Mark Catesby at 300

In the last post, I discussed Henrietta McBurney’s (2021) presentation at the University of South Carolina, Columbia on Mark Catesby’s art.  This was followed several weeks later by a symposium to accompany the University’s Catesby in the Carolinas exhibition running through August and sponsored by its Mark Catesby Centre.  These events celebrate the 300th anniversary of Catesby’s arrival in South Carolina on his second trip to North America.  (There is more on Catesby in earlier posts: 1,2,3).  Catesby’s two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands covers so much ground not only geographically but scientifically and culturally, that the symposium took a broad view.  It began with Chris Judge’s presentation on South Carolina’s indigenous people in the early 18th century.  Assistant director of Native American Studies at the University of South Carolina, Lancaster, Judge remarked on the rich information Catesby included on the people he met, their customs and their uses for plant and animals. 

Then came two presentations by affiliated faculty of the Catesby Centre who work in the Bahama Islands.  A botanist at the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve on Eleuthera,  Ethan Fried, spoke on the plant life in the Bahamas, commenting on what Catesby discussed.  Krista Sherman, a marine biologist at the Perry Institute for Marine Science, presented on the rich sea life around the islands, particularly the reefs.  This first session of the meeting ended with Suzanne Hurley, an expert on South Carolina history, describing what Charleston was like when Catesby arrived.  It was an important port, a center for the slave trade and for export of the rice and indigo grown on nearby plantations as well as for the importation of products, particularly from Britain.  The city had a few residents interested in natural history and gardening; they were able to orient him and suggest areas to explore and how to go about navigating the terrain.

The second session began with Herrick Brown, director of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the university.  Several of those who volunteer at the herbarium were there, myself included, but he really didn’t need to pack the audience.  He presented Catesby’s botany in the context of the biodiversity of the southeast, and tied it to Catesby’s over 2000 herbarium specimens now at British institutions and to his art.  While most of Catesby’s renderings of plants and animals are very accurate and make it easy to recognize the species, there are lapses.  Some experts like the botanist Robert Wilbur (1990) complain that there is not enough detail for taxonomists.  Brown tackled a case where Catesby presents as one species, what is really two, with one not accurately pictured.  He speculates that the artist might have been working from a defective or mislabeled specimen.  He also noted that it’s important to keep in mind the many years that lapsed between Catesby’s trip from 1722-1725 and when he finally completed publication of his opus in 1743.

Next came Leslie Overstreet, curator of natural history rare books at the Smithsonian, who spoke on Catesby in London, his life after his return to England.  She is an expert on the history of publication of the Natural History, which went through three editions.  She discussed how Catesby learned to etch, where he sourced his paper, and how he found subscribers.  Since the other speakers had focused on the content, it was interesting to hear about the books as physical objects.  Catesby produced the work in sections or fascicles of 20 plates with descriptions.  Subscribers were instructed not to bind them until they had all five for the first volume.  Binding was the owner’s, not the publisher’s responsibility; this explains the heterogeneity in the bindings, some much more opulent than others.  However, when Catesby sent out the fifth fascicle, he instructed recipients to wait on binding because he wanted to add an introductory essay.  It took years to complete and a number of owners didn’t wait, explaining why some copies of the first edition do not include the essay.  Information like this makes book history fascinating.

The last presentation of the day was the keynote by John Rashford, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the College of Charleston and a distinguished ethnobotanist.  He spoke on a species of strangler fig Ficus citrifolia pictured in the Natural History and native to the West Indies.  He described why it is revered there as a sacred tree because it begins life as an epiphyte on the branches of other trees.  Then it sends out long roots that dangle down as if from heaven and eventually take root and produce trunks that can strangle the host.  However, Rashford began his talk not with the fig but with the African baobab Adansonia digitata, a tree obviously not pictured by Catesby.  However its seeds were brought to the Americas by enslaved African people, and he showed images of several in Brazil and the West Indies that date back to around the time Catesby arrived in Carolina.  Like the fig this is a tree associated with heaven because of the life-giving water it stores in its massive trunk and because of its many uses as food and medicine.  Rashford brought the two species together with a photograph of a Brazilian baobab festooned with ficus growing down from its branches.  He then went on to describe how important it is to value plants culturally as well as scientifically if we are to preserve into the future the biodiversity that Catesby catalogued.

References

MacBurney, H. (2021). Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wilbur, R. L. (1990). Identification of the plants illustrated and described in Catesby’s Natural History of the Carolinas, Florida and the Bahamas. Sida, 14(1), 29–48.

Note: I would like to thank David Elliott and everyone involved in the Mark Catesby Trust at the University of South Carolina, Columbia for allowing me to be part of this great project.

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