John Hemming is an explorer and writer especially interested in the Amazon region and its indigenous peoples. In Naturalists in Paradise, his focus falls upon the mid-19th century collecting exhibitions of three important British naturalists: Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Walter Bates and Richard Spruce.
Wallace is well-known to biologists, but is eclipsed in popular memory by Charles Darwin. Regarded as the father of the science of biogeography, he has also been credited with the independent discovery of evolution by natural selection. Though Darwin had the same idea twenty years earlier, it remained unpublished until Wallace wrote to him in 1858. Bates is hardly known to the public, but is famous among evolutionary biologists for his discovery of Batesian mimicry. He was the first to demonstrate that some insects – especially butterflies – which are poisonous to their prey advertise the fact by ostentatious markings, and thereby reduce their vulnerability to predation. His more fascinating discovery is that some non-poisonous species have evolved similar markings, despite not themselves being poisonous – an early and important confirmation of natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism. As a botanist, I must confess to not having heard of Spruce before! Nevertheless, he is recognised as the most important early scientific botanist of the Amazon. He was also the first to collect seeds and saplings of quinine-producing plants for transplantation to India, where they were used in malaria treatment.
Wallace, Bates and Spruce were lower middle class and relatively poor. Thus, their collecting expeditions had to be self-financing, with all three successfully sending back duplicate specimens for sale to wealthy collectors. Bates and Wallace met in Leicester in their twenties, and it was Wallace who first suggested the idea of collecting in South America. They travelled together to Brazil in 1848 but soon separated. Wallace travelled and collected individually for the next four years, Bates for eleven. Spruce – then in his thirties – arrived in South America in 1849, and stayed for fifteen years.
Travelling in the Amazon region was extremely arduous, and a naturalist collector had to transport a great deal of equipment; Wallace complained that he had to carry 100 pounds of salt as currency. All three suffered health problems; Wallace and Bates both contracted malaria, and Spruce was struck down by an unknown disease which left him a lifelong invalid.Amazon travel also required labour, including slaves hired from local slaveholders. It is disquieting to read that Wallace, a socialist, and Bates were quite uncritical of slavery. This contrasts with Darwin, who was horrified when confronted with Brazilian slavery a decade earlier.
The first legacy of all three naturalists is their collections, which were of great importance to science. Bates wrote a successful book with his own illustrations, but Spruce’s great tome was published posthumously. Wallace’s Amazon book was not as successful as Bates’s, and it is his biogeographical discoveries and evolutionary ideas – arrived at later in Malaya – that represent his most significant achievements. Hemming – as a lifelong Amazon man – is unmistakably enthusiastic about his subject. However, the depth of detail can be overwhelming at times. Often he tells us not only the modern scientific name of a plant but also the obsolete name used by our explorers at the time, the Portuguese name and the indigenous name. The casual reader too may not appreciate the minutiae of the different types of boat found on the Amazon and its tributaries.
If the dustjacket design is risibly bad and a disgrace to a publisher with a great art-book tradition like Thames and Hudson, the illustrations (some are Hemming’s own photographs) are well chosen. My favourite is Bates’s own drawing of his “Adventure with the Curl-Crested Toucans”, which Hemmings describes as like a “startled Woody Allen in a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds”.