Monday, May 12, 2014

Dear Diary: The Science Nerd

Our great great grandfather George William Lillies was a medical doctor by training, but also a naturalist of wide ranging interests. All through the journal that he wrote during his time as a Royal Navy ship’s surgeon in West Africa, he makes observations about the flora, fauna, geology, ethnography and climatology of the region, and reports on his efforts to collect and preserve specimens.

It starts early with observations of the exotic flora of the Cape Verde Islands which his ship visited en route to its posting in Sierra Leone. “The island is very fertile,” he writes, “but very unhealthy. On it grow Cocoa Nut trees, Tamarinds - Pine Apples - Oranges -Lemons - Limes - Bananas and a curious kind of fruit called t[h]e Mammy Apple.” It’s not always easy to figure out what it is GWL actually saw. Mammy Apple? This is almost certainly Mammea americana, a fruit native to tropical South America that was introduced to other tropical regions, including west Africa, after the Spanish Conquest.

Sometimes, GWL’s interest in local flora and fauna isn’t purely scientific. In the same passage about Cape Verde, he adds, “Plenty of Turkeys and fowls can be got here and at a very cheap rate - The Inhabitants are very fond of exchanging provisions for old clothes - I got this morning as fine a Turkey as ever I saw with Pine Apples, a cocoa nut and a dozen eggs for an old rusty pair of trousers, not worth I should think at most two shillings.” He often segues abruptly in this way from the disinterestedly scientific to the down-to-earth and practical.

Most of the time, GWL is simply observing and cataloguing, and sometimes his interest seems as much aesthetic as scientific. On a visit to Prince’s Island (part of the Portuguese-speaking Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe today), he describes walking through a plantation with “a beautiful avenue formed by Guava Trees Coffee Shrubs Palms and a species of Creeper bearing seeds that resembled chestnuts.” GWL, like most first-time visitors to tropical and semi-tropical climes, is attracted to the picturesque hanging vines. “The creepers are exceedingly beautiful,” he writes. “[T]hey climb to the tops of the tallest trees and then hang down in graceful festoons.”

Modern tile mosaic depicting São Tomé and Príncipe coconut plantation
He is perhaps most interested in birds, mentioning “Palm Birds,” in particular, on several occasions. GWL describes them as “beautiful plumaged birds [so] called…from their building on the Palm tree and forming their nests of strips of its leaves - Their nests hang from the stems under the leaves and resemble in shape a wren's nest - The cock bird has a beautiful plumage bright yellow and black with scarlet eyes and black pupils - they live on insects principally and are called by the natives Snowdies - The Hen bird in plumage resembles much the yellow hammer.”

Allied Hornbill
It took some digging to figure out which bird he was talking about. The term palm bird has apparently fallen out of general English usage. But I found it in a couple of specialist lexicons of Liberian English, in one case rendered phonetically as “palm boid.” Both define it as a hornbill, of which two subspecies are common in Liberia, and presumably in nearby Sierra Leone where our man reports seeing them: the Allied and the Yellow-Casqued. But neither hornbill exactly matches GWL's description (see illustrations).

Yellow-Casqued Hornbill
He is not always content merely observing, in fact appears to have been a compulsive collector. About the time of those first palm bird sightings, he reports, without further elaboration, “skinned my birds in the evening.” (Of course, they may have just been dinner!) On another occasion he mentions stuffing a rook specimen in the evening. “Stuffed a Kingfisher in the evening,” he tells us another day. Taxidermy evidently was an evening occupation. I can imagine him working away by the light of an oil lamp in his cramped cabin. 

GWL wasn’t satisfied with observing the “beautiful plumaged” Palm Bird either. He casually mentions going for a walk and “[getting] some nests of the Palm bird.” On another occasion he “killed some Palm Birds,” adding with relish, “frightened an old woman out of her wits - she did everything but swear at us.” (Stamped her feet?) So much for the modern-day naturalist’s mantra of “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”

West African Seahorse

It seems that news of his interest in local flora and fauna spread because people started giving him specimens. A Spaniard, he reports, “gave me a wild cat and a Hippocampus.” Hippocampus? Latin scholars and marine biologists will already know it’s a seahorse, of which there is a distinctive subspecies found in the waters off Sierra Leone. “Wild cat” seems a frustratingly vague descriptor on a continent with so many wild cats, but in fact there is one called a Wildcat that is found in west Africa, and Europe and Eurasia. It looks like a large house cat.

You begin to see why GWL was so busy with taxidermy. His quarters would have stunk to high heaven if he hadn’t stuffed the dead critters he collected.

I was stumped initially by his mention of the “Physalia pelagica” that someone gave him. Turns out it’s the scientific term, or one of them, for a Portuguese man o' war. One blogger I read claims the term came into English as an implied insult to the once mighty but by then weak Portuguese navy. When washed up on the beach, the animals supposedly looked like capsized Portuguese war ships. 

West African Pelagic on the prowl
Other puzzling references include “shore plums” and “a variety of the beaver,” both observed in the Cape Mount area of Liberia. Beavers in Africa? Really? I could find no information about beavers in west Africa, but the cane rat (genus thryonomys), a vaguely beaver-like water-dwelling rodent, is found everywhere in Africa south of the Sahara. And is raised for eating in some.

West African Cane Rat - GWL's "beaver?"
The shore plum is a stumper. The “beach plum” grows on a bush, as GWL describes, but it’s native to the eastern seaboard of the United States. There are some other bush-growing fruits or large berries in west Africa, but I’m wondering if freed slaves, who settled Liberia starting in 1820, might have brought the beach plum back with them from North America.

You get the idea. GWL was fascinated with the biology of the lands through which he travelled. He was interested in much more besides, commenting less frequently, but just as earnestly, on the geology and climate of the region, and most interestingly, the ethnography – which I’ll turn to in my next post.

1 comment:

  1. Another great post, Pa! What a fascinating source this, and what a character our ancestor was! Too bad none of his taxidermy specimens survive... Well, I'm not that upset about the lack of stuffed cane rat (aka tropical 'beaver') - EWW!