Botanists in South Carolina: Mark Catesby

1 Catesby

Plate 67 from the second volume of Catesby’s Natural History: Annona glabra

After a lifetime in New York, I moved to Aiken, South Carolina nearly three years ago, lured by family and a chance to retire into a different environment.  I’ve discovered a great deal in my time here, including the enchantments of shrimp and grits.  I’ve also tried to learn something of the botany of the state, thanks to my friends at the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina (USC), Columbia, Herrick Brown, the curator, and John Nelson, the curator emeritus.  I’ve absorbed some botanical history and been lucky enough to have a small role in the new Mark Catesby Centre, part of the USC University Libraries.  This is a great time for the Centre to launch since 2022 marks the 300th anniversary of Catesby’s arrival in South Carolina on his second trip to North America, the one on which he did much of his observation, drawing, and specimen collecting for his two-volume The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, a tour-de-force of science and art.

The Centre’s director, David Elliott, has had a long attachment to Catesby, having created the Catesby Trust, which has now morphed into the Centre.  Elliott led a week-long tour/conference on Catesby in 2012 and with Charles Nelson coedited The Curious Mister Catesby (2015), a book based on many of the presentations given that week.  I was on that trip and will never forget:  seeing the Smithsonian’s Catesby volumes in Washington, DC, listening to experts in Richmond discuss the background to Catesby’s work, attending a candle-light reception in Charleston, and seeing a host of waterfowl on a boat tour off Kiawah Island.  When I think of this amazing week, the images that come to mind are of Catesby’s etchings, the flora and fauna of the South Carolina coast, historical architecture, and amazing presentations.  The Curious Mister Catesby captures all these and helps to keep them fresh in my mind.  Catesby, of course, saw a very different South Carolina, though even then Charleston was a hub of commerce.  Plantations were already well established, sending rice, indigo, cotton, and tobacco to England and receiving manufactured goods and African slaves.  All this has permanently marked South Carolina and thanks to books like South Carolina: A History (Edgar, 1998), Down by the Riverside (Joyner, 1984), and In the Shadow of Slavery (Carney & Rosomoff, 2009), I am developing a better sense of the complexities of the South.

On his first to North America, Catesby sailed to Virginia in 1712, accompanying his sister who was married to a physician in Williamsburg.  He stayed for 7 years, meeting William Byrd II, who discussed natural history with him and allowed Catesby to use his library.  Catesby did some collecting and drawing, but not in a very organized way.  However, when he returned to England, he developed the idea of publishing a work on the natural history of this fascinating new world.  He seems to have known enough and displayed enough evidence that he convinced the avid natural history collectors of London of his plan’s viability.  Coming from a well-educated but not very affluent British family, he definitely moved in impressive circles.  He knew the great collector Hans Sloane (see earlier post) who amassed the most impressive herbarium of his time (Delbourgo, 2017), as well as James Petiver, perhaps the most zealous collector in the sense of having a worldwide network of ships captains, colonists, merchants, and clergymen gathering specimens (Stearns, 1952).  In terms of assisting Catesby financially and botanically, there was William Sherard at Oxford, who identified many plants for Catesby.

On his second trip to America, Catesby landed in Charleston and traveled through what is known as the low country, along the coasts of North and South Carolina.  He journeyed up the Savannah River, which marks much of the border between South Carolina and Georgia, as far inland as what is now Augusta, which I might add in only a half hour from Aiken.  This was territory with a few colonial outposts and where Catesby and his companions would have encountered indigenous peoples, pine forests, and rolling hills.  This is now my country and I enjoy having some small tie with Catesby, and also with Pennsylvania nurserymen John Bartram and his son William who also visited this area forty years later, followed still later by the French botanist André Michaux.  Catesby eventually visited coastal areas of Florida and then spent almost a year in the Bahama Islands, explaining why there are so many tropical plants, fish, and birds in the Natural History.

In 1726, Catesby returned to England and worked for nearly 20 years producing his magnus opus.  He found it too costly to have his watercolors engraved, so he learned the process, producing what are considered by many to be masterpieces.  He even oversaw the coloring of the engravings in the first edition.  He worked as a nurseryman to provide needed income and as a way to observe some of the species he had first seen in the colonies.  He also received specimens and seeds from John Bartram, sending him and also Carl Linnaeus copies of his books.  This is how a number of his engravings have become lectotypes for 14 species named by Linnaeus (Jarvis, 2015).  There are Catesby specimens today in the Hans Sloane collection at the Natural History Museum, London, and at the Oxford University Herbarium, the home of Sherard’s specimens.  I am happy to note that the USC Libraries have the first and second editions of both Volumes I and II of the Natural History, as well as a copy of Hortus Europae Americanus, containing descriptions of 85 North American trees and shrubs, that Catesby had been working on when he died and was published posthumously.

References

Carney, J. A., & Rosomoff, R. N. (2009). In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. University of California Press.

Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Harvard University Press.

Edgar, W. (1998). South Carolina: A History. University of South Carolina Press.

Jarvis, C. E. (2015). Carl Linnaeus and the influence of Mark Catesby’s botanical work. In E. C. Nelson & D. J. Elliott (Eds.), The Curious Mister Catesby (pp. 189–204). University of Georgia Press.

Joyner, C. (1984). Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. University of Illinois Press.

Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. University of Georgia Press.

Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of natural science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.

Note: I am very grateful to David J. Elliott, director of the Mark Catesby Centre in the University Libraries of University of South Carolina, Columbia for inviting me to participate in the Centre’s work.

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