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Mark Catesby Volume II

Plates from Volume II of Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands

CATESBY, Mark (1683 – 1749) Vol.II, Tab. 39, The Hawks-bill Turtle

CATESBY, Mark (1683 – 1749) Vol.II, Tab. 39, The Hawks-bill Turtle

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Painted and etched by Mark Catesby (1638 - 1749)
Etching with hand color, paper dimensions: approximately 14 x 19 inches
From Volume II, Part 7 of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands
London: 1736 - 1771

Currently known as the hawksbill sea trutle, Eretmochelys imbricata*, Catesby described this subject as follows:

Of the Manner of taking Turtle.

Of the Manner of taking Turtle The Inhabitants of the Bahama-lslands by often Practice are very dextrous in catching them, particularly the Green Turtle. In April they go in little Boats to the Coasts of Cuba, - and other neighbouring Islands, where in the Evening, especially in Moon-light Nights they watch the going and returning of the Turtle, to and from their Nests, at which Time they turn them on their Backs, where they leave them, and proceed on turning all they meet, for they cannot get on their Feet again when once turn'd. Some are so large that it requires three Men to turn one of them. The Way by which Turtle are most commonly taken at the Bahama-Islands is by striking them with a small Iron Peg of two Inches long, this Peg is put in a Socket at the End of a Staff 12 Feet long. Two Men usually set out for this Work in a little light Boat or Canoe, one to row and gently steer the Boat, while the other hands at the Head of it with his Striker. The Turtle are sometimes discovered by their swimming with their Head and Back out of the Water, but they are oftenest discovered lying, at the Bottom, a Fathom or more deep. If the Turtle perceives he is discovered, he starts up to make his Escape, the Men in the Boat pursuing him, endeavour to keep Sight of him, which they often loose and recover again by the Turtle putting his Nose out of the Water to breathe; thus they pursue him, one palling or rowing, while the other hands ready with his Striker; it is sometimes half an Hour before he is tired; then he links at once to the Bottom, which gives them an Opportunity of striking him, which is by piercing the Shell of the Turtle through with the iron Peg, which flips out of the Socket, but is fastened by a String to the Pole. If he is spent and tired by being long pursued, he tamely submits when struck to be taken into the Boat or hauled a-Shoat. There are Men, who by diving will get on their Backs, and by pressing down their Hind-part, and raising the Fore-part of them by Force, bring them to the Top of the Water, while another slips a Noose about their Necks.

TESTUDO Caretta. Rochefort.

The Hawks-bill Turtle.

This Kind of Turtle receives its Name from the Form of its Mouth, resembling that of an Hawk's beak; the upper Jaw hanging more over the under Jaw than in the other Kinds. As the green Turtle is most valued far the Food it affords, this is next in Esteem for the usefulness of its Shell, so well known in Mechanick Uses. The Strength and Beauty of the Shell is sufficient dent to distinguish it from the other Kinds of Turtle, besides, their Head and Neck extended is longer than in others; the Hind-part of the Shell is narrower, and indented with sharp-pointed Notches; the Fore Legs are longer than in any of the other Kinds. These Turtle are said to feed most on a Sea Fungus, by the Inhabitants called Jews-ears.

Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749)

Facts regarding Catesby’s early years are scant. It is known that he was born in the ancient market town of Sudbury, England to a father who was a legal practitioner and mayor of Sudbury and to a mother from an old Essex family.  It seems that he received an understanding of Latin and French and was familiar with the eminent naturalist Reverend John Ray. Following his father’s death, he was endowed with the means to pursue his interest in the natural history of North America.

Catesby arrived in Virginia in 1712 as the guest of his sister and her husband, Dr. William Cocke, an aid the Governor of the colony.  Soon he was acquainted with the well-connected William Byrd, a Fellow of the Royal Society whose diary contains passages discussing Catesby’s strong curiosity with all things relating to North America. 

This included plants native to the fields and woods of Virginia through which Catesby traveled, collecting examples of botanical specimens unfamiliar in England, which he illustrated and sent back to his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll and the apothecary and botanist, Samuel Dale.

Catesby’s first trip to the New World was extensive and included a visit to Jamaica. Although he felt that his approach to a larger understanding of its natural history was lacking in structure, his experience would inform his future expeditions. 

Following his return to London in 1719 Catesby resolved to return to the colonies and gather additional information for his illustrated Natural History... He gained the financial support of members of the local scientific community, many of who were members of the Royal Society keen to send a naturalist to Carolina who could provide an accurate account of its resources.  Among those who belonged to the Royal Society was William Sherard, who after examining Catesby’s drawings, was key in advancing the project. With further backing by Sir Hans Sloane, court physician and naturalist whose collection would form the basis for The British Museum, Catesby sailed to Carolina in 1722.

Catesby’s four years of travels following his second arrival in North America brought him throughout South Carolina, parts of Georgia, and the Bahamas. He was 

intent on visiting the same location at different times throughout the year in order to observe his subjects as they developed. In addition to gathering botanical specimens of potential horticultural importance, he also acquired birds and other creatures.  

Catesby’s patrons in London were eager to receive examples of the varieties of plants and animals he encountered but collecting, packaging, and sending them back to England served as a distraction to his intended Natural History...  Nevertheless, he continued to observe, paint, and write descriptions of the previously un-investigated wildlife he encountered on the shores and in the swamps, woods, and fields of the middle American colonies.

Catesby returned to England from his final voyage to America in 1726 and spent the next seventeen years preparing his Natural History... He envisioned his work containing colored plates reproducing his studies from nature in a substantial, folio-sized format, an achievement nearly unprecedented in earlier natural history publications. Catesby arranged for financing in the form of an interest-free loan from the Quaker Peter Collinson, a fellow of the Royal Society. Nevertheless, the cost of paying professionals to prepare his delineations on copper plates for printing was too great. To this end, with the assistance of Joseph Goupy (1689–1769), a French artist living in London, he taught himself to etch.  In addition to producing nearly all of the plates for his publication, Catesby closely supervised the coloring of the engravings, either painting the impressions himself or closely overseeing the work to insure its fidelity to his preparatory work. To further finance the project Catesby sold subscriptions, offering his book in sections of 20 plates to be published every four months.

The first volume of Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands, containing one hundred plates, was completed in 1731 and no doubt facilitated his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in February, 1733. The second volume, also containing one hundred plates, was finished in 1743 and was supplemented with twenty plates based on information sent to Catesby by John Bartram and others in in America appeared in 1746–1747. Of the approximately 180 - 200 copies of the first edition produced, roughly 80 copies remain complete and accounted for and there are an unknown number in private collections. A second edition was issued by George Edwards in 1754 and a third edition, published by Benjamin White, in 1771 who continued to print examples of the plates until at least 1816. As early as 1749 editions were produced for the European market with translations of the text in German, Latin, and Dutch. In these the plates for the first volume and appendix were re-etched by Johann Michael Seligmann and the plates for the second volume re-etched by Nicolaus Friedrich Eisenberger and Georg Lichtensteger.  

Catesby’s tenacity resulted in a sweeping and compelling study of American plants, animals, and marine life native to little documented lands in which he strove to assign scientific nomenclature to his subjects. Indeed, Linnaeus, in his 1758 Systema Naturae, made use of much information brought to light by Catesby using it as the foundation of his system of binomial nomenclature for American species.

Throughout the production of his Natural History…Catesby lived in London with his Elizabeth Rowland with whom he had four children and married in 1747, before his death in 1749.

 *From James L. Reveal’s Identification of the plants and animals illustrated by Mark Catesby for The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands in the appendix of The Curious Mr. Catesby, University of Georgia Press.

Description compiled by Erik Brockett who is pleased to provide additional information relating to this or other examples of the work of Mark Catesby available at Arader Galleries. He can be contacted at erikbrockett@aradergalleries.com

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