This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

The man who made 8,000 discoveries

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, Geography, Nature on Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

Henry Bates

Henry Walter Bates

It was on 28 May 1848 that the trading ship Mischief cast anchor at the gateway to the Amazon, the city of Para. Aboard were two young Englishmen, Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace. Their object in coming to South America was to make a survey of the insect and bird life and smaller animals of the virtually untouched tropical Amazon valley — and to find facts to help solve the question of the origin of species.

Their youthful enthusiasm was not quenched by the dense, moist air. Early in the mornings they went out to capture gorgeous toucans, colourful humming-birds and parrots. The insects had their turn in the heat of the day.

Loaded with their exotic catches, the two men trudged home while their neighbours relaxed in their hammocks. After dinner they sat down to mount the insects, skin the birds and make notes. So dedicated were they that ant stings on their legs made them curious rather than annoyed. Bates is credited with publishing the first description of the leaf-cutter ant.

Henry Walter Bates

Henry Walter Bates

Determination brought success. In less than three months, they collected 460 different species of butterflies, at a time when only 66 had been identified in Britain. The lush grounds around Para served as a stepping stone. It was time to go further afield. After all, their objective was to explore the thousands of miles along the intricate Amazon waterways. Before embarking on their first trip down the Tocantins, a 2,500-kilometre-long tributary, they despatched a large chest packed with 3,635 insects to Bates’ London agent. Soon, however, the pair decided to part and go their own ways. Wallace later became joint author with Charles Darwin of the theory of natural selection. Alone, Bates began to mingle more with the people of the Amazon and became quite proficient in Portuguese and Tupi, a local tongue. There was no want of hospitality, but the food was monotonous and often nauseating. There were times when he suffered periods of tedium, frustration and exhaustion.

In the jungle everything was on an enlarged scale, with huge blue Morphos butterflies up to 20 cm across. In the more pleasant evening temperatures, a maddening chorus of whistling ducks and parrots, howling monkeys, hooting tree-frogs and chirping crickets fascinated Bates. And he was quite a sight himself. Although practical, his outfit must have seemed most amusing to the population. Over one shoulder he carried a double-barrelled gun. In his right-hand he held a net. On his left side he suspended a leather bag with two pockets, and on his right, another with red leather trappings and thongs to hang lizards, snakes, frogs, or large birds. A pin-cushion was fastened to his shirt. Whiskers, spectacles and an old hat put the finishing touches to his extraordinary appearance.

Expenses were low in the primeval regions, but he still needed some money. None reached him in this wilderness, and his servant ran off with the remaining money he had borrowed to keep him going. His clothes were in rags and he had to walk barefoot. The hospitality of a planter on a tributary infested with alligators helped him get over the worst of his problems. When stopping at a small town, he at last received money from his agent and a letter from his parents. They implored him to return to England and help in their hosiery business in Leicester. But should he go, or wait for an opportunity to realise his dream of exploring the whole Amazon valley? He considered the idea of returning and took the next schooner to Para. An accolade of recognition from fellow naturalists was awaiting him. One of the butterflies he had captured was named Callithea Batesii in his honour. His agent had sold the specimens he had collected for more money than expected, and urged him to stay on in South America, now that he was on the way to becoming famous. However, before he could make up his mind, an outbreak of yellow fever claimed many lives, and he too became very ill. Doctors were scarce, so he tried to cure himself with herbal concoctions, which fortunately worked.

Scarcely out of bed and still weak, he decided not to return to England but to go back into the interior instead. This time his life was in danger from voracious piranhas in the rivers. Stinging fire-ants molested him. But neither insect pests nor privations could deter him from reaching his goal.

Travelling on beyond the last civilized outpost, he reached the territory of warlike Indians. Despite the uncertainty of their mood, in four days Bates scoured the jungles and acquired six rare hyacinthine macaws. Journeying on, he faced formidable cataracts, and a sudden squall nearly overturned his boat. He was afraid to navigate on the treacherous river, but fortunately he was able to engage a guide, fittingly named Angelo Custodio — “Guardian Angel”!

His firm intention was to travel as far as Moyabamba, at the foot of the Andes. If he reached it he would have realised his ambition to survey the entire Amazon basin. But a violent attack of malaria made this impossible. Reluctantly he gave up his plan and prepared to return home at last. On 17 March 1859, he arrived at Para, and in June embarked for England. His old friends hardly recognized the oldish, yellow-faced man with big whiskers as the same person who had left them as a fresh-faced young man. Bates had managed to collect specimens of 14,712 species, mainly insects. About 8,000 of these were new to science. And on a trip to the Upper Amazon he had puzzled out the phenomenon of look-alikes in butterflies, which came to be known as Batesian mimicry. His book The Naturalist on the River Amazons, published in 1863, is a classic in natural history and was an immediate success. Bates withdrew from the hosiery business, married, and took up residence in London. Here he got the job of assistant secretary of the Royal Geographical Society. Later he became a fellow of the Royal Society, as well as being named a Chevalier of the Order of the Rose by the Emperor of Brazil.

2 comments on “The man who made 8,000 discoveries”

  1. 1. Ray Nevin says:

    150 years later, scientists are still discovering new species of insects in the depths of Borneo.

  2. 2. countrybumpkin says:

    Does anyone know what happened to all Bates’ specimens? Are they in the London Natural History Museum?

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.