17. Making Maps 1798-1840

On mainland Europe a budding Prussian surveyor called Alexander Humboldt (1769-1859) was desperate to explore some of the tropical forests in South America. The Bishop of Derry, Lord Bristol, had invited him to join a 1798 expedition up the Nile from Alexandria and so an enthusiastic Humboldt left home to join the crew. He went through Paris and to his surprise found that most of the people that he expected to be travelling with had vanished. The place was in turmoil because Napoleon had just entered Egypt and had taken most of Humboldt’s friends with him. They comprised 160 of the best scholars and scientists in France, including most of the natural scientists who had deserted Lord Bristol’s expedition for Napoleon. It meant that Humboldt had to cancel his plans, though with Lord Bristol involved, it would have been difficult for any crew to leave from France in any case.

Instead, the elderly Admiral Bourgainville (1729-1811), the first French navigator to sail round the world, invited Humboldt to be ship’s naturalist on another expedition, a five year circum-navigation.

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That trip also had to be abandoned because an imminent war with Austria was taking all the French navy’s money. Agitated with these frustrating obstacles Humboldt decided to go as a paying passenger with another of Bourgainville’s frustrated recruits, a naturalist called Aime Bonpland, 25 years old. The two men were so enthusiastic and yet short of money that they walked across the border into Spain and in May 1799 set off for Tenerife and Havana aboard the Pizarro.

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Humboldt – self portrait       Humboldt and Bonpland at Orinoco    Aime Bonpland

They were to be away from 1799 to 1804, hard yet productive years during which they saw natural catastrophes, rather than the international political disputes of the sort they were used to. They also saw human tragedies, with the first to happen shortly after leaving Tenerife. Their overcrowded ship entered the tropics and endured night-time temperatures of 36 degrees. With appalling sanitary conditions and bad diet it was not surprising that typhoid became an epidemic and several crew and passengers died, while others became delirious in the cramped stink. Unable to go as far as Havana, the Pizarro made port in the Orinoco Delta where, typical of the two explorers’ luck on this journey, it took days to find an anchorage. Eventually thankful for the chance to leave the ship after the horrible six week voyage, the unexpected destination gave good opportunities for their work, one of the most unexplored species-rich parts of the world.

Weighed down with their collections of animals and plants from the Orinoco Delta they went on at the turn of the century to Caracas, which then had only 40,000 inhabitants and was about to be devastated by the earthquake of 1812. All the while, their observations and their stimulating conversations set them thinking about how and why particular species inhabit particular regions. They collected animals and plants from tropical rain forests, from the great river plains of the Llanos and from the shores of lakes and the sea. On their journey they talked of migration, climatic ranges, restricted distribution, the strange species found only on some islands, and even the observation that closely related species often appeared together in these rich habitats. This reminded them of the talk of transmutation that they had heard in the Paris salons, memories that seemed so far away in culture as well as distance. And throughout, fear of the dangers they had avoided was at the front of their minds.

They returned to Paris in 1804 with their formidable baggage of 60,000 specimens of plants and animals and plans to work together to classify and write up the details of their discoveries. Humboldt’s first book was an Essay on Plant Geography, published in 1805, the first of 30 books in a series on their South America expedition. The complete work was not to be finished for another 30 years, with volumes on the botany, zoology, astronomy, meteorology and geology. They were the first comprehensive accounts of the natural history of a whole continent and were invaluable introductions and guides for future travelers like Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin.

Humboldt was more a surveyor than a biologist and so he measured how climate affects human activities as well as plant distribution. He expected botanists to go beyond the mere classification of plants and consider their whole welfare and geography and illustrated this in his book. A panoramic Tableau Physique showed what would be found at different elevations along the slopes of Mount Chimborazo in the Andes. He surveyed the elevation at which there is no perpetual snow, the distance at which one can see mountains from the sea, what crops can be cultivated and what animals might be found at various points.


The bad luck which Humboldt and Bonpland suffered on their journey to South America continued in Paris. Bonpland may have been brilliant in the field but he was inaccurate and unreliable at his desk, where the work was difficult in another sort of way. There was no help from the experience of others and many of the specimens were completely unknown. Even their structures were hard to examine without detailed dissection and examination, and with tens of thousands of such new species the piles of disorganized specimens must have been daunting. Bonpland didn’t know where to start, he delayed, made mistakes and fell behind the deadlines they had agreed, and because Humboldt was paying for it all from his own money, there were disagreements.

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Humboldt – the current, and –                       – the statue outside his university in Berlin

For Bonpland there was also the distraction of post-revolutionary Paris. The five year expedition had made him famous, and soon he was asked to create a flower garden at the Empress Josephine’s country house at Malmaison. Josephine divorced Napoleon in 1810 and the good-looking and worldly Bonpland became her confidante until she died in 1814 at the age of 51. At this, Bonpland announced that he had stopped working on the South America collection altogether. He had been beckoned by his wanderlust to return to the Americas and there he had an eventful and hard life until he died in 1858 at the age of 85. For the last 38 years of his life he received a pension from the French Government and lived in a mud hut on the pampas in Uruguay, surrounded by “the society of my beloved plants”.

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Meanwhile, Humboldt published all thirty volumes of the South American expedition, at a time when there were many other brave explorers of world biodiversity. These were mostly by European explorers and scientists, doubling up as surveys for expanding Empires. Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, Huxley’s to Australia aboard HMS Rattlesnake from 1846-1850,

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The Beagle and Charles Darwin                      HMS Rattlesnake and Thomas Huxley

Hooker’s explorations in Van Dieman’s Land, as Tasmania was called, on HMS Erebus from 1839-1843, were just the best known of many others.

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HMS Erebus                                                 and Joseph Hooker


Inevitably a shared experience of sailing round the world brought these three men close together, having experienced the same exceptional feelings that were so hard to express verbally or in writing. Formality was the first convention that they ignored between themselves and a strong sense of trust and implicit understanding coloured their relationships and the important science they shared. Hooker’s letter to Darwin from Kerguelen’s Land, or Desolation Island as the French navigator Yves Kerguelen first called it, described the island’s unique cabbage, Pringlea antiscorbutica. It was only found there “on a spot upwards of 1,000 miles from any land where fresh vegetables can be obtained” and the sailors used it to help prevent scurvy. And Darwin’s response to Hooker’s excited account of this species was the famous admission: “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable”.

Hooker went on to stay in Tasmania for three months from May 1840 and his report on that work, Flora Tasmaniae (1853–59), lists 150 new species. He was taken round the island by the chief gaoler Ronald Gunn, who had a passion for plants and who became an important collaborator with Hooker. Back home in 1846, for example, Hooker wrote to ask for specimens of a rare member of the family he was researching. “My dear Gunn you must sprawl on your hallowed belly on the top of the mountains and pick little things out of the ground for I still want analogies [to the genus Forstera] which your mountains must produce.”

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A more straightforward scientific project, one no less significant, had just been started on-shore at home in England by a mining surveyor called William Smith (1769-1839) and resulted in the publication of the first geological map in 1815. While being employed as a surveyor to build the canals in newly industrialized parts of England, he had an unequalled experience of the geology from the rock exposures being cut through the hills. He used the fossils which he found to be restricted to one particular bed, or perhaps a particular assemblage, to give it an identity. He was concerned with the sequence of these beds, how they always outcropped in a particular order, and the fossils were diagnostically useful. That was what Smith wanted from his fossils – he was a surveyor and map maker, not a biologist or environmentalist.

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Like many working-class heroes, Smith also suffered through bad luck, made worse by not having any support from friends or societies of the ruling class. Even worse, they may even have been the cause of his downfall, their envy at one from a different class who had succeeded where the rich had failed. Most successful naturalists were still those from backgrounds able to support a university education, which encouraged ordination and a good living in a rural parish. Smith should have moved to France after the revolution for that was where both state and scientists remained separate from the church and where naturalists were free to explore in their own right, free of the establishment, unlike Smith.

22. Wallace Returns 1862

“Paradise-bird plumes might recover their now forgotten value as ornaments for the hats of our fair countrywomen.”

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It was Spring-time in 1862 and the Saturday Review was appealing to the fashion-conscious ladies of Victorian England with this welcome for Alfred Wallace (1823-1913), back home from Singapore with just two surviving Birds of Paradise that he’d carefully brought with him to England.

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The professional collector of tropical animals and plants had been away for five years and felt very uncertain about the reception he was going to receive. The Saturday Review was not interested in the real source of his reticence, that scientific presentation given in his name and Charles Darwin’s announcing their theory of natural selection. It had been given to the Linnean Society in his absence and without his knowledge four years earlier. Now that Wallace was in England he was expecting to be challenged directly and he was afraid of the peoples’ reactions. In particular, how were Darwin and his all-powerful friends going to treat him?

Like the author of the great geological map William Smith fifty years before, Wallace had come up the hard way, five years as an apprentice surveyor stimulating his interest in the environment, its geology and biodiversity. As a professional collector, Wallace was skilled at observing and distinguishing biological features in the animals and plants. He was particularly proud of his observations of the location of species and their geographical range in south-east Asia where he identified two regions separated by what became known as the Wallace Line.

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This divided the region into two distinct parts, one in which species closely related to those of Australia are common, and one in which they are largely of Asian origin. It was an area of great diversity where so much seemed to be crammed into each zone, using all the natural resources to their limit. That knowledge gave him sufficient know-how to react to Malthus’ famous essay on how a species coped with its particular sustainable limits. It made Wallace even more confident that individuals had to compete for resources such as food, space and light, as well as mates.

In his frequent lectures about evolution Wallace used a metaphor from the industrial revolution to help describe natural selection: “The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow.” Those traits that survived different levels and kinds of catastrophe were inherited throughout the population and became adapted by his proposed mechanism of natural selection.

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From his field station in the Far East he had sent Charles Lyell the whole of his draft manuscript for that presentation, asking if he would read through it first. He had sent it to Darwin first, hoping to share these latest reactions to that great range of biodiversity in the tropical rain forests of South East Asia. He was close to the end of two long stretches in the tropics, the first from 1848 to 1852 in the Amazon with his old friend from Leicester in the English Midlands Henry Bates and then from 1854 in SE Asia. Altogether they had collected 125,000 specimens, more than a thousand of which were new species.

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The great explorer arrived back home with his colourful birds and more professional credibility than anyone could wish for. It had been a hard life in the tropics but preferable to the stresses of life in London, especially with all the public fuss that was made over his coloured birds in the zoo. The collections from explorations of tropical biodiversity like his were essential in understanding nature in all its general beauty and in its origin in particular. This provided the stimulus for many others at home, taxonomists, experimentalists and philosophers who were desperately searching for evidence of evolution by natural selection. Little did they know that it was going to take both subjective and objective scientific work over another century before the idea was gradually proven, but it was adventurous naturalists like Wallace, Huxley, Hooker and Darwin who started the work, and they had all travelled as global explorers when they were young men.

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Then it was 1862 and Wallace was 39 years old and unmarried, without friends or a job. After five years living in tropical jungle he suddenly found himself in the middle of London, where he had never lived and where he was confronted with the demands of highly sophisticated social habits. He was also entering the company of a formidable group of leading scientists, all very much aware that he had made them look very foolish. They had bullied him into publishing with Darwin and that had forced him to conform to their plan and allow their friend the credit. It could have been argued they were taking from him Wallace’s own right for public acclaim and his ownership of one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time.

Wallace was surprised at his own celebrity status and at how he was so much sought after as a dinner guest, unaware that one reason may have been to quell the guilt of his hosts and to help them find out where they stood. They also wanted to get to know him and gain from his experience and scientific expertise. He certainly wanted to make good friends in this lonely city, and he needed help from them, because he had arrived without plans for his future or even much money. Within a few months he had visited Huxley, Hooker, Lyell, Spencer and Darwin, only to learn how very difficult it was for them all to understand, let alone agree, with what Wallace and Darwin thought out.

It was soon clear to Wallace that these four men had worked out different ideas about evolution to suit their own particular needs. This was the last thing that he had expected and it took some time for him to work out the landscape of this particular London society: which of them had which outlook on the theory, and how this was determined by their different interests. Hooker was the Director of a botanical garden, Huxley a professor of zoology, Lyell of geology, all with different purposes for their observations and interpretations. At least, Wallace was relieved that none of them used the quantitative methods of experimental analysis that Francis Galton and others were beginning to think were necessary for other objective purposes.