Episode 113      23 min 31 sec
Catching insects in Africa: A window on 18th century English society

Historian, literary critic and author Professor Deirdre Coleman connects naturalist Henry Smeathman's years in West Africa to the social norms and intellectual life 18th century England. With host Jennifer Cook.

"So this whole notion of fly catching - the very pun in that word, capturing the butterfly and the souls of men." -- Professor Deirdre Coleman




           



Professor Deirdre Coleman
Professor Deirdre Coleman

Deirdre Coleman completed Honours in English at the University of Melbourne before going to Oxford University where she graduated with a BPhil (1979) in Victorian literature and a DPhil (1986) on Coleridge's journalism. Since returning to Australia she has taught at the Universities of Wollongong, Adelaide and Sydney. While at the University of Sydney she was awarded the Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Research Supervision. In December 2006 she was appointed Robert Wallace Chair of English at the University of Melbourne, and is currently Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Arts. She is currently co-writing (with Starr Douglas) a biography of Henry Smeathman (1742-86) entitled The Flycatcher: Science, Slavery and Empire in the Age of Reason.

Credits

Host: Jennifer Cook
Producers: Kelvin Param, Eric van Bemmel
Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink

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Catching insects in Africa: A window on 18th century English society

VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research, opinion and analysis podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 
 
JENNIFER COOK 
I'm Jennifer Cook; thanks for joining us.  
Fly catcher, aeronaut, philosopher, polygamist and founding father of the African colony of Sierra Leone: these are just some of the titles bestowed upon the extraordinary Henry Smeathman, the son of a brandy merchant from Scarborough in Yorkshire, who had a lifelong love affair with science and the dark continent until his death in 1786 at the age of just 44.
Professor Deirdre Coleman who holds the Robert Wallace Chair of English at Melbourne University's School of Culture and Communication joins us in this episode of Up Close to explain the psyche of a man who could look at a termite hill and see a metaphor for not just slavery, but the human condition.
Professor Coleman, thank you for your time.
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
It's a pleasure.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Now before we launch into this fascinating life and times of Henry, could you explain to us a little bit of your background and how you came to describe yourself as a mainstream romanticist?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes, well I did my PhD thesis on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was very radical in the 1790s and joined in the very kind of fashionable movement of abolitionism and he delivered an extraordinarily brave lecture in Bristol, which was a very large slaving port and he argued very strenuously against the trade and how wicked it was and how Britain should stop trading in Africans, shipping them across the Middle Passage into the West Indies.
So it was really sort of starting from my study of Coleridge's political thinking and writing that I became interested in the slave trade and in the Sierra Leone settlement of West Africa.
 
JENNIFER COOK
And is that how you came across Henry?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes, I came across Henry Smeathman because his one publication is a wonderful essay that he wrote about termites and the way in which they're the most extraordinary colonists and I was working on colonisation in the romantic period at that time and when I read this essay, it was clear to me that Smeathman was someone who was using the termitary and the way in which the termites colonised as an allegory of human colonisation and the sorts of hopes and dreams that he had for West Africa.
And these dreams were really interesting.  He thought that if only the British could set up free plantations in West Africa, they could bring down the West Indian plantation system.  So that's kind of at the core of his thinking: how the British might run a free sugar plantation, a free cotton plantation in West Africa. 
 
JENNIFER COOK
Let's just look at the way he examined the insects and he used them as a metaphor.  It wasn't just termites was it?  There was a real fascination with bees and ants and this romantic mindset.  But I should just clarify; what do we call the romantic period; what are we talking about?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Really from the 1770s to 1820 and this is a period in Britain when you've got a lot of ships going out exploring.  It's a period when a lot of wealthy gentlemen are tremendously interested in flora and fauna and in curiosities and exotics from other places.  So it really is the expanding world at the end of the 18th Century.
 
JENNIFER COOK
And when we look at it through the lens of Smeathman's life which we'll go into some detail, it does look so dynamic as a world just so full of opportunity, as if there's a real chance to change mankind.
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes and a real chance to position one's self too.  I think what we see in Smeathman is a man fashioning himself into a gentleman so that he can cut it with the likes of Sir Joseph Banks: a very wealthy and eminent collector.  So Smeathman was to become, for Banks and a group of other patrons, one of these many adventurers who went out into the new world to discover really unique insects and plants and other specimens and bring them back. 
 
JENNIFER COOK
It's interesting you mentioning that connection with Joseph Banks.  Of course he was the botanist who accompanied James Cook on the Endeavour on the voyage to Australia.  Now Banks had a very big advantage over Smeathman didn't he?  I mean Banks was wealthy.  He was the only son of recently deceased parents who left him a fortune, which meant he was able to follow his dreams.
Smeathman had to find his own way didn't he?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Well he made good connections and he just kept building on those and by the time he set out for Africa in 1771 he had quite a big circle of patrons, which included Banks at the centre, but also other very wealthy men like Dru Drury, who had the most prestigious collection of insects in Europe, a Doctor John Fothergill - a very wealthy physician who liked to collect plant specimens.
So there was quite a lot of money going into funding this expedition to West Africa.
 
JENNIFER COOK
This is Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne Australia.  I'm Jennifer Cook, and our guest today is Professor Deirdre Coleman and we're talking about the romantic life and times of Henry Smeathman.
Now Professor Coleman, he cultivated - Henry cultivated - these wonderful relationships so that he could get to West Africa.  How did he manage to stay in West Africa once he was there?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Well that's the remarkable thing; he actually survived for four years on the disease coast of West Africa.  I mean so many white people just arrived and were dead within three months or so.  They just succumbed to malaria, typhoid.  
He went out with an excellent medical chest which Dr Fothergill had put together for him and he became well known in the area for his medical skills.  So he was obviously quite ingenious at keeping himself alive and I think he decided that the thing not to do in the hot climate was to drink heavily.
A lot of the slave traders and other pretty rough chaps on the coast were very into drinking heavily and the mortality rate was very high, whereas Smeathman kept himself on a lean diet, kept himself fit and prided himself - in his letters he was always writing about how well he's managing his health in this very challenging environment.
 
JENNIFER COOK
And let's talk about his marriages.
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes, well the marriages were very important for him, particularly for achieving his ambition for collecting widely in and up the rivers and into the estuarine areas.  As a white man he couldn't move without the local chiefs getting in behind him and supporting him with men and with boats to help with the collecting enterprise.  So the marriages were very strategic.  He married into the Afro-European chiefs on the coast there.  He had, as far as we know, three young brides, one of whom he describes in detail to Dru Drury, one of his patrons.
She is his prized specimen, which he's describing in his letter, as he would describe beautiful butterflies or moths or beetles.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Oh, that's clashing heavily isn't it, with the modern sensibility?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Absolutely, it is quite a confronting letter.  But what's interesting about Smeathman's marriages is that this was quite acceptable to his patrons and there are a number of jokes in their letters about it.  But also they're quite approving of it.  
They think Smeathman has been very enterprising and of course they're being very self interested and thinking about how those marriages will enable him to get further and further up the rivers and into less known areas and come back with even more exotic specimens.
But it is these letters that have really captured my imagination because he is always fashioning himself and in some ways of course, he's singing for his supper.  He wants these wealthy men to release more money so that he can stay and pursue his objectives.  But his big problem there on the coast is that most of the ships coming by are going via the West Indies with human cargo and those are the ships on which the specimens must travel.  It made for a very, very long route in very difficult conditions without much water and in extreme heat and often the sort becalming in the Middle Passage.
This meant that a lot of the specimens coming this long way home to England were very damaged.  It was a very risky way - it was a very unsure way of getting the specimens back.  What he needed and what he asked for again and again, was a boat which would go directly from the West Coast of Africa to London or to Liverpool with the specimens. And Smeathman himself, when he left West Africa, travelled on a fully loaded ship with hundreds of black captives - men women and children and he writes a most moving first hand account of what it was like to travel the Middle Passage.  
So there are some really remarkable unpublished writings. 
 
JENNIFER COOK
And let's talk about Smeathman and his attitude towards slavery because he shifted position didn't he throughout his life?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes he did.  When he went out to West Africa that wealthy doctor, Doctor John Fothergill, was a Quaker doctor and Quakers were amongst the first of the abolitionists.  So Smeathman went out to West Africa very carefully taught in an anti-slavery position.  But of course, living out on the coast for that long, he wobbled a bit.  I mean the chief economy was slaves and he does appear to have traded himself - dabbled in a bit of trading to keep going.
 
JENNIFER COOK
What did he say that he would buy but not sell?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
He's an interesting example of early thinking around abolitionism and he's trying to think of how we might do it more humanely, rather than abolishing it altogether.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Yes, he was paid in slaves at one stage wasn't he?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes he was, because it was the chief barter there on the coast.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Now, Professor Coleman, I did start talking about the difference between termites and the different insects such as bees and ants in this romantic period.  They came to represent different things didn't they? 
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes, what's interesting about Smeathman's termite essay is how very different it is from so much English writing about bees, which very much mirrors a very sort of monarchical society, and what is interesting about the termite's is they're not quite so poetical.  
They're more militaristic and it's clear in the way that Smeathman's writing about them that he's fascinated by their ferocity and their war-likeness - their military precision and organisation and their ability to rear these remarkable subterranean cities.  Of course they're not just subterranean but these huge termitary nests that stand three, four metres high.  
So he was really fascinated by them as colonists because that's what termites do.  They colonise and build.  So again you see this social allegory at work in his examination of the termites and he must have spent just weeks and weeks in the bush watching and observing. 
 
JENNIFER COOK
And he has a wonderful turn of phrase; he was quite fascinated with what he called the nuptial flight of the termites. 
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes, well that's the climax really is when the termite takes wing and flies and of course this is a colonising flight as well as a nuptial flight.  So the coming together of the sexual and the territorial expansion I think, is really interesting. 
 
JENNIFER COOK
Which mirrors Smeathman's own activities up the coast with the marriages.
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Absolutely, unfortunately we don't know whether he had any princes or princesses from his nuptial adventures.  But clearly he's thinking about populousness and settlement and how the British might survive and indeed prosper and populate on that coast.
 
JENNIFER COOK
It's really intriguing isn't it, especially in light of what you say about how he prided himself on keeping himself fit and strong and healthy.  You just wonder if there are descendants of him out there.
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Well what we do have on the Banana Islands, where he had his garden is a Henry Smeathman holiday resort hut, which I haven't seen myself but a friend sent me a photograph of it.  So he's still much talked about in the region.  He really is a well remembered figure.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Professor Coleman you mentioned the Banana Islands.  Where are they exactly?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
They're off the coast of Sierra Leone and islands were attractive to explorers, particularly in this very hot environment.  Islands are a bit cooler and considered to be healthier. And the garden that Smeathman had there on that island is one of many, many gardens that Sir Joseph Banks sponsored in this period.  
You've got gardens in India, gardens in the Caribbean, in the West Indies and Smeathman's garden needs to be seen as part of this enterprise of growing exotics and exporting them back to England so that England could learn more about other places and the produce of other places and also commercial opportunities obviously.  
 
JENNIFER COOK
I'm Jennifer Cook and on Up Close this episode we're speaking with Professor Deirdre Coleman about the remarkable life of Henry Smeathman.
Now Professor Coleman, I wonder if you can explain to us how collecting and slavery - how these two supposedly very different things intersected in Henry's life?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Well that goes to the very heart of what interests me in this project, is looking at the imbrications of collecting and natural history with the slave trade in this period and it has to do with the way in which the specimens were travelling via the West Indies to England and that that was the main route for getting them back.  
Smeathman himself is so conscious of his role there as a collector and of course the very epithet flycatcher - the fly is often a symbol for the soul and the butterfly is a soul.  So he's a flycatcher amongst flycatchers that are actually capturing souls - the souls of children, of women and of African men - that is their business.  
So he's there on the coast and in his letters he cuts this figures - he describes himself with his butterfly nets and his cork hats and his pins - as a kind of dandy amongst all these other men who are capturing the souls of people - of fellow humans, whereas he of course is a catcher of butterflies.  So this whole notion of fly catching - the very pun in that word, capturing the butterfly and the souls of men.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Now Joseph Banks was quite dismissive of Smeathman's aeronautical endeavours.  Could you tell us a little bit about those and Joseph's reaction to it?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Well when Smeathman left West Africa, he went to the West Indies for four years and then he went back to London and his time in the West Indies just showed him that slavery was a deeply wicked thing.  
So he returned to his former principles and he moved quite a radical group and he ended up in Paris in the early 1780s, where the Americans were brokering peace with the English, with the help of the French, and he watched the Montgolfier Balloons going up in 1783 and thought to himself, this doesn't look quite the right shape to me, this round balloon.  
So he designed a dirigible and he talked a lot to mathematicians and physicists and others in Paris there and excitedly sent his drawings home to Sir Joseph Banks in the hope that Banks would support him in this new endeavour of ballooning - this balloon mania that took place in the 1780s.  Anyway, Banks wouldn't have a bar of it.  He thought it was just French frippery and nonsense and that the new frontier of the skies was just a fantasy.  
So it's most unfortunate really.  But I think Smeathman's secret desire was to actually design a balloon which he could steer and then he'd take himself back to West Africa to conclude all the business that he hadn't concluded there. 
 
JENNIFER COOK
Can you tell us a bit more about what it would have been like to meet Henry?  How did he present himself?  Was he as colourful in person do we think as his exploits would seem to say?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
We only have one description of him, which I turned up recently and was much amused.  He was very thin this commentator said - tall and thin but not very handsome.  Most of our accounts of him come from newspapers where he advertised himself as a lecturer on termite society and in fact his termite lectures in London were very well attended.  
The bon ton posh people in town have left letters describing going to the Inns of Court and listening to Smeathman talking about the termites and ending his lecture with philippics against the slave trade.  So he was obviously quite a public performer and he also gave these termite lectures in Paris where they dubbed him Monsieur Termite.  So yes quite a character.
 
JENNIFER COOK
And he also had some wonderful exhibits to show at these lectures didn't he?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes, he did.  He had specimens of the Queen termite.  These were particularly fascinating to observers because they could see the hypertrophy of her belly full of eggs - a quite grotesque specimen - quite large too when you think of the smallness of a termite.  
It was a kind of hands on lecture which these bottles with the pickled specimens were passed around along with bits of the termitary itself, so they could see the way in which the walls of the termitary and the cells within were composed.
 
JENNIFER COOK
And he actually made breakthroughs in the study of insects. 
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes, he's still quoted by eminent entomologists like E.O. Wilson, so he has certainly maintained a reputation there.
 
JENNIFER COOK
What was it about this period - this romantic period that so captivated their minds that things had to be categorised and discovered and numbered and described?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Well I think that comes a little bit later.  What fascinates me about the period in which Smeathman is working is that his patrons basically wanted him to collect anything.  
Even though each of them had their own particular favourite pastime, be it - for some it was botany, for others it was insects - but in general the instructions to Smeathman were to just bring back whatever he could get his hands on because anything from that part of the coast - anything from Africa - such an unexplored continent for the British - anything would be of interest and what really amuses me is that the general message was, the bigger and the uglier, the better.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Oh, that's marvellous.
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
So one of the chief specimens that he was commissioned to get was this goliath beetle which was much lusted after by Dru Drury and we can see this beetle in Glasgow at the Hunterian Museum where many of Smeathman's specimens have turned up.  
They're in Australia as well, because Dru Drury's very large collection of insects got broken up at one point and some of those moths and butterflies and beetles have flown to Sydney, to the Macleay Museum - William Macleay who was quite a big figure in New South Wales in the early colony, he came with part of Dru Drury's collection which has these wonderful West African insects collected by Smeathman.  
So that's a big thrill for me to actually have those specimens here.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Just how did Henry Smeathman's life end?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
We don't have much more than just a notice in The Gentleman's Magazine that Henry Smeathman, flycatcher, had died of a putrid fever.  So we don't know really and the putrid fever could of course have been anything in the summer in London.  But it is quite possible that it was cerebral malaria or something like that, because he certainly went through periods of being very sick, when he was obviously exposed in West Africa to these nasty illnesses.  
 
JENNIFER COOK
Oh, it's incredible he survived so long.
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes, and that's why naturalists in his period were so interested in his writings, because no-one had lived on the coast of West Africa for so long, so a lot of eminent natural historians were very interested in having his papers copied and preserved and that's how they've survived. 
 
JENNIFER COOK
And he died at the age of 44?
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Yes, well 44 was a good middle age really.  It's not an early death; it's a remarkably long life given the kinds of diseases to which he was exposed.
 
JENNIFER COOK
Well Professor Coleman, thank you for this extraordinary glimpse into the life of this fascinating man.  Thank you so much for your time today.
 
PROFESSOR DEIRDRE COLEMAN
Thank you.
 
JENNIFER COOK
I'm Jennifer Cook and we've been speaking with Professor Deirdre Coleman who holds the Robert Wallace chair of English at Melbourne University's School of Culture and Communication. Professor Coleman has been talking to us about the life and times of Henry Smeathman. 
Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au
Up Close is brought to you by Marketing and Communications of the University of Melbourne, Australia. This episode was recorded on the 30th of September 2010. And our producers were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel. Audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. I’m Jennifer Cook, until next time, goodbye. 
 
VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close.  For more information visit http://upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  Copyright 2010, the University of Melbourne.
 

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