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Friday, September 24, 2010

OLL LEWIS: Crypto cons - The Eccentric Naturalist Part Two

Returning to England from his South American adventures in 1821 Watson's ship docked in Liverpool where it was inspected by a customs officer to determine whether there were any items aboard liable for import tax. The customs officer took a look at the numerous crates of biological specimens that Waterton had and decided to he should pay a hefty tax on them as surely these were not for a personal collection and Waterton must have intend to sell them. The customs man did not believe Waterton's protests and he had to pay a huge amount of money to bring his scientific specimens into the country. Waterton was not best pleased by these events and vowed he would get his own back upon the jumped up little customs man.

When Waterton visited Guyana for the fourth and final time while out in the wilds he claims to have met up with a hairy red-faced primate. Those of you familiar with the some of the tales the native Guyanese told Freeman et al during their expedition to Guyana will probably be thinking things like “hang about...” or “A-ha, I wonder if there might be a connection.” in relation to the red-faced pygmies, according to Richard they are not descriptions of the same animal/people because the pygmies were said not to be hairy or fur-covered. Personally, I wonder if Waterton had heard similar tales from the natives and took that as his inspiration for what was to follow, most strange animals or tribes do not appear over night after all.

Waterton detailed the animal as follows in the fourth journey in his book Wanderings in South America as follows:

'I mentioned, in a former adventure, that I had hit upon an entirely new plan of making the skins of quadrupeds retain their exact form and feature. Intense application to the subject has since that period enabled me to shorten the process and hit the character of an animal to a very great
nicety, even to the preservation of the pouting lip, dimples, warts and wrinkles on the face. I got a fine specimen of the howling monkey, and took some pains with it in order to show the immense difference that exists betwixt the features of this monkey and those of man.

'I also procured an animal which has caused not a little speculation and astonishment. In my opinion, his thick coat of hair and great length of tail put his species out of all question, but then his face and head cause the inspector to pause for a moment before he ventures to pronounce his
opinion of the classification. He was a large animal, and as I was pressed for daylight, and moreover, felt no inclination to have the whole weight of his body upon my back, I contented myself with his head and shoulders, which I cut off, and have brought them with me to Europe. [Footnote: My young friend Mr. J. H. Foljambe, eldest son of Thomas Foljambe, Esq., of Wakefield, has made a drawing of the head and shoulders of this animal, and it is certainly a most correct and striking likeness of the original.] I have since found that I acted quite right in doing so, having had enough to answer for the head alone, without saying anything of his hands and feet, and of his tail, which is an appendage, Lord Kames asserts, belongs to us.

'The features of this animal are quite of the Grecian cast, and he has a placidity of countenance which shows that things went well with him when in life. Some gentlemen of great skill and talent, on inspecting his head, were convinced that the whole series of its features has been changed. Others again have hesitated, and betrayed doubts, not being able to make up their minds whether it be possible that the brute features of the monkey can be changed into the noble countenance of man: "Scinditur vulgus." One might argue at considerable length on this novel subject; and perhaps,
after all, produce little more than prolix pedantry: "Vox et praeterea nihil."

'Let us suppose for an instant that it is a new species. Well; "Una golondrina no hace verano": One swallow does not make summer, as Sancho Panza says. Still, for all that, it would be well worth while going out to search for it; and these times of Pasco-Peruvian enterprise are favourable
to the undertaking. Perhaps, gentle reader, you would wish me to go in quest of another. I would beg leave respectfully to answer that the way is dubious, long and dreary; and though, unfortunately, I cannot allege the excuse of "me pia conjux detinet," still I would fain crave a little
repose. I have already been a long while errant:

“Longa mihi exilia, et vastum maris aequor aravi,
“Ne mandate mihi, nam ego sum defessus agendo.

“Should anybody be induced to go, great and innumerable are the discoveries yet to be made in those remote wilds; and should he succeed in bringing home even a head alone, with features as perfect as those of that which I have brought, far from being envious of him, I should consider him a modern Alcides, fully entitled to register a thirteenth labour.'

The head and shoulders that Waterton brought back, called 'Waterton's Nondescript' were never taken terribly seriously by the scientific establishment and with most concluding that far from being a head and shoulders they were from a howler monkey's rear end by the skilled taxidermist. The Nondescript is on display to this day in the Waterton collection of Wakefield Museum, though, should anyone wish to peruse this unusual artefact up close.

As to exactly why Waterton made the Nondescript nobody can say for sure, but according to some the Nondescript's facial features bear a striking resemblance to a certain customs man from Liverpool....


Chris Clark said...

I think Waterton made a mistake in saying that Lord Kames believed human beings had tails. It was a colleague of Kames, Lord Monboddo, who believed that people were born with tails, but the midwives cut them off! Full marks for anticipating evolution; no marks for observation.

shiva said...

Red-faced, hairy primates in South America? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bald_Uakari

While their "official" range is only a small area of the western Amazon, similar "flooded forest" habitat is found in the Orinoco delta in Guyana, so it's plausible that an "undiscovered" population live or lived there, or that traditions of them were passed on by ethnic groups that had formerly lived in their range or as travellers' tales.