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Something older: notes on early naturalists and the natural history of South China and Hong Kong

by Kerrie L. MacPherson

It may be of interest to readers of Porcupine to pursue the Lepidoptera and Coleoptera (and naturalists) of south China a bit further into the past. One of the first naturalists to cast his net around Hong Kong was John C. Bowring, eldest son of the Governor, Sir John Bowring, F. R. S. and F. Linn. Soc. Sir John began his varied career as a linguist, philosophical radical, free trader and member of Parliament before the lack of pecuniary wherewithal forced him into the diplomatic trade. He served as the British Consul at Canton (Guangzhou) and the superintendent of trade in China before he was appointed governor of Hong Kong in 1854. John junior’s vocation was mercantile but his avocation was the flora and fauna of Hong Kong. He was a great fancier of the beetle (it was said he paid 1000 dollars for a single specimen from South America) and whether for love or money he assembled a stunning array of butterflies, moths and beetles that he donated to the British Museum. Robert Swinhoe, naval officer, China consul and naturalist par excellence (more about him later) dubbed him the best entomologist this side of the Cape.

John C., when not occupied by trade or insects, was also a noted botanist an interest he shared with his dad. The two Bowrings were suitably honoured for their plant collections by no less than Sir W. J. Hooker of Kew fame who proposed the genus name Bowringia for the arborescent fern of Hong Kong, B. insignis (Kew Journ. Bot. V (1853) 236). According to Hooker, the Messrs Bowrings were ‘n`no less distinguished for their love of literature than for their patronage of science’ and ‘have contributed largely to our knowledge of the Natural History of Hong Kong'.’. However, Hooker overlooked the fact that another ardent naturalist of the flora of Hong Kong, John George Champion of the 95th regiment had proposed in the previous year, a new genus name Bowringia callicarpa to honour his good friend and fellow plant gatherer, John C. (Kew Journ. Bot. IV (1852) 75). This gaff was corrected in 1856, and happily another noted Hong Kong fern collector C. J. Braine, who donated many living plants to Kew, was justly compensated by lending his name to that new genus of arborescent fern renamed - Brainea insignis.

Although Sir John was less distinguished as a naturalist in the botanical field than his son, he garnered fame (or notoriety) as the close friend, confidant, and ultimately executor of the estate of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham of course was best known for his views on law and prison reform and founder of the philosophy of ‘utilitarianism’ that he promoted along with Bowring senior in his journal, the Westminster Review. Bentham, while sorting out the ‘laws of man’ and the ‘laws of nature’ like other great minds of his era, was also a bit of a word vender. He coined terms like ‘international’ (where would today’s scientific congresses be without it?) and ‘physiurgic somatology’ as a substitute for ‘natural history’ which he thought was a misnomer. Fortunately for us it didn’t catch on.

Jeremy’s relations fared better in the naming game with his nephew George Bentham, who became one of the greatest taxonomists of the century. His eight volume opus, Flora Hongkongensis (1861) was partially based on 500 to 600 species of phaenogamous plants and ferns placed in his hands by John George Champion on his return to England in 1851. The volumes firmly contradicted first impressions of Hong Kong as a ‘barren rock’ as few islands contain as varied or extensive a flora as Hong Kong. Many plants in Hong Kong today thanks to George, thus bear as part of their moniker Championii.

Champion was also fascinated by the Coleoptera of Hong Kong a passion he shared with another companion at arms and fellow explorer of south China’s biodiversity, Robert Swinhoe. Between his military duties and naval diplomacy, Swinhoe wrote prodigiously for all the scientific journals describing everything that moved or grew along the China coast. Born in Calcutta in 1836, educated at King's’s College, London, Swinhoe matriculated in 1853 at that ‘godless institution’, the University of London (later University College, London). Founded by religious dissenters and liberals in 1826 as a foil to the High Church crowd at Oxford and Cambridge, many of the best scientific minds lectured there. Jeremy Bentham even bequeathed himself to the University. Following his detailed instructions his friends conducted the postmortem, reconstructed his skeleton, dressed it in his clothes, stuck a wax model of his head on the effigy and placed it in a glass-fronted case where it is preserved (along with the original head) to this day.

Swinhoe, suitably educated for a life dedicated to the pursuit of science, was sent out to Hong Kong at the tender age of eighteen as a student interpreter for the Consular Service. He was transferred to the treaty port of Amoy (Xiamen) and helped to found the short-lived but active Scientific Society of Amoy, presenting an important paper on the zoology of the area. His best known works concerned the island of Formosa (Taiwan) where he served as vice-consul, forwarding his plant specimens to Kew, and his Lepidoptera to a man that took butterflies very seriously, Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of the theory of evolution). Wallace and Frederic Moore (assistant curator of the India Museum, London) described them in the Proceedings, Zoological Society of London (1866). The collection of butterflies though small (forty-six diurnal and ninety-three nocturnal), contained five new species one of which was appropriately named Euploea swinhoei after its captor.

Swinhoe’s contributions to zoology (particularly ornithology) were remarkable, publishing 37 papers alone in the Proc. Zool. Soc. between 1861-70. His collections of specimens from China were studied by the great zoologists of his day such as John Gould (birds), Henry Adams (mollusks), Albert Günther (fish) and Frederic Moore (insects). Yet it was his ‘biogeography’ of the islands of the South China Sea that caught the interest of Wallace who was developing his theory (like Darwin) of the geographical distribution of species that could move beyond patterns in time and space to encompass process or organic change.

Wallace (unlike Darwin) was largely self-educated, voraciously reading through all the scientific literature held in the libraries of local mechanics institutes where he also imbibed the radical philosophy of reformers like Robert Owen. Owen’s New Lanark experiment was based on his conviction that men’s characters are molded by their environments, an idea he shared with Jeremy Bentham his chief investor. The environment of the Malay Archipelago where Wallace spent eight years (1854-62), molded his own thinking on the problem of distinguishing species from varieties (his sale of specimens helped to support his family and he became a whiz at classification). Not surprisingly for a man who knew over eight thousand species of insects alone, Wallace came to the concept of evolutionary change based on a statistical appreciation of natural populations.

Swinhoe’s butterflies, his descriptions of Formosa or Hainan and the work of many other naturalists, provided further fuel and substance for Wallace’s understanding of the origin of new species by adaptation. Wallace’s classic treatise on island biogeography, Island Life (1880) was a synthesis of a vast amount of information, structured on evolution, of the distribution and dispersal of living and extinct island fauna which Darwin adopted. The emergence of the theory of evolution was inextricably linked to the growing knowledge of the geographical distribution of species to which Hong Kong’s and south China’s first naturalists discussed in this essay, made an enduring contribution.

See Emmett Easton, ‘Something Old and Something Rare: The Work of One of South China’s Earliest Naturalists’, at





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