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.
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.
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.’