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Although consigned to obscurity for centuries, this English naturalist and artist explored the Lowcountry and beyond to create the first known natural history of the New World
“My Curiosity was such, that not being content with contemplating the Products of our own Country, I soon imbibed a passionate Desire of viewing... Animal [and] Vegetable Productions in their Native Countries; which were Strangers to England.”
So wrote Mark Catesby in 1731, the year he began work on the book that would make him famous at home and abroad as an explorer, botanist, scientist, and artist. The book—The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands—was the first natural history of what was then known only as “the New World.” It was a lovingly compiled compendium of hundreds of species of plants and animals that was soon eclipsed by later works and then virtually forgotten. Today, all the world recognizes the name John James Audubon—the famously flamboyant figure who furthered Catesby’s work a generation later—but few know the story of the humble Mark Catesby, who with little fanfare but great diligence set himself the precious task of “inventorying God’s creations.”
One of the most telling facts about Catesby’s lack of fame is that no one ever painted his portrait, and no likenesses of him apparently survive. Actually, very little is known of his early life, except that he came from a prominent family—one whose roots stretched back to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066—and that his family history was marked by dissent.
His father was a religious protester who broke from the Church of England doctrine, and a distant cousin was involved in Guy Fawkes’ infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which aimed to blow up King James I and Parliament. Born in Essex in March 1683, Catesby had an uncle who lived at nearby Castle Hedingham, kept a botanical garden there, and was friends with well-known English naturalist John Ray. Being a frequent visitor to his uncle’s estate kindled in Catesby a passion for learning about the natural world.
As a young man, Catesby got a chance to further his education when his sister immigrated to the then-exotic American colonies with her husband, who was secretary to the Governor of Virginia. Catesby first went to America in 1712 (courtesy of a small inheritance from his father, who had recently passed away). He stayed for seven years, tramping about the countryside and collecting botanical specimens, but without any solid plans. He later wrote that, during this period, he “chiefly gratified my inclination in observing and admiring the various Productions” but did little else. He did, however, send some of the plants and seeds he had gathered to acquaintances at the Royal Society in London, the most venerable scientific institution in the world.
The Royal Society was founded by Sir Isaac Newton and, since 1662, had been the official organization sponsored by the British government to support scientific research. When Catesby returned to England in 1719, two of its most prominent members, William Sherard and Hans Sloane (who would later found the British Museum), contacted him to learn more of what he had done in Virginia. They were so amazed with Catesby’s discoveries that they solicited funds from fellow members to underwrite a return voyage for him.
This was the age of science, a time when the origins of the universe and the laws of motion and gravity were first scientifically explored. The Royal Society was insatiably curious about what wonders and terrors might await the intrepid explorer in the New World. And so, in 1722, Catesby set sail again for America. He would collect specimens and satisfy the demands of his backers (who wanted them not just for their private collections but also for commercial purposes), but secretly Catesby yearned to document them in what he hoped would become a definitive volume of natural history.
It took him three months to get to Charles Towne, and when he arrived, he stayed for more than four years. It was “a pleasant tho’ not a short Passage,” Catesby wrote. “In our Voyage we were frequently entertain’d with Diversions not uncommon in crossing the Atlantick Ocean, as catching of Sharks, strikeing of Porpuses, Dolphins Bonetoes, Albicores and other Fish; which three last we regaled on when Fortune favoured us in catching them; the Flesh of Sharks and Porpuses... digest[ed] well with the sailors, when long fed on Salt Meats.”
Unlike his earlier trip, this time Catesby planned out his expeditions carefully, timing his forays so that he would see a variety of regions in different seasons. In this way, he was able to record the buds, flowers, and seeds of plants and the migration patterns of birds. From his home base in the Carolina Lowcountry, he traveled the Savannah River “140 miles up Country” to the frontier outpost of Fort Moore, near present day Augusta, Georgia. He studied the wide coastal plain and, in January 1725, traveled even farther south to the tropical Bahama Islands, where more wonders greeted him—exotic fruit and prehistoric-looking birds—as well as terrors: rattlesnakes who made their way into the bedclothes and “trees that dripped poison.”
What Catesby saw amazed him: the coastal waters were still ruled by pirates (Edward Teach had just months before held the entire city of Charleston hostage by invading the harbor); the Indian wars were a recent memory; and foreign enemies had staked their claims, as in Florida, where Spain had a foothold. The botanical world was just an alien universe: long tree branches were wrapped thickly around with a parasite-like moss; the grass in parts was pink or white; poisonous fruit was everywhere; and shrubs had leaves that were as sharp as the tip of a knife.
Throughout the Lowcountry, Catesby traveled on roads that abruptly turned into footpaths, and on footpaths that abruptly ended altogether, often leaving him with few resources for navigating his way. He befriended local Native Americans who became his guides and foragers: for “the Hospitality and Assistance of these friends Indians, I am most indebted,” Catesby recalled, “for I not only subsisted on what they shot, but their first Care was to erect a bark hut, at the approach of rain, to keep me and my Cargo from wet.” The Englishman also took an interest in the African slaves and was curious about how they supplemented their meager diet with local plants.
In addition to collecting plant specimens, Catesby also observed and sketched wildlife—lizards, squirrels, insects, alligators, bison, snakes, fish, frogs, and birds of every possible feather. Many of the species he recorded are now extinct in the Lowcountry: the bison, the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon. Nature was constantly changing, he saw, and was, therefore, constantly subject to harm. Along the flat, low regions outside Charleston, he saw the aftereffects of hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters—“glimpses of primordial chaos,” as he later described—and extensive habitat degradation: forests stripped bare and trees uprooted. Most alarmingly, he witnessed firsthand the powerlessness of the animals to withstand the fury of Providence: “Deers lodged on high trees,” reads one comment in a section of Natural History that describes a ravaged region.
All along, Catesby was fulfilling his duty, preserving specimens in jars filled with rum and sending them back to England on merchant ships. But quite often, only empty bottles of dessicated plants and animal exoskeletons were delivered to the Royal Society, since the sailors found the alcohol too tempting to pass up and drank off the contents during the voyage.
Catesby’s contributions to botany, biology, and wildlife art were immense. This is what first attracted the interest of Cynthia Neal, a documentary filmmaker based in Nashville, who spent two years researching, directing, and editing The Curious Mr. Catesby, to be released this month. “What kind of intelligence was this,” she asks, “that was able to see such subtleties in the natural world and was also able to foresee the eventual harm that might come to it if we didn’t pay attention?”
An early environmental thinker, Catesby was a proto-conservationist who realized the need to protect delicate ecosystems from man-made harm. As an artist, Catesby had a flair for vibrant realism. He made the animals seem to come alive on the page by depicting them against the backdrop of their natural habitats rather than as isolated figures, “their Gestures peculiar to every kind...and where it could be admitted...the Birds to those Plants on which they fed, or [had] any relation to.” Thus the plates in Natural History are startling in their lifelikeness: the “Bahama titmouse and Seven-year apple,” the “gold winged woodpecker and chestnut oak,” and the “dung beetle and lily.” This innovative technique would be later adopted by Audubon, John Wilson, and other wildlife artists.
Catesby’s representations, however, are not “artistic,” and therein lay much of their charm. He used what he termed “a Flat, tho’ exact manner”—a precise, accurate record of what he saw, because he felt that impressionistic rather than exact representations led to scientific inaccuracy. His prose manages to be both spare and richly descriptive. Take, for example, the pigeon hawk: “It weighs six ounces: the Bill at the point black, at the basis whitish; the Iris of the eye yellow: the Basis of the upper mandible is cover’d with a yellow Sear: all the upper part of the Body, Wings and Tail is brown: the interior vanes of the quill-feathers have large red spots.” In the prose, Neal notes, “we observe the animal but we also observe the observer himself.”
Exhausted from his travels but also exhilarated from the rush of scientific discovery, Catesby returned to London in 1726, where he would spend the next 20 years working on his magnum opus. As it turned out, Catesby had to do all the work himself. His sponsors had been impressed by his discoveries but had no reason to fund the publication of a book. He couldn’t afford to have the watercolors he’d painted sent off to be professionally engraved, and so, by now in his mid-forties, he decided to learn the process.
When completed, the book contained 220 etchings, each done by Catesby himself. These were then individually hand-colored, again by Catesby. Finally, he custom-bound each copy to the specifications of the subscribers—180 of them—who received the book in installments, every four months between 1731 and 1743. When all the copies had been produced and delivered, Catesby had hand-colored nearly 40,000 plates.
“He died broke,” says Neal. “He was a scientist and not an entrepreneur, and I think that if he had been more like Audubon—more self-promoting—then he would not only have earned more money but would also not have been essentially lost to history.” Although reviews of Natural History were overwhelmingly positive (one critic called it “the most magnificent work I know since the Art of printing has been discovered”), Catesby earned almost no steady income from the book. Its labor and its expense devoured the few resources he had to begin with and forced him to take a second job to sustain his wife and young family.
Today, only about 50 copies of the original edition still exist; one of them at Middleton Place Plantation, another at the Natural History Museum in London. But the book was famous in its day and consulted by the luminaries of the age. Lewis and Clark carried it on their cross-country expedition in 1804. Thomas Jefferson owned a copy, as did the Queen of Sweden and the ambassador to Catherine the Great. It was translated into Dutch, German, and French. Beset by poverty, however, Catesby’s widow was forced to sell the original watercolors to an anonymous collector in 1768. The collector turned out to be George III, so today the paintings are part of the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle.
Part of Catesby’s unavoidable fate was that he was a “general” naturalist in an age where specialization was coming into vogue, so Natural History seemed to the next generation of ornithologists and entomologists merely a quaint period piece by an aficionado rather than an expert. Yet Catesby asked the essential, penetrating first questions about the natural world, from which sprung later streams of persistent inquiry. “Curiouser and curiouser,” says Lewis Carroll’s surprised and delighted Alice. So too might have said Mark Catesby, as he lived out his life on an island of knowledge and walked along its shorelines of wonder.