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Maritime mysteries and mummified heads - Mauritius corresponds with the Director

Helen Hartley
15 November 2010
Discover how an effort to improve my French led to an entertaining scientific journey to 19th Century Mauritius.

The contains items written in languages other than English. Normally we rely on the help of volunteers - usually willing friends or colleagues - to translate them for us. However, in a continuing struggle to improve my French, I decided to take on the translation of some printed documents sent to Sir William Jackson Hooker from Mauritius.

 

Extract from the Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Mauritius from 1831

The proceedings of the Natural History Society of Mauritius from 1830 to 1833 were sent to Hooker while he was a Professor at the University of Glasgow. The Society was established in 1829 by the naturalists Charles Telfair, Julien Desjardins, Louis Bouton, François Liénard, Wenceslaus Bojer and Jacques Delisse. The first meetings were held at the home of Telfair, the Society's President, but links were soon made with scientific societies in Africa, India, Australia, and Europe and, within a year, many eminent scientists around the world could be counted among the Society's corresponding members.

Charles Telfair and Wenceslaus Bojer, President and Vice-President of the Natural History Society of Mauritius.

The proceedings of the meetings are full of information on weird and wonderful scientific discoveries of the time. Descriptions of newly discovered plants and animals were given; meteorological and geological observations were discussed; members read essays on anything from marine algae to a case of liver fluke found in the stomach of a cow.

Illustration of Colvillea racemosa Bojer from Vol 61 of Curtis's Botanical Magazine, a description of which was read at a meeting of the Natural History Society of Mauritius.

Nauscopy

My favourite passage was a discussion of Nauscopy: the ability to predict the arrival of ships before they are visible on the horizon. This 'science' had gained popularity in Mauritius at the end of the 18th Century when a Monsieur Bottineau successfully predicted the arrival of ships, claiming that he could see the effect they had by looking at disturbances in the atmosphere. The subject was raised at a meeting of the Society by a Mr R. Barry, who cited observations made by Captain Scoresby in Greenland; the Society agreed to examine the matter further [DC Vol.53 f.44].

Objects of Natural History

No 19th Century society of Natural History would be complete without some bizarre specimens. Many stuffed or preserved birds and animals were received at the meetings. A resident of Mauritius donated a young female dog with six legs, preserved in alcohol; apparently the poor animal had lived for several days! Human specimens, particularly skulls, were not uncommon: Captain Foreman of Sydney kindly donated the mummified head of a New Zealand chief. Captain John Briggs, also of Sydney, presented the rib of a New Zealand woman obtained from a cannibal feast in which he had been invited to take part. Mr Briggs also presented a young boy he had taken under his wing, having rescued him from a sacrificial death in New Zealand [DC Vol 53 f.48]. I think the boy was alive when he was 'presented', but perhaps this is where my knowledge of French let me down!

Mauritius Natural History Museum

In 1846, the Society changed its name to The Royal Society of Arts and Sciences of Mauritius. Objects donated to the Society, supplemented by the personal collections of Julien Desjardins and Louis Bouton, became the basis of the Mauritius Natural History Museum. The museum today is situated next to the Jardin de la Compagnie in Port Louis and is famous for another unusual specimen: the only complete skeleton of a dodo.  


- Helen -

 

More information

  • All of Kew's African and Latin American Directors' Correspondence is available to view online via JSTOR plant science and more Asian content is being added all the time.
  • Search Kew's Herbarium Catalogue for plant specimens collected from Mauritius. 

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