Southwest Missouri State University
Department of English
Mark Catesby’s Natural History and American Literary Studies
Little has been published by and about Mark Catesby in literary circles, perhaps emblematic of the scarce availability of his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands to students of colonial American literature. The massive work, collected in two volumes composed between1729 and 1747, is now best known for the 220 engravings of birds, amphibians, and other flora and fauna of the colonies. The primacy of these images, in relationship to the text associated with them, is perhaps another reason the volumes have received little analysis by literary scholars. Nonetheless, Catesby Natural History certainly deserves attention similar to that received by other journals and histories of colonial America for how it illumines the interrelated science and commercialism of imperial endeavors.
The University of North Carolina’s 1985 hardcover edition, compiled by Alan Feduccia, brings together Catesby’s narrative and many of his striking images. A 1974 facsimile edition includes miniature reproductions of all the plates but only part of the text. Although there is no affordable paperback edition of the entire two volumes, the Internet posting of the second edition (1754) provides to almost everyone the details of the text valuable to American literary studies for what it implicitly suggests regarding science and texts in the colonial period: the role of the press and professional organizations in the work of men of science and dissemination of their ideas; the relationship of images to narrative or verbal depictions in scientific texts; and the methods of scientific inquiry and their implications, especially as far as consumption of the land and its resources are concerned.
Questions related to these topics may arise from professors’ and students’ thoughtful consideration of Catesby’s text alone: How was his lengthy work, composed during more than a decade, compiled and received? Why are the verbal descriptions so miniscule, relative to the colorful imprints? How could Catesby justify the collection (and deaths) of so many specimen to achieve the ends of a single engraving? He explains in his prefatory remarks, for example, he achieved the accuracy in his painting of fish, which change color upon their removal from the water, by constantly replacing dying and dead fish with a seeming inexhaustible supply of “fresh” ones.
Answers to such questions are best discovered through reading the few fine essays which address such topics. Three of them, by Amy R. Meyers, Joyce E. Chaplin and David R.Brigham, place Catesby’s work within the context of the history of science, describing Catesby’s relationship to the beliefs of Newton, Hume, and other members of the Royal Society and the world of eighteenth century publishing. These essays guide the brief overview below.
I. Catesby’s Work in the Field: The Pleasures of the Man of Science in America
Catesby was a gentleman and a “man of science” in the 18th century sense of the phrase, as Brandon Brame Fortune has described it. His work was a pleasurable pursuit, and he devoted what might have been seen by others as hours of leisure to the study nature. Born in 1682 into a family of gentry, Catesby was exposed to natural science as a young man and took the opportunity in 1712 to visit his sister and her husband, the physician William Coake, in Virginia as a means of further satisfying his curiosity about things “different” in America. While other Europeans might have been satisfied with “armchair” theorizing based upon records of other peoples observations (Meyers), Catesby preferred the pleasures of his own field work, hiking through Virginia, Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas, observing plants and animals, and attempting to capture their presence through sketches and paintings. He wrote of hiking from the coastal areas upriver, where “the most delightful prospects imaginable” greeted him and the diversion of hunting buffalo, bears, panthers and other wild beast abounded.
Stimulated not only by the new environment but also by his communion and conversations with William Byrd II, Catesby rose to an invitation from Francis Nicholson, the new governor of Carolina, to continue the work of John Lawson, whose New Voyage to Carolina was published in 1709. (Lawson had been murdered by the natives). This appointment and patronage was secured after Catesby’s return to England from Virginia in 1719 and through his connections with Hans Sloane, William Sherard, and other members of the Royal Society. In 1722 he arrived in Carolina.
Catesby notes in his preface he was ashamed to admit he did not collect and send back to England all the specimen that he should, a comment that suggests he enjoyed the pleasure of pursuit and observation more than sharing the results. Yet his letters indicate he did, indeed, attempt to meet the demands of his patrons, who represented not only other men of science but also gardeners, physicians, and others with commercial interests in the “new” world. His letters reveal a frustration with the complications of preserving and shipping—the need for paper, wooden crates, and jars, often expensive and difficult to secure (Brigham). Certainly his own personal knowledge and the pleasure achieved while seeking it were as significant to him as the distribution and assertion of his “discoveries.”
II. Catesby’s Work as Author: The Man of Science in London
The pleasures of his fieldwork notwithstanding, Catesby cared enough about his findings to seek subscriptions for their publication and to devote much time and labor to perfecting color engravings based upon the sketches and watercolors he had completed in America. His strategy was to offer the publication in 11installments, with 20 plates each. These could later be bound into volumes. The installments were offered at either 1 or 2 guineas each, with the price depending on the subscribers’ choice of paper size and, possibly, hand-colored or black and white engravings. Individual installments of either type might have been considered affordable but overall, purchasing the work in its entirety and having it bound was beyond the financial reach of much of the reading public (Brigham; Chaplin). The volumes were produced with a rather small and elite audience in mind. Being listed as a subscriber in the volume was in many ways a mark of prestige and privilege (Brigham).
Catesby, following the tradition of natural philosophers and other writers of the period, drew heavily from Lawson’s work and others in the preparation of his narrative. This textual borrowing, an act he acknowledged, contributes to the complexities of analyzing his volume. Much of his description of the natives, for example, comes directly from Lawson rather than from Catesby’s first hand experience. Yet the mere inclusion of others’ records indicates Catesby’s beliefs. Indeed, if he differed with another man of science, as was the case with Josselyn and his description of moose, Catesby made his disagreement clear. Another difficulty for literary scholars is analyzing what appears to be direct, descriptive prose. As the essays of Boyle and Newton directed, the man of science needed to move beyond the initial elements of surprise and pleasure to provide theoretical insights to readers in a plain and direct style (Montgomery). In this light we understand Catesby’s basic descriptions of flora and fauna he observed. The minimal theorizing, which has contributed to Catesby’s being overlooked by those examining scientists of the period, is present (Chaplin). It reflects his reticence toward Newtonian positivism and a teleological ordering of the universe. Catesby saw the flora and fauna of the new world as part of a system that was much more complex than the “Great Chain of Being;” he saw order in the life cycle of individual species and thus concentrated on these miniscule chains rather than how they linked together in an easily understood system.
Catesby’s work during his day was certainly seen as valid “science.” With the completion of the first 5 installments (Vol. I) of the Natural History, Catesby was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and gained the success needed to hire help with the engravings for the second volume. The Natural History’s reception was such that it was translated into Latin, German, Dutch and French. Jefferson and Bartram referred to it as they prepared their works of natural history.
III. Catesby’s Work Today: Suggestions for Further Study
What happened to cause the man who was viewed as the expert on natural life in a large part of America and among men of science in his day to fall from the ranks of those such as Linnaeus, Franklin, Audubon, and Darwin, whose names are today immediately associated with specific scientific beliefs? One suggestion is that his work was eclipsed by the works of others who were more forthright in asserting themselves, such as Linneaus; another is that Jefferson and Bartram displaced Catesby in the public eye because of public prominence, in the case of Jefferson, and the imposing size of the published work, in the case of Bartram’s tome (Feduccia). Chaplin argues a change in readership and expectations about scientific publications contributed to Catesby’s decline. A romantic inclination toward the exotic and different and the reflection of the observing “I” within narratives displaced Catesby’s simpler and more direct style of cataloguing.
Yet Catesby’s “self” is asserted through his Natural History. Its connection not only to science but to the commercial enterprises of colonial consumption is the most interesting point of further exploration. In addition to Catesby’s involvement in book publishing and his references to consuming fish as he painted them, the narrative includes many comments about the sweetness or rancidity of the meat an animal provides. Catesby also digresses to include recipes for pickled sturgeon and caviar, which he lifts from another text. His description of making tar and pitch from pine trees not only reflects the commercial interests of the scientific distillation process but also his ambivalent attitudes toward the natives. Although he describes their methods of making tar in a positive way, he undermines his comments in a section on “air” by explaining he natives have rituals of burning off brush, which makes the air foul, and their tar pits likewise pollute the air. He notes their “consumption” of Lawson by roasting him, using pine needles filled with pitch, and he describes using a native to tote his box of paints, papers, and specimens—his own consumption of another sort. Thus, although Catesby’s work may reveal he lacked the positivism of Newton or a vision of the colonies as paradise, he bowed to the demands of mercantilism and colonial enterprise that drove so many—including men of science—to consume.
Brigham, David R. “Mark Catesby and the Patronage of Natural History.” Empire’s Nature: Mark Catesby’s New World Vision. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1998. Amy R. W. Meyers and Margaret Beck Pritchard, eds. 91-145,
Catesby, Mark. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. 2 Vols. London: 1731-43 [1729-47].
---. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. 2nd ed. London: C. Marsh, 1754. http://libtext.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/DLDecArts/DLDecArts-idx?issueid=CateNatHisV1.
---. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. (Facsimile ed.) Intro. G. Frick. Notes, J, Ewan. Savannah: Beehive Press, 1974.
Chaplin, Joyce E. “Mark Catesby, a Skeptical Newtonian in America.” Empire’s Nature: Mark Catesby’s New World Vision. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1998. Amy R. W. Meyers and Margaret Beck Pritchard, eds. 34-90.
Feduccia, Alan, ed. Catesby’s Birds of Colonial America. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1985.
Fortune, Brandon Brame with Deborah J. Warner. Franklin and His Friends: Portraying the Man of Science in Eighteenth-Century America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, 1999.
Josselyn, John. New England’s Rarities Discovered. London: 1672.
Lawson, John. New Voyage to Carolina. London: 1709.
Meyers, Amy R. W. “Picturing a World in Flux: Mark Catesby’s Response to Environmental Interchange and Colonial Expansion.” Empire’s Nature: Mark Catesby’s New World Vision. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1998. Amy R. W. Meyers and Margaret Beck Pritchard, eds. 228-261.
Meyers, Amy R. W. and Margaret Beck Pritchard, eds. Empire’s Nature: Mark Catesby’s New World Vision. Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 1998.
Montgomery, Scott L. The Scientific Voice. New York: Guilford P, 1996.