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NATURALISTS IN PARADISE by John Hemming

  • Written by  Roger Butler
  • Published in Books
NATURALISTS IN PARADISE by John Hemming
01 Apr
2015
In May 1848, two young Englishmen sailed up the Amazon and optimistically hoped to support themselves by collecting specimens of exotic fauna and flora for museums and collectors back home in Britain

A year later, another avid explorer followed in their footsteps. All three – Alfred Russel Wallace, Henry Walter Bates and Richard Spuce – were from humble backgrounds but had discovered a passion for geographical knowledge.

As each of them boldly went where no one had ever been before, they faced up to rudimentary boats, long-lasting illness and inevitable hunger. John Hemming, a former Director of the RGS–IBG, has now written the first full account of their intrepid travels and his extensive research makes full use of their notes and journals. Sketches and drawings also give strong impressions of the places and people they encountered in the trackless maze of forest. Spruce drew what were probably the first portraits of Brazilian Indians, including sullen young girls who had been seized into slavery, while Bates gate-crashed a wedding where the locals dressed in giant masks and danced continuously for three whole days and nights.

Sheer naivety shines through and the three seemed so overwhelmed by the dazzling butterflies and bird eating-spiders that they had no time to worry about poisonous snakes or poisoned arrows. Their legacies include a major contribution to the theory of natural selection. Indeed, Wallace is now credited as the co-founder of Darwin’s ideas, while Bates became the first member of staff at the RGS where he helped launch a golden age of exploration.

NATURALISTS IN PARADISE:  by John Hemming, Thames and Hudson, £19.99 (hardback)

This review was published in the April 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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