on a cycling tour of France and Switzerland with her sister Rachel, using Cook’s Tourist Handbook; and while in Switzerland she rediscovered her childhood love of butterfly collecting.
Her first serious collection trip was to Syria and Palestine in 1901 where she hired a Syrian interpreter and guide, Khalil Neimy with whom she quickly formed a close personal bond. He became her constant traveling companion. Neimy was a Greek Orthodox Syrian, born of Greek parents in Cairo in 1877; educated by American missionaries, he had lived in Wisconsin for four years. He subsequently became her constant and helpful companion – she called him ‘Bersa’ – despite it soon becoming apparent that he had a wife in Damascus. Thus started an affectionate relationship which would survive twenty seven years of turbulence, ending only with Khalil’s death aged fifty from fever in 1928.
Their first extensive trip was in 1903 to Asia Minor and they returned to Constantinople with just under 1000 butterflies. In old Natal in 1908 she mentions collecting in Durban, Eshowe (where she mentions collecting with Bersa, so he accompanied her to South Africa), PMB, Kimber’s Bush in the Dargle, Donnybrook, Jolivet, and Umzinto. In old Transvaal I only found mention of Barberton.
After the war Fountaine set off on her last extensive entomological journey with Khalil, in the Philippines. A full account was written up for The Entomologist and was referenced by conservation workers fifty years later. Fountaine, now in her mid-sixties, continued on to West and East Africa, Indo-China, Hong Kong, the Malay States, Brazil, the West Indies and finally Trinidad. Only putting the occasional note into The Entomologist, she focused on her watercolours and collecting. Khalil died in 1928 and Fountaine continued alone, surviving her lover and confiding in her diary that her only source of comfort was her caterpillars.
Biographies – In various ways most of the bumph written about Fountaine after her diaries were opened in 1978 has unjustifiably downplayed her valuable contribution to entomology and exaggerated her supposed ‘unconventional’ love life. Her real sins, one suspects, were: – Having a partner who was not an Englishman, or at least European; and – Having the means to travel independently and make all her own decisions.
Tony Irwin, Senior Curator of Natural History, announced the existence of the diaries found inside the tin trunk she left to be opened in 1978 and became the first to promote Fountaine’s romantic life above her entomological work. Irwin described Fountaine’s Lepidoptera collection as ‘not outstanding’ – read about it here and be amazed at his misrepresentation – and declared that ‘Margaret Fountaine, the intrepid lady lepidopterist, who traveled more widely than any other entomologist before or since, was a girl in love. Her passions crippled by Victorian morals, she sought refuge in the pursuit of butterflies and to this she devoted her whole adult life.’
W. F. Cater, an assistant editor of the Sunday Times, edited the diaries into two volumes for the popular market in 1980 and 1986, was even more unfairly and unjustifiably lurid – Lepidopterists, he said, classified her as a ‘useful collector, perhaps a great one, but not a great scientist’ without stating which lepidopterists these were! He goes on: ‘She was apparently in the same category as a collector of men.’ To justify his slur, he mentions that her diaries tell us these actual refutations of his characterisation, ‘for instance, that on an entomological trip to Sicily in 1896, at the age of 34, she refused to kiss the son of a hotel keeper, left a fellow traveler pleading outside her locked door, washed her neck, ears, cheeks and eyes after the unwelcome kisses of a professor and reclined in the arms of a butterfly hunter on a hillside without yielding her honor.’ Cater’s personal preference for tales of passion and travel, apparently led him to ignore most of Fountaine’s passages concerning her life’s passion and work collecting, breeding and displaying butterflies, and her scientific papers in the prestige journal Entomologist from 1897 to 1938! Cater would never have done this to a male figure; and probably would not have done it had Fountaine’s lifelong partner not been an ‘ethnic’, a Syrian, a ‘dragoman.’
A more recent biography by the travel writer Natascha Scott-Stokes results in a similar portrayal to that offered by Cater; she feels the need to refer to Fountaine as an ‘obscure lady amateur.’ Like Cater, Scott-Stokes is writing for a popular audience and in both cases Fountaine’s entomological achievements are undermined by the need to entertain. Both marginalize Fountaine’s scientific work in favour of their own prejudice and bent; Cater in favour of her romantic ventures; Scott-Stokes in favour of her globetrotting lifestyle.
Fountaine’s contemporary Norman Riley, wrote in 1940: ‘Her great passion, however, was collecting butterflies, an interest which she first developed about 1883, and which from then onwards led her every year further and further afield in search of material for her collection.’
Fountaine had the courage of an explorer, the passion of a collector, the eye of an artist, the patience of a researcher and the precision of a scientist. Her sketch books are filled with exquisite and informative watercolors and sketches of caterpillars, all meticulously labeled. In order to capture perfect specimens of butterflies, she would collect eggs and caterpillars and raise them herself, so as to avoid damaging the fragile insects with butterfly nets. Her collection which she named the Fountaine-Neimy Collection, giving due credit to her partner, numbered 23 270 butterflies and caterpillars in the end.
The last entry of her diaries was made on July 10, 1939. She packed the journals in a black box with a note stipulating that the box not be opened until April 15, 1978, exactly 100 years after the first entry was made. A letter to posterity she left with the diaries read, ‘To the reader – maybe yet unborn – I leave this record of the wild and fearless life of one who never “grew up” and who enjoyed greatly and suffered much.’ – ME Fountaine (more here)
The best place to get a good balanced perspective of Margaret Fountaine’s fascinating and full life is ‘A Lepidopterist Remembered’ by Sophie Waring, curator of modern collections at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. I have quoted mostly from Waring’s paper here, thus hopefully giving credit where it’s due!
Karl JohanAndersson (1827 – 1867) more often used his anglicised name, Charles John Andersson; Swedish/English trader, miner, hunter; and amateur naturalist and ornithologist. He explored and collected in Sweden as a young man. He was the son of British bear hunter Llewellyn Lloyd, ‘impoverished but of good family,’ and a Swedish lady, a servant of Lloyd’s in Sweden. He was in London arranging another expedition up north when he met Francis Galton.
Andersson describes his introduction to Galton as follows: “Shortly after my arrival in London, Sir Hyde Parker, “The King of Fishermen,” introduced me to Mr. Francis Galton, who was then just on the point of undertaking an expedition to Southern Africa; his intention being to explore the unknown regions beyond the boundary of the Cape-of-Good-Hope Colony, and to penetrate, if possible, to the recently-discovered Lake Ngami. Upon finding that I, also, had an intention of traveling, and that our tastes and pursuits were, in many respects, similar, he proposed to me to give up my talked-of trip to the far north, and accompany him to the southward – promising, at the same time, to pay the whole of my expenses. This offer awoke within me all my former ambition; and, although I could not be blind to the difficulties and dangers that must necessarily attend such an expedition, I embraced, after some hesitation, Mr. Galton’s tempting and liberal proposal.” [Four Years in Africa, p. 3]
After Galton returned home, Andersson stayed in the region and conducted further expeditions of his own. He reached Lake Ngami in 1853 (like we did in 2010!).
In 1855 he returned to London, where he published his book “Lake Ngami.” (In 2010 I just wrote a blog post ‘We Kayak the Kalahari’). He returned to Africa the same year, later reaching the Okavango and the Cunene rivers. He also launched several ventures in Damaraland, including a copper mining scheme. He was briefly elected Chief of the Damara in 1864, but he was severely wounded in battle against the Nama Hottentots. He died in Ovamboland (or in Angola? Probably not, as he wrote that he was ‘unable to cross the Cunene river.’) in 1867. Andersson is considered the most important early European explorer of the region.
His account of the ‘Ovampoland’ expedition to the Cunene was published in his book Four Years in Africa, usefully supplementing Galton’s own account (Travels in South Africa, in which Galton spoke highly of Andersson. Galton also recommended him to the Royal Geographical Society, which presented him with some scientific instruments).
Andersson also published several other works, including Notes of Travel in South-Western Africa(1875), edited and issued after his death by his father, Llewellyn Lloyd – the ‘British bear hunter,’ remember?
Andersson was chronically short of funds. While in London he tried to borrow money from Galton, attempting to find a publisher for his book, but Galton curtly refused in a letter: “I for my part cannot help you in the way you wish. I have nothing like fortune sufficient to do so. If you had struggled hard with a scrupulous economy, and if as Sir James Brooke did, you had even worked your passage home like a common sailor, if you had lived thriftily and frugally determining to keep as much as possible of what you had so well earned in order to win more, the world would have respected you the more highly. The example you would have set the world would have been a noble one, but a fatal pride has made you take another course and placed you, as I am sure you must acknowledge, in a very false position. We all of us make our mistakes in life. The true plan is to use faults as lessons to make us wiser.” Galton could be this rude as he was titled, wealthy and connected, while Andersson was none of those – and “illegitimate.” Always remember: IMO, there’s no such thing as an illegitimate child. Parents may have been guilty of illegitimate behaviour; but there’s no such thing as an illegitimate child. That description should be erased from the language, and would be if they’d elect me to the Oxford Annual New Words Committee.
Andersson, Charles J. “Explorations in South Africa, with the Route from Walfisch Bay to Lake Ngami”, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, 25 (1855), pp. 79-107.
Andersson, Charles J. Lake Ngami, or Explorations and Discoveries in the Wilds of Southern Africa. New York, 1856.
Andersson, Charles J. The Okavango River, a Narrative of Travel, Exploration and Adventure. London, 1861.
Andersson, Charles J. The Lion and The Elephant (L. Lloyd ed.). London, 1873.
Andersson, Charles J. The Matchless Copper Mine in 1857: Correspondence of Manager C. J. Andersson, edited by Brigitte Lau. Windhoek: National Archives, SWA/Namibia, 1987. 113p., il., maps. ([Archeia, Nr. 7]) .
Andersson, Charles J. Trade and Politics in Central Namibia 1860-1864:Diaries and Correspondence. Windhoek: Archives Services Division, Dept. of National Education, 1989. 338p., il., maps ([Archeia, Nr. 10]) .
Biography: Wallis, J.P.R. Fortune my Foe: The Story of Charles John Andersson, African Explorer 1827-1867 (foreword by the Rt. Hon. General J. C. Smuts), Jonathan Cape, London, 1936
Francis Galton, (1822–1911) was an English polymath, geographer, meteorologist and much else. We are mainly interested here in his 1850 expedition to Namibia. For the rest – and there is a lot of it! – refer to the sources at the bottom. Grandson of Erasmus Darwin and cousin and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Galton is best known as the founder of eugenics, but his interests and subsequent contributions as Victorian traveler and scientist were myriad. The most important and lasting part of Galton’s work was his realisation that science (biology as much as physics) needs mathematics rather than words. Like Darwin, he set out to become a doctor but his curiosity led him further afield— to Africa. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1853, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1860, and was knighted in 1909.
He attended King’s College in London to study medicine, but became frustrated and discontented with his studies when he was confronted with his first cadaver, much like cousin Charles Darwin, and in 1840, went to study the Mathematical Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge. After suffering through three years of studying, he obtained a BA and was awarded an MA, but a nervous breakdown terminated his further studies. In February 1844 his father died and left him and his siblings a large inheritance.
Now independently wealthy, he became a charming social snob who never had to work a day in his long life to earn a living. He stopped studying and became a gentleman of leisure, though he might have disputed my terminology! He might have preferred being called an athlete, a sportsman (hunter) and then, on deciding to travel, an explorer.
Galton’s first trip was as a student from Germany through Eastern Europe to Constantinople. He rafted down the Danube and swam naked across the harbour in Trieste in order to avoid the hassle of quarantine procedures. In 1845 he went to Egypt and traveled up the Nile to Khartoum in the Sudan, and from there to Beirut, Damascus and down the Jordan.
In 1850 he joined the Royal Geographical Society, and decided to not just travel, but now to do some serious ‘exploring.’ Over the next two years he planned and mounted an expedition into then little-known South West Africa, now Namibia.
Between April 1850 and January 1852 Galton explored and charted ‘Damaraland’ and ‘Ovampoland’ in South West Africa, financing the expedition himself. In Cape Town he was warned by Sir Harry Smith about the “fierce Boers” that he might encounter in the interior, so he sailed to Walvis Bay and started his explorations from there instead. He was accompanied by Charles Andersson, who would stay on in the region to seek his fortune. Plus, as I always like to emphasise, local people who knew their way around! Seldom mentioned, yet indispensable.
The original intention had been to penetrate from Damaraland to Lake Ngami, which had recently been described by Livingstone and promised an abundance of well-watered territory in the interior. Galton’s party was ultimately unable to reach the lake, and contented itself with charting the previously unknown interior regions of Ovampoland in northern South-West Africa, where they came close to the Cunene river but were ultimately forced to withdraw short of it.
Once again at leisure back in England, he wrote a book entitled Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa (1853). This book was very well written and illustrated with numerous colour plates produced from the sketches made by the artist that accompanied Galton. The book proved to be a huge success. He was now a real author! Then he went on to pursue his many theories, some genius, some rather nutty. He himself proposed a connection between genius and insanity based on his own experience:
Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea, and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity. – Karl Pearson, ‘The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton,’
Anthropologist & historian GT Bettany wrote, in his introduction to Galton’s book on his South West African journeys: Mr. Francis Galton, the third son of Samuel Tertius Galton, a banker in Birmingham, in whose family the love of statistical accuracy was very remarkable; and of Violetta, eldest daughter of the celebrated Dr. Erasmus Darwin, author of ‘Zoonomia’, ‘The Botanic Garden’, etc, was born on February 16th 1822, and educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where he gained no great admiration for ‘the unhappy system of education that has hitherto prevailed, by which boys acquire a very imperfect knowledge of the structure of two dead languages, and none at all of the structure of the living world.’
In 1855 he also wrote a wonderful book on The Art of Travel in which he advised future travelers on things he had learnt from experience and the experience of others
More of Francis Galton’s gifts to the world: The first newspaper weather map The scientific basis of fingerprint analysis for forensics; Many statistical techniques, some the underpinnings of all statistics used today; foundational work on the psychology of synesthesia; and a vented hat to help cool the head while thinking hard. – From: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes – Author: Adam Rutherford – Orion Publishing Group 2016, 2017
William Tyrer Gerrard sent a stuffed aardvark to Derby! How cool or how bad ass is that? You receive a parcel from your botanical collector: Here are some flowers and some leaves; oh, and one aardvark! Poor bloody aardvark had to stare out on grey Pommie skies from then on.
I went looking for his story after seeing a Forest Iron Plum tree at Sand Forest Lodge in Zululand, the Drypetes gerrardii.
He was an English professional botanical (and anything else) collector in Natal and Madagascar in the 1860s. Born in Merseyside in 1831, he worked in Australia, then in Natal, where he collected over 150 previously unknown plant species and . . it was a Natal aardvark he stuffed and shipped to England. He left Natal in April 1865 for coastal Madagascar, where he made large collections of plants, insects, and birds. He died age 34 of yellow fever in Mahavelona on the north east coast of Madagascar, north of Toamasina.
Gerrard was obviously good at finding plants, as In the early 1860’s he gathered the only known specimens of an Emplectanthus and an Adeniaspecies. Considered Critically Endangered and possibly Extinct according to IUCN Red List criteria, they were only re-discovered in the lower Msikaba River valley and the lower Tugela River Valley in 2006 and 2016 respectively.
James Chapman (1831-1872) – our first South African-born explorer, hunter, trader and photographer. Enough Swedes, Scots and Frogs, here’s a homeboy! Again, if you want really accurate history, you’ve stumbled on the wrong place – but check the sources!
A son of James Chapman and Elizabeth Greeff of Malmesbury, he was educated in Cape Town and left for Durban when 14 years old. He was appointed as chief clerk in the Native Affairs Department in 1848. Liewe blksem, Native Affairs even then! 124 years later when I matriculated you could still work for the Native Affairs Dept! We’re lucky the ANC didn’t institute a Dept of Umlungu Affairs in 1994.
A year later he settled in Potchefstroom, where he became one of the first storekeepers. Shortly after, in 1852, he ventured across the mighty Limpopo River and into Bamangwato country, where one of the sons of the Bamangwato chief guided him to the (truly mighty) Chobe River. Early the following year they took him to the Zambezi River to within 70 miles of the Big Falls – the one with the Smoke that Thunders. He would have beaten David Livingstone to their discovery. But closies don’t count. He turned back.
By 1854 he had teamed up with Samuel H. Edwards and launched an expedition to Lake Ngami (we once paddled into Ngami), after which he trekked through the territory between Northern Bechuanaland and the Zambesi. An easygoing man, he was able to get on with the Bushman / San hunters of the semi-desert interior and spent long periods in their company, obtaining valuable help from them. Like I always say, our ‘intrepid explorers’ were actually just tourists being shown around by local guides! Returning to Ngami, he traveled north to the Okavango River, crossing Damaraland and reaching Walvis Bay. Here he busied himself with cattle-trading in Damaraland, before setting out on a long expedition with his brother Henry and Thomas Baines. He traveled from December 1860 to September 1864. Now THAT’S an expedition-length trip!
Their aim was to explore the Zambesi from the Victoria Falls down to its delta, with a view to testing its navigability. However, these plans were bedeviled by sickness and misfortune. They did reach the Zambesi, but did not get to explore the mouth. On 23 July 1862 they reached the Falls – Mosi oa Tunya. Yes, Mosi-oa-Tunya, not another English queen’s name! Hell, even Harrismith OFS had a ‘Lake Victoria’ – gimme a break!
Chapman’s attempt at exploring the Zambesi ruined his health and exhausted his finances. He returned to Cape Town in 1864, dispirited and fever-stricken. The expedition was notable since it was the first time that a stereoscopic camera had been used to record its progress. Chapman’s photos did not come out well though, even according to Chapman himself. The negatives were of a rather poor quality, and when they reached the famous waterfall he failed to get any photos at all. This reminded me of one Jonathan Taylor, a more recent ‘photographic explorer’ and his failure to capture a key moment on an expedition.
Chapman describes the Falls: ‘. . . immediately before you, a large body of water, stealing at first with rapid and snake-like undulations over the hard and slippery rock, at length leaping at an angle of thirty degrees, then forty-five degrees, for more than one hundred yards, and then, with the impetus its rapid descent has given it, bounding bodily fifteen or twenty feet clear of the rock, and falling with thundering report into the dark and boiling chasm beneath, seeming, by it’s velocity, so to entrance the nervous spectator that he fancies himself being involuntarily drawn into the stream, and by some invisible spell tempted to fling himself headlong into it and join in its gambols;‘ Wow! and Bliksem! ‘ . . but anon he recovers himself with a nervous start and draws back a pace or two, gazing in awe and wonder upon the stream as it goes leaping wildly and with delirious bound over huge rocks. It is a scene of wild sublimity.’
As they clambered about the Falls on the wet cliff edges, Chapman wrote: ‘It was necessary to proceed farther to obtain a more extended view. One look for me is enough, but my nerves are sorely tired by Baines, who finding everywhere new beauties for his pencil, must needs drags me along to the very edge, he gazing with delight, I with terror, down into the lowest depths of the chasm.’
Baines painted, his brush and easel working where Chapman’s camera didn’t:
Sir George Grey had commissioned Chapman to capture live animals and to compile glossaries of the Bantu languages. He kept diaries throughout his journeys, but his Travels in the Interior of South Africa appeared only in 1868, shortly before his death. Chapman also traveled at times with Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton and Swede CJ Andersson.
He tried farming on the banks of the Swakop river around 1864, but he says the Nama-Ovaherero War interfered with that venture – a timeline says a treaty was signed in 1870 between the Nama and the Herero after a prolonged period of war between the two communities. He then lived at various places in South Africa, later returned as a trader and hunter to old South West Africa after that treaty, then died at Du Toit’s Pan near Kimberley in 1872, aged 40 years.
(John) Thomas Baines (1820–1875) – was an English artist and explorer of British colonial southern Africa and Australia. He was most famous for his beautiful paintings – especially of ‘Baines Baobabs’ and the mighty Falls, Mosi oa Tunya.
Apprenticed to a coach painter at an early age, he left England aged 22 for South Africa aboard the ‘Olivia,’ captained by a family friend. He worked for a while in Cape Town as a scenic and portrait artist, then as an official war artist for the British Army during the so-called Eighth Frontier War against the Xhosas.
In 1858 Baines accompanied the maniac David Livingstone on a disastrous trip along the Zambezi River, from which he was dismissed by the irrational Livingstone after a disagreement with Livingstone’s brother.
From 1861 to 1862 Baines and ivory trader James Chapman undertook an epic expedition to South West Africa. Starting in ‘Walvisch Bay,’ they crossed the Namib Desert, then the Kalahari to Lake Ngami, over the Boteti and Tamalakhane rivers, and then on eastwards to the Zambezi river, on which they were paddled downstream by local boatman to where they could view the falls. If you tried that with even the best 4X4 today without using any roads you would have an epic journey and it would be an amazing achievement. As always – and as still – they were guided by locals:
This was the first expedition during which extensive use was made of both photography and painting, and in addition both men kept journals in which, amongst other things, they commented on their own and each other’s practice. This makes their accounts, Chapman’s Travels in the Interior of South Africa(1868) and Baines’ Explorations in South-West Africa. Being an account of a journey in the years 1861 and 1862 from Walvisch bay, on the western coast, to lake Ngami and the Victoria falls (1864), especially interesting. They provide a rare account of different perspectives on the same trip.
On the way they camped under the now famous ‘Baines Baobabs’ on Nxai Pan in Botswana:
Baines gives a delightful description of the tribulations of the artist at his easel in Africa: ‘Another hindrance is the annoyance caused to the painter by the incessant persecutions of the tsetse (fly). At the moment perhaps when one requires the utmost steadiness and delicacy of hand, a dozen of these little pests take advantage of his stillness, and simultaneously plunge their predatory lancets into the neck, wrists and the tenderest parts of the body.’
In 1869 Baines led one of the first gold prospecting expeditions to Mashonaland between the Gweru and Hunyani rivers. He was given permission by King Lobengula, leader of the Matabele nation in what became Rhodesia, then Zimbabwe. He later traveled in Natal and witnessed the coronation of Cetshwayo.
Thomas Baines never achieved financial security. He died in poverty in Durban in 1875 of dysentery, at the age of 55 while writing up his latest expeditions. He is buried in West Street Cemetery. A generous eulogy was read in London at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society by its President, Sir Henry Rawlinson.
Baines wrote another book in 1871: Shifts and Expedients of Camp Life, Travel & Exploration by Baines and Lord. My kind of book! I’ll blog about it separately, as I’m pleased to see he acknowledges a prior book which I could not resist buying: Galton’s book – 1st edition 1855
The Big One, but David Livingstone (1813-1873) – is not my kind of explorer. He certainly explored, but he didn’t study. My kind of explorer searched for knowledge of the local fauna and flora, found new birds, new frogs, new bugs and new plants. One of them wrote he explored ‘in pursuit of knowledge,’ but Livingstone was in pursuit of something else. He was focused on ‘Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation’ – euphemism, I think, for ‘Conquest.’ Rather than ‘exploring,’ he was very much ‘on his own mission!’ Livingstone fans, be prepared to be annoyed!
In 1840, while studying medicine in London, Livingstone met missionary Robert Moffatt, on leave from Kuruman a missionary outpost in South Africa, north of the !Gariep River. He was excited by Moffat’s vision of expanding missionary work northwards, and he was also influenced by arguments that the African slave trade might be destroyed through the influence of ‘legitimate trade’ – trade by England rather than trade by the Arabs? – and the spread of Christianity.
His first journey on arrival was from Port Elizabeth to Kuruman by ox wagon, guided by three local men: ‘I enjoy African Travel; the complete freedom of stopping where I want, lighting a fire to cook when I am hungry. The novelty of sleeping under the stars in thinly populated country makes a complete break from my cramped and regulated past existence in Scotland.’
In his missionary work, Livingstone perhaps displayed varying degrees of missionary zeal:
– He was obliged to leave his first mission at Mabotsa in Botswana in 1845 after irreconcilable differences emerged between him and his fellow missionary, Rogers Edwards, and because the Bakgatla were ‘proving indifferent to the Gospel.’ |Maybe they were asking Why?
– He abandoned Chonuane, his next mission, in 1847
because of drought and the proximity of the Boers and his desire ‘to
move on to the regions beyond.’
– At Kolobeng mission Livingstone ‘converted’ Chief Sechele, but only a few months later Sechele ‘lapsed’ – came to his senses? What exactly is wrong with my own belief system? he may reasonably have asked himself? Livingstone left Kolobeng, convinced that the best long-term chance for successful evangelising was to explore Africa in advance of European commercial interest and other missionaries by mapping and navigating its rivers which might then become ‘highways’ into the interior. In other words, he thought his best missionary work would be to stop doing missionary work?
Maybe they were thinking:
Livingstone was, to put it mildly, not easy to get along with. Expedition members recorded that Livingstone was an inept leader incapable of managing a large-scale project. He was also said to be secretive, self-righteous and moody, and could not tolerate criticism, all of which severely strained the expedition and which led to his physician John Kirk writing in 1862, “I can come to no other conclusion than that Dr Livingstone is out of his mind and a most unsafe leader.”
So bugger them, he often traveled alone. Well, ‘alone’ colonist-style:-
He traveled north and west, alone, with 27 African guides and warriors loaned by the chief of the Kololo in the Linyanti / Makololo region. They reached the Atlantic after profound difficulties and near-death from fever, then returned to Linyanti / Makololo. Then, alone, with 114 men loaned by the same chief, he set off east down the Zambezi. On this leg he was shown the magnificent Mosi-oa-Tunya, a waterfall local people knew and called by a beautiful name – which he re-named some arbitrary name without consulting them (I know, I’m being hard on the poor man – not).
He successfully reached the Indian Ocean, having mapped most of the course of the Zambezi river, becoming the first – oh no, hang on! – the fourth person to record an ocean-to-ocean crossing of south-central Africa.
local traders had crossed from Angola to
Portuguese traders had already penetrated to
the middle of the continent from both sides;
two Arab traders crossed the continent from
Zanzibar to Benguela;
The British press, of course, saw it otherwise. An early example of fake news, which made Livingstone famous. He was first, as non-British accomplishments were little known or cared about, or cared for, by the British press.** Jingo!
After this, Livingstone moved north, out of my southern African interest area for this series of amateur articles on explorers, so we’ll let him go. There’s lots more one can read about him and his sainthood (or the British jingo equivalent). He died in Zambia at 60, of fever and dysentery, regretting he hadn’t spent more time with his kids.
** Here’s an example – ‘Livingstone’s subsequent explorations took him far from the Victoria Falls, and he never saw them again. Following Livingstone’s visit to the Falls, and that of William Baldwin in 1860, ‘a few Boar hunters are known to have visited the Falls in 1861 but it is known that only one, Martinus Swartz, survived the return journey.’ – So let’s just say Thomas Baines was third to reach the falls, shall we, old chap?
I have ‘explored Africa’ by being flown in a Cessna by a local pilot, picked up in a Toyota by a local guide and cooked for by a local chef, so whilst all our explorers were shown around by locals, when the ‘locals’ are actually officials of the colony and they’re taking you to established towns and government posts, its not exploring. It’s a visit from head office.
John Barrow (1764–1848) – was an English statesman, historian, author, organiser of Arctic expeditions and artist – he painted the picture above, Cape Town ca1800. He started in life as superintending clerk of an iron foundry at Liverpool and afterwards, in his twenties, taught mathematics at a private school in Greenwich.
So Barrow was not really an explorer of the Cape. He traversed known territory accompanied by officials in 1797 when he accompanied Lord Macartney, Governor of the Cape Colony, as his private secretary, in his important and delicate mission to ‘settle the government of the newly acquired colony’ of the Cape of Good Hope. This is not like Burchell in a wagon. This is more like politicians on a guided tour. Still, he wrote a book and drew a map.
His 1806 book had the catchy title of ‘Travels into the interior of Southern Africa in which are described the character and conditions of the Dutch colonists of the Cape of Good Hope, and of the several tribes of natives beyond its limits the natural history of such subjects as occurred in the animal, mineral and vegetable kingdoms and the geography of the southern extremity of Africa comprehending also a topographical and statistical sketch of the Cape Colony with an inquiry into its importance as a naval and military station as a commercial emporium and as an imperial possession.’ A real page-turner.
Barrow was tasked to ‘reconcile the Boer settlers and the native Black population,’ and ‘report on the country in the interior.’ On his return from his journey, in the course of which he visited ‘all parts of the colony’ – not – he was appointed auditor-general of public accounts. My real explorers would have told them where to shove that job.
He now decided to settle in South Africa, married local botanical artist Anna Maria Truter, and in 1800 bought a house in Cape Town. But the surrender of the colony to the Dutch at the peace of Amiens in 1802 upset this plan and they left for England.
During his travels through South Africa, Barrow compiled copious notes and sketches of the countryside he was traversing. The outcome of his journeys was a map which was the first published modern map of the southern parts of the Cape Colony. And a poor one. Especially to real explorers! William John Burchell said so, and probably paid a hefty price for his outspokenness and candour: ‘As to the miserable thing called a map, which has been prefixed to Mr. Barrow’s quarto, I perfectly agree with Professor Lichtenstein, that it is so defective that it can seldom be found of any use.’He was speaking truth to power and we all now where THAT gets you!
Barrow didn’t explore, but he sure sent others to explore! As second secretary to the British Admiralty for thirty years beginning 1816, he sent elite teams to charter ‘large areas of the Arctic, discover the North Magnetic Pole, search for the North West passage, be the first to see volcanoes in the Antarctic, cross the Sahara to find Timbuktu and the mouth of the Niger.’
He also wrote Mutiny On The Bounty, except he titled it ‘The Eventful History of the Mutiny and Piratical Seizure of H.M.S. Bounty: Its Cause and Consequences.’
Barrow, now Sir John Barrow, 1st Baronet, FRS, FRGS, retired from public life in 1845 and devoted himself to writing a history of the modern Arctic voyages of discovery, as well as his autobiography, published in 1847. He died suddenly on 23 November 1848, leaving his wife Anna Maria Truter, four sons and two daughters, one of whom, Johanna, had married the artist Robert Batty.
These extracts from Fergus Fleming’s book shows that even when sending others to explore, Barrow was not what you would call a brilliant explorer!
After the Napoleonic wars, Barrow launched the most ambitious program of exploration the world has ever seen. For the next thirty years, his handpicked teams of elite naval officers scoured the globe on a mission to fill the blanks that littered the atlases of the day.
From the first disastrous trip down the Congo, in search of the Niger River, Barrow maintained his resolve in the face of continuous catastrophes. His explorers often died, and they struggled under minuscule budgets.
1816: Barrow’s first mission sends a crew up the Congo in search of the mouth of the Niger River. Within 200 miles yellow fever wipes out most of the crew; when the survivors turn around their African guides flee into the bush, stealing most of their supplies. None of the officers survive and only a few crew members limp back to England. The mission is a total failure, setting an unfortunate precedent for the missions to follow.
1819-1822: The legendary John Franklin takes his first overland mission to map Canada’s northern coastline. They run out of food and are driven to eating lichen from rocks, mice, and even their shoes, which are roasted or boiled before being devoured. Some of the men resort to cannibalism.
1825: Gordon Laing, the indomitable African explorer and dreadful
poet, crosses the Sahara in search of Timbuctoo, rumored to be a
wondrous city of learning and commerce. Attacked by Tuareg tribesmen, he
covers 400 miles strapped to the back of a camel with numerous saber
cuts, a fractured jawbone, a musket ball in the hip, three broken
fingers, and a slashed wrist. He eventually finds Timbuctoo, which turns
out to be nothing more than a squalid huddle of mud houses. Laing is
murdered by Tuaregs on his way back and his body is never discovered.
1830: Richard and John Lander take up the intrepid task of following the Niger to its mouth. Along the way they are forced to bribe tribal leaders to let them continue, abducted by pirates and delivered into slavery, bought by a drunken chief who sets them free to sail away with a foul-mouthed British captain who desperately needs healthy crew members. They return to England in 1831, having discovered the mouth of the Niger, only to receive the cold shoulder from Barrow, who had long argued that the Niger ended elsewhere and was displeased to have his beliefs disproven. Nasty.
I’m exploring the explorers who were lucky enough to see ‘Africa In The Earlies.’ Before the anthropocene. Before plastic. This guy is one of the best. I mean, just look at his wagon! It even beats my kombi! And my 1975 Bushman Tracker1 Off-Road trailer!
William John Burchell (1781-1863) – naturalist and explorer, was the son of a botanist and proprietor of Fulham Nursery, London. At the exceptionally young age of 23 he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London on the basis of his reputation as a botanist.
Two years later he became the (English) East India Company’s naturalist on the island of St Helena. One of his tasks was to develop a botanic garden where plants from the Far East could recover on their way to England. He did botanical surveys of the island, collected and sketched its flora, studied its geology, and collected insects. In 1810, following interference in his plans for the development of the botanic garden by a new acting governor, he resigned his post and sailed for the Cape.
There, he collected plants in Cape Town and on trips to Tulbagh and Caledon. He learned some Dutch and made preparations for traveling, including having a wagon made to his specifications.
It had to accommodate fifty scientific reference books, his flute, his drawing materials, his bed, his specimen boxes, his work desk, rifles and ammunition, a medicine kit, and items like snuff and beads to give as gifts. He ‘painted his wagon’ on the trail – this impressive picture, he wrote, took him twenty seven days to complete, in total 120 hours of work! I think it’s superb! MY kind of picture!
In June 1811 he left for Klaarwater (now Griquatown) in the company of some missionaries, whose station he would use as a base. From there he traveled with Khoi guides for almost four years and 7000 km. Burchell was a humanist who firmly believed that ‘the good and worthy of every nation are equally our countrymen … and equally claim our hospitality and friendship.’ It is likely that this ethic explains why he was so well received by the local inhabitants on his southern African travels.
Personable and unassuming, he wrote eloquently of his love for South Africa. He learned to speak some Dutch while in Cape Town, and spoke it to his Hottentot companions, Speelman and Juli. He was immensely talented: he could draw and paint; he could play several musical instruments; he had an understanding of science, in particular flora and fauna.
Perhaps his most enduring legacy is this map of his travels. It not only follows his route carefully but is annotated, showing intriguing details of places he named, animals he first came across, and people he met. The map reflects local Hottentot or Dutch names – he was always respectful of names already given to places, and never replaced them with Eurocentric ones, like other explorers did. ‘Victoria this, Victoria that’!! For instance, he referred to the Orange River as the !Gariep River, the original Hottentot name.
First he went on short trips from Klaarwater to present Schmidts Drift on the Vaal River and to the Asbestos Mountains. He then travelled to Graaff-Reinet and back, following a route through areas not previously explored botanically. His next trip took him to Dithakong, north-east of Kuruman, and further north into the country of the Thlaping as far as the present Heuningvlei, and back again. In January 1813 he traveled to Graaff-Reinet, and from there to Grahamstown and to his most easterly point at the mouth of the Fish River. He then slowly returned to Cape Town through the coastal districts, arriving in April 1815.
Although Burchell traveled mainly through regions of the Colony that had been visited before, his descriptions were more accurate and comprehensive than those of other travelers, and – unlike some others! – his enjoyment and appreciation was obvious: ‘Nothing but breathing the air of Africa and actually walking through it and beholding its inhabitants can communicate those gratifying and literally indescribable sensations… and … a scene … which may be highly instructive for a contemplative mind …‘
He collected 63 000 natural history specimens, most of them plants, seeds and bulbs, and 56 fungi and 90 lichens; but also skins, skeletons, birds, insects and fish. It was probably the largest natural history collection ever to have been made by one person in Africa and contained many new species. His notes on these specimens were accurate and detailed and included not only exact localities of species, but also the distribution of plants in the areas he passed through.
He made some 500 valuable sketches depicting landscapes, botanical and zoological specimens, and portraits of native inhabitants. He was a versatile scholar and some think the greatest naturalist that South Africa has known.
Burchell left the Cape in August 1815. During the following years he wrote the first description of the square-lipped rhinoceros, and prepared his major travel journal for publication. Travels in the interior of southern Africa appeared in two volumes, and included accurate and painstaking descriptions of his explorations up to Dithakong, plus a large and detailed map of the region up to 24 degrees south and as far east as the Keiskamma River.
Unfortunately the third and last volume of this classic work was never published and his diaries relating to the later period are missing.
Burchell was a courageous and resourceful person with a penetrating intellect. His plant collection went to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. He donated 43 of his animal skins to the British Museum but only seven were stuffed. He visited the Museum a few years later to find his precious skins ruined by maggots and moths. The rest of his records went to Oxford University. Sadly, he reacted rashly to this treatment and resented some of the criticism he received, thereafter largely withdrawing from most public interaction. By the age of 82, he was a disillusioned recluse. After an unsuccessful attempt at suicide by gunshot, he hanged himself in a garden shed.
After his death his sister presented Burchell’s botanical collections, drawings and manuscripts to the herbarium of Kew Gardens, while his insect and bird material was given to the University Museum at Oxford. He was a perfectionist, and his catalogue of this collection was a model of careful work. In addition to the birds described as new in his Travels, others were described by W. Jardine and other ornithologists. He provided some of the first descriptions of freshwater fishes from South Africa in his Travels, namely those of the small mouth yellowfish and the sharptooth catfish. He is commemorated in the names of several species, including Burchell’s zebra, Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Burchell’s Coucal, and the plant genus Burchellia.
Johan August Wahlberg (1810 – 1856) was another Swedish naturalist and explorer. He traveled in southern Africa between 1838 and 1856, especially in Natal and South West Africa, sending thousands of natural history specimens back to Sweden.
The journals of his travels are generally brief and objective (and I haven’t been able to find them yet! So I know little about him, even though his name is honoured in many species – moths, lizards, birds, plants, etc), and his portrayal of people he met is usually reliable and unprejudiced.
Wahlberg is commemorated in Wahlberg’s Eagle, Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat and the beautiful little bush squeaker frog Arthroleptis wahlbergi. That’s my pic on top of one of the little squeakers; fully grown, he’s the size of your top finger digit. This one lives in our garden in Westville.
‘Sport’ in those days consisted of shooting as much as possible for the tally, the ‘bag.’ These pale chaps ran amuck, trying to score a century, even though cricket was only 240 years old in 1838.
His diary in Natal: 23 August – near Umgeni river: (shot) 1 Ichneumon taenianotus (a mongoose); 1 Boschbock; 1 red-buck (red duiker?); 1 birds.
‘I was so intent on the bucks that the fall of darkness took me (by) surprise. I lost the path and so entangled myself in the thickets that I sure that I should have to pass the night in the woods. I shot six alarm-shots. I was glad to hear them answered by regular salvos from the village. Flayed the boschbock and left the carcase in the wood.’
31 August – near Umkamas river: ‘Continued hunting hippopotamus; no luck. In the evening, accompanied only by one Hottentot Bastard we came sufficiently near to hippopotamus. Two bullets went whistling at the same moment, and found their mark in the head of a young sea-cow. She came to the surface several times, spouting blood high in the air. An adult now appeared; once again our shots sounded as one; it showed the whole of its body above water, dived, a strong furrow appeared in the water, moved rapidly towards the shore, and soon the whole body of the monster was visible above the surface, in form and attitude like a gigantic pig. With incredible swiftness it hurled itself once more into the stream, and rose several times in succession, each time spouting blood. Darkness fell and we were forced to return.’
1st September – ‘We looked in vain for the hippopotamus.’
2nd – ‘Saw numerous buffalo but was unable to get near them. Clouds of locusts darken the sky. We go further afield to a smaller stream.’
3rd – ‘Lying in wait for the buffalo. Hear them approaching at full gallop through the bushes. Climb an acacia. Give the first bull a bullet, which makes him fall back upon his hind-quarters. He gets to his legs again and escapes.’
Well, at least this time Africa got its revenge! Wahlberg was killed by a wounded elephant while exploring along the Thamalakane river about 10 km northwest of Maun just south of the Okavango Delta in today´s Botswana.
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.
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!
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. .
While I’m talking about explorers, I’ll try and be careful about calling them discoverers or claiming they ‘discovered’ anything. Usually wherever they went they were met by friendly local people who helped them amazingly generously. Often they would simply not have been able to explore without this help. They were guided to water and told about and shown the places, animals and plants of the regions by knowledgeable locals and then guided back to their ships. Would they have done so if they knew what was coming next!?
Here’s a fascinating map: Land actually discovered by European explorers:
Cartographer Bill Rankin calls it ‘Ice and Islands, Mainly!’ As far as land mass goes, these islands cover 0,14% of the world’s landmass.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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! **
** 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.
These guys saw Southern Africa before the Anthropocene – lucky fishes! I love reading about their fresh look on the amazing African fauna and flora as their local guides showed them around.
Robert Jacob Gordon (1743 – 1795) – was a Dutch explorer, soldier, artist, naturalist and linguist of Scottish descent.
Starting in 1773 he went on more expeditions than any other 18th century explorer of southern Africa. His first was with Thunberg and Masson. They undertook a trip on foot exploring the mountains between Cape Town and False Bay.
Johannes Schoemaker, an artist, accompanied Gordon on all his journeys, producing a fine record of their travels. Gordon was a diligent recorder of data such as altitude, compass headings and hours traveled and other information which he would later incorporate in a great map he planned.
For most of his journeys he followed well-travelled routes, sometimes joined by others going the same way. His equipment was carried by a single wagon, while he rode on horseback, ranging across the veld, observing, recording and occasionally hunting.
trip was to Swellendam; from there via Plattekloof to Beervlei and on
to present-day Aberdeen, across the Sneeuwberg to a point slightly
west of Colesberg. He then roughly retraced his outbound route as far
as the Sneeuwberg, then headed south-east to Cookhouse.
He reached the confluence of the Grootte Rivier (Orange / Gariep) and the Caledon, about 1000km east of Cape Town.
Gordon’s home Schoonder Sigt (‘beautiful view’) was one of the ten most conspicuous large manors of Cape Town. In 1800 it was purchased by George Rex, an Englishman believed to be the son of King George III and his first wife Hannah Lightfoot whom he secretly married before he ascended to the throne and wed Queen Charlotte. I think he was actually George Rex, son of John Rex, farmhand from Paddock Wood, but hey! new country, new identity! What happens in the Colony stays in the Colony, OK!?
Over the years the Schoonder Sigt residence saw many transformations from the original manor house. It was changed to an apartment block called Sunny Lodge; then it became The Gardens Nursing Home, a seven-ward psychiatric hospital specializing in rehabilitating ‘people living in the fast lane’ and ‘housewives on the busy cocktail circuit’! In 1973 it was changed to resemble a Spanish villa complete with scalloped plasterwork and cactus, and was renamed Flower Street Villa! Luckily that was undone when in 2009 it was completely renovated and restored to something like its former glory as The Three Boutique Hotel, corner of Schoonder and Flower streets.
On 25 October 1795 Gordon committed suicide in Schoonder Sigt soon after the blerrie British annexed the colony in the chaos and uncertainty following the French invasion of the Netherlands. As commander of the Dutch garrison he had probably seen the futility of fighting against the superior British forces that invaded the Cape. So even though it had been governor Sluysken that actually surrendered, the decision was held against Gordon by some of his countrymen.