Mark Catesby, 1743

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Catesby, Mark, Natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands: Containing the Figure of Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, Insects, and Plants. . .
(London : White, 1771)
2 v.: 220 pl. 1 map; folio.
Title page of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, 1771 edition
Title page of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina,
1771 edition
Born in Sudbury, England, Mark Catesby (1683-1749) felt an "early Inclination... to search after Plants, and other productions of Nature," hindered only by his distance from "the centre of all Science," London. Despite these impediments, Catesby acquired a sound scientific education that kindled a "passionate Desire" to see the native flora and fauna of the exotic American colonies first hand. In April, 1712, his opportunity came. Invited to join his sister, Elizabeth, and her husband Dr. William Cocke in Northumberland, Virginia, Catesby was able to spend seven years in the colonies, taking part in expeditions to the Blue Ridge Mountains, to Bermuda and Jamaica, collecting and sketching as he went. At several points during his travels, Catesby shipped a small number of specimens to England and into the hands of interested naturalists, most notably Samuel Dale and the gardener, Thomas Fairchild. His decision to do so altered the course of his life.

Tropical fish
Through Dale, Catesby gained the attention of William Sherard, later benefactor of the first chair in botany at Oxford, and of Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections became the nucleus of the British Museum. The encouragement of these giants of patronage and science enabled the budding naturalist to transform his return to England in 1719 into an opportunity to secure financial support for a second American voyage. Within three years he was enabled to chart a course for South Carolina, where he traversed the populated and "unpopulated" reaches of the colonies as far south as the Savannah River. Employing Indian guides, Catesby ventured equally far inland, commenting that for "the Hospitality and Assistance of these friends Indians, I am most indebted, 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." In 1725, he ventured further afield, accepting the invitation of Governor Charles Phinney of the Bahamas to visit those islands and add to his collections. Finally, in 1726, he returned home.

(click to see associated text)
With the continued support of Sloane and Sherard, Catesby immediately undertook a project to write up his observations. The work resulting from this second American expedition was the monumental Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, one of the first comprehensive surveys of the flora and fauna of the British-American colonies, and certainly the most accomplished. An elegant work issued in two volumes in 1731 and 1743, the Natural History of Carolina is a testament to Catesby's versatility and ingenuity, and above all to his obsessive nature. Having personally conducted all of the field work and made all of the observations, Catesby assumed sole responsibility for the scientific analysis, description, and illustration. His Natural History covers an impressive array of organisms from birds and mammals to fish, plants, reptiles, amphibians, and insects, providing both English and Indian names (when available), as well as the Latin names supplied by Sherard. Catesby was attentive, above all, to utility, remaking upon the "several mechanical and other Uses" of trees and shrubs, and commenting upon their suitability for the English climate. Far in advance of his time, he provided careful observations on habitat: the inclusion of ecological and ethological information is one of the surprising hallmarks of Catesby's science.

Catesby's major preference, it seems, was for birds, due in part, perhaps, to their abundance and diversity. Although boasting that he had missed very few species -- excepting water fowl -- he admitted that his representations were biased: "As the Males of the Feather'd Kind," he wrote, "(except a very few) are more elegantly coloured than the Females, I have throughout exhibited the Cocks only, except two or three; and have added a short description of the Hens, wherein they differ in colour from the Cocks." Whatever its limitations, Catesby's work is often regarded as the first true American ornithology, as distinct from the promotional or commercial works of predecessors like John Lawson.

Dungbeetle and lily
Dung beetle and lily
(click to see larger version)
In many regards, it is the illustrations that most distinguish Catesby's work. Unusual for his time, Catebsy eschewed artistic interpretation for a flat, "exact" style and compensated for his lack of skill in rendering perspective for what he hoped was a naturalistic accuracy. He insisted upon drawing plants only when freshly gathered and animals while still alive, and for the birds, he attempted to depict "their Gestures peculiar to every kin. . ., and where it could be admitted. . . adapted the Birds to those Plants on which they fed, or have any relation to." With reptiles and fish, too, he was exceedingly careful, sketching when alive or, in the case of fish whose colors change after death, sketching specimens at several stages. To prepare the illustrations for publication, Catesby even learned to etch his own plates --studying with the watercolorist, Joseph Goupy -- producing 218 of the 220 plates himself and overseeing their hand coloring.

Although Catesby never earned a fortune off of his magnum opus as he hoped, he enjoyed a small, steady income until his death in 1749. The work was viewed with high esteem by his contemporaries and retained its reputation for many years, particularly in ornithological circles. Catesby was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1732, and his Natural History was used as a resource by Linnaeus in sorting out the systematic relations of American birds.

The APS copy of Catesby's Natural History -- the London edition of 1771 printed by Benjamin White -- was purchased for the Society by George Ord in April, 1822, during a tour of Europe. For $150, the APS added an eclectic assortment of twenty nine works to its library, including Daniel Horsmanden's Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy Formed by Some White People in Conjunction with Negro & Other Slaves, for Burning the City of New York (New York, 1744), William Dampier's, New Voyage Round the World (London, 1699), Thomas Pennant's Arctic Zoology (London, 1792), Edward Topsell's The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (London, 1658), and Alexander Dalrymple's An Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean (London, 1770-1771).


More images

[ Lacertus viridis, the green lizard of Carolina ]
[ Flying squirrel ] [ Cedar waxwing ] [ Kingfisher ]


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