alphabetical An Christine in introduction is order: Ro. Welcome

Charles Waterton was born in Yorkshire, England in 1782, to an aristocratic Catholic family whose ancestors included members of several royal families. The life of an idle nobleman didn’t appeal to him, however. From a young age, he displayed a passion for studying and interacting with animals in a very hands-on way.

An inveterate tree-climber, Waterton was grateful for the wide array of bird species found on his family’s estate. He was so much of a birdbrain that teachers complained of his “vast proficiency in the art of finding birds’ nests” distracting him from his studies. Like his teachers, Waterton’s classmates noticed his fondness for being amongst animals. He was the one called upon when the boys wanted someone to tame an angry goose, or to ride a cow for their entertainment. He was even appointed rat catcher at his Jesuit boys’ school.

Waterton’s youthful interest in trapping the animals around him evolved into a specialist desire to understand less common animals. This being the Victorian era, and Waterton having the time and money to devote to his preoccupations, his obsessions prompted amusement in the readers of his prolific writings, rather than consternation. For instance, he once described a dissection of a vulture’s nose as “beautiful.” And he was an expert on how a variety of tropical animals, from the howler monkey to the toucan, tasted. The former, apparently, is not dissimilar to goat, while the latter should be boiled for best results.

This type of contradiction⁠—being moved by animals, yet also scientifically dedicated to studying them by killing and preserving them in scientifically novel ways⁠—would be a theme throughout Waterton’s life. The man clearly had complex feelings about his relationships with animals. Perhaps the most significant of these feelings was the desire to transcend the divisions within the animal kingdom: divisions between animals, but also ones separating himself and the creatures he loved.

Waterton’s early interest in natural history naturally extended into his adult career of studying his fellow multicellular organisms. He converted part of his estate into the world’s first modern nature reserve. This involved building a long wall to protect against poachers, and welcoming thousands of people to the reserve.

Charles Waterton by Charles Wilson Peale, 1824, National Gallery, London (Wikipedia)
Charles Waterton by Charles Wilson Peale, 1824, National Gallery, London (Wikipedia)

Visitors were also admitted to his taxidermy display. As a taxidermist, Waterton’s innovative technique involved preserving organisms in a special mercury concoction that rendered them as lifelike as possible, while leaving their bodies hollow. He would then disassemble the corpses and stitch together parts of different animals to create his eye-catching chimeras.

There was often an element of political satire to this endeavor. Waterton’s “John Bull and the National Debt” features a porcupine with a freakishly human face, stuffed into a tortoise shell. To a modern observer, it may not be obvious that this was meant to represent the crippling effects of British profligacy. Waterton was fervently opposed to the buildup of debt, which he called “that worst of scourges,” as he viewed it as a sign of poor governance and financial speculation. In “John Bull and the National Debt,” the “tortupine” is weighed down with a bag marked “National Debt Eight hundred Millions,” a figure Waterton often bemoaned. Six creatures cavort around the larger tortupine, including fish-snake and fish-toad hybrids. These grotesque beasts, which Waterton named different forms of Diabolus, also represent the burden weighing down the country.

One of Waterton’s biographers, Brian Edginton, dryly points out that Waterton essentially invented a new genre: the political cartoon in the form of taxidermy. Titles of Waterton’s other politically charged taxidermy pieces include “The English Reformation Zoologically Illustrated” and “Martin Luther.” The Martin Luther piece made use of Jenny, the first gorilla to be exhibited in England. Jenny lived in an attic, was made to dress and eat like a human, and earned money for her owner through people paying to see her. The ape’s captivity saddened Waterton, whose own nature reserve was built on different principles. After the death of Jenny, whom some wags called Waterton’s “girlfriend” due to his devotion to her, Waterton obtained her corpse, added donkey’s ears to it, and named the whole assemblage after the religious reformist Luther.

This was a man who took his taxidermy seriously and complained mightily about substandard displays. His taxidermist’s eye meant that he was always looking at animals with an appreciation for how they would look stuffed and peeled. He once complained in a letter to an ornithologist friend:

“[Naples] is the worst place I have ever been in as yet for Natural History. The few birds which find their way to market are so overcharged with fat that it would be next to impossible to skin them.”

Some historians of science have come to view Waterton’s satirical “assemblages” as commentary on the practice of naming and classifying the natural world. Each of his works clearly satirizes an issue of the time, such as religion or politics. But according to more recent perspectives on his works, he may have been critiquing other naturalists’ attempts to impose arbitrary order on the disordered natural world.

Waterton’s taxidermy skills influenced an even more famous naturalist named Charles⁠—Darwin, that is. In 1804, Waterton began a stint managing a relative’s plantation in British Guiana (now Guyana). His feelings about slavery were mixed; he found the institution abhorrent, yet considered British-owned slaves to be relatively well treated. During his time in South America, Waterton taught taxidermy to a slave named John Edmonstone. After being freed, Edmonstone moved to Scotland and began teaching at Edinburgh University. Among his students was Charles Darwin, to whom Edmonstone passed on Waterton’s stories of South American rainforests and taxidermy techniques. The two Charleses later became friends.

An example of Waterton political taxidermy
An example of Waterton political taxidermy

Waterton’s preoccupation with animals was not confined to the dead and stuffed variety. He himself adopted a number of behaviors typically associated with live animals. In his schoolboy days, for instance, he once tried to hatch an egg. He employed some youthful subterfuge to do so, pretending to have broken his arm so that he could keep it in a sling for several days. He was attempting to hatch the egg in his armpit.

As an adult, Waterton’s habits were still fanciful, such as fashioning wings for himself and attempting to fly over his estate. Another animal-like activity was drinking blood⁠—his own blood, that is. Unlike, say, mosquitoes, Waterton believed that a dose of blood would cure him of a cold. As was fashionable at the time, Waterton was a great believer in bloodletting⁠—for himself as well as his horses. He believed this practice, known as venesection, would cure everything from yellow fever to backache, and happily displayed the scars from over 160 bloodlettings to his friends. More unusual was his desire to be feasted upon by South American vampire bats. Waterton was sorely disappointed that no bat ever deigned to drink his blood, despite his habit of repeatedly sticking his foot out of his hammock while in South America, in an attempt to lure bloodsuckers.

Sometimes Waterton inflicted his animal side on his guests. Visitors who entered his house had to be careful to check that he wasn’t lurking under the table, ready to pounce on them. Once, this dog-like show of enthusiasm extended to biting a guest’s leg to the point of drawing blood. Whether wagging his non-existent tail, scampering up trees, scratching his head with his foot, walking on all fours, chasing rabbits, or exchanging kisses with the gorilla Jenny, Waterton blurred some species boundaries.

An incident much retold in Victorian society was of the time in South America when Waterton realized that the cayman his party had been tracking⁠—intending, of course, to dissect it later⁠—had turned violent. (A cayman, in a bit of scientific nomenclature known as “hedging your bets,” is considered an alligatorid crocodilian.) Waterton jumped onto the cayman’s back, gripped its forelegs, and pulled them toward himself as a sort of bridle, allowing those with him to subdue the animal. Perhaps his schoolboy experience of riding a cow came in handy.

Waterton’s mimicry of animals also extended to his asceticism about food. A biographer explains Waterton’s reasoning:

“Animals stuck to plain food, so should humans. During Lent, he lived for 40 days on one meal per day⁠—dry bread and weak tea, without milk⁠—and thrived to such an extent that the fast was usually extended for another week or so each year….If human beings followed the examples of wild beasts, and stuck to one general kind of food, ‘we should be giants of strength at the age of one hundred.’”

While this meager diet worked for Waterton, the same couldn’t be said for his associates. A professor who tried eating according to the Waterton style began experiencing pernicious anemia after only six days.

Perhaps Waterton’s mastery over non-humans came at the expense of understanding his fellow man. For despite his scientific renown, Waterton did have at least one major bane: other naturalists. The most colorful of his rivals was yet another biologist named Charles (in the Anglicized version of his name)⁠—Charles Lucien Jules Laurent Bonaparte. Not only was C.L.J.L. Bonaparte related to the most famous man to have a complex named after him, but Charles Bonaparte was a prince to boot. Bonaparte represented a type of naturalist that Waterton disdained: the type who didn’t spend long periods in the field, but was a “market naturalist” or “closet naturalist.” For example, Bonaparte relied on specimens collected by others. This type of armchair research was becoming more fashionable among scientists who believed that examining and classifying organisms was more important than getting dirty gathering them. Waterton’s style was going out of fashion, as some naturalists considered it amateurish.

Waterton's own portrayal of the cayman wrangling
Waterton's own portrayal of the cayman wrangling

There were also more personal reasons for Waterton’s antipathy. For one thing, Bonaparte was an associate of two other naturalists Waterton reviled: Audubon, of birdwatching guide fame, and Swainson, the multitalented biologist. Bonaparte also ignored Waterton’s book Wanderings in South America. Instead, he wrote a review of a different text and simply mentioned, in passing, that the critical reception of Wanderings had been fair. This enraged Waterton, as he had felt slighted by the response to his book. He did not speak to Bonaparte for sixteen years.

The insults Waterton heaped on Bonaparte were varied, attacking the man’s work, appearance, and political activities:

  • “I have just been reading Charles Buonaparte’s [sic] two last volumes; uncommonly dry and disgustingly crammed with nomenclature!”
  • “And this brings me to Charles Buonaparte. He is here but I see very little of him. I do not like his manners. His museum may rank in deformity with those of London and Scotland.”
  • “[Charles Buonaparte’s] visage would be more interesting to our northern connoisseurs of beauty were there less of the goat in it.”
  • “Charles Buonaparte has been out of health all winter. No wonder. He eats and drinks far too much. And this has made him extraordinarily fat.”

…and so on.

The most puzzling aspect of Waterton’s animosity was that Bonaparte had saved his life. On 17 June 1841, Waterton boarded the paddle-steamer Pollux traveling from Rome to Genoa. He woke to the sound of a loud crash–another steamer, the Monjibello, had struck his boat. There was no one on watch on the Pollux, and the ship’s crew and passengers did not react well. Flustered, the captain turned up on deck without his trousers. A Spanish duchess had to be dragged from her bed. An Italian man fell overboard and was drowned by the weight of his money belt.

What saved everyone on board the Pollux was Bonaparte’s quick action. As a passenger aboard the Monjibello, he seized control of the Monjibello’s helm to help the passengers on the sinking Pollux cross over. Bonaparte’s boldness didn’t end there. Officials on the Island of Elba refused to let the wounded Monjibello land. Of course, this wasn’t the first time Elba had given a Bonaparte a cause for complaint. From that island, the Monjibello continued on to Livorno, where the authorities also declined to let the passengers ashore. Inconveniently, the Pollux’s bill of health had sunk along with the ship, and the authorities demanded that the standard procedure of 20 days’ quarantine be observed before the shipwreck survivors could set foot on land. Bonaparte strenuously argued with these officials, finally wearing them down, which allowed the weary passengers to disembark.

Waterton was duly grateful for Bonaparte’s lifesaving deeds and words at sea. While wracked with dysentery, Waterton wrote:

“I may have uttered sentiments of disrespect to Charles Bonaparte. I now recall everything that might appear harsh or unkind…I shall love him as long as I live.”

But even his undying appreciation didn’t stem his vitriol. The bulk of Waterstone’s insults reproduced above were delivered after the sinking of the Pollux.

Thus, Waterton’s relationships with humans, and not just those with animals, also showed contradictions. This could be in the abstract, as shown by his mixed sentiments about slavery. It could also be deeply personal, as in his feelings about Bonaparte. And it could be just plain outlandish. While wooing his eventual wife, for instance, Waterton gifted her with a howler monkey’s backside. This wouldn’t be the romantic token of choice for most teenaged girls, but then, most men wouldn’t have a former “girlfriend” known as Jenny the gorilla. Moreover, Waterton’s unusual passion for the strange may have been part of what made him valuable as a naturalist: he saw beauty in parts of the animal kingdom others didn’t.

Another example of Waterton taxidermy
Another example of Waterton taxidermy

Charles Waterton was undoubtedly an impressive man. He promoted conservation, contributed to scientific knowledge of the natural world, and helped to ignite public curiosity about a variety animals. Quite clearly, the man wasn’t entirely normal. Waterton loved animals so much that he sought to emulate them. He was fixated with blood–mainly his own. He may have had an eating disorder. And his aversion to some of his fellow naturalists, particularly Charles Bonaparte, had an intensity that bordered on the pathological.

As pointed out by scholar of eccentricity Henry Hemming, and by many others, what’s considered endearingly odd in the privileged tends to be considered mentally ill in the poor. The “eccentric aristocrat” versus “crazy homeless guy.” The threshold for madness seems to be higher for the wealthy.

So it’s interesting to imagine how Charles Waterton would have fared in another time period, or under different circumstances. For one thing, mauling a dinner guest’s leg might not have been considered charmingly amusing by his contemporaries. At the same time, what’s considered abnormal clearly depends upon a particular social context. Nowadays it seems perfectly reasonable to set aside land for endangered animals, but in Waterton’s time this marked him out as a nutter. It has been suggested more recently that over-identification with animals and animal habits is linked to neuro-atypical behaviors such as those on the autism spectrum–although of course it is difficult to speculate on such things for historical figures. In any case, given Waterton’s contributions to natural history and the fact that most of his eccentricities were harmless, a little abnormality may not always be bad for science.