Wrestling with the Amazons

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I went to East Finchley cemetery a while ago. It was cold and damp. A few dead leaves clung soggily to the grass. It felt pretty forsaken. I stood in front of a tomb: a stolid stone pillar with a globe on top. It had been mounted so that the continent of Latin America would face the viewer. This is the monument to Henry Walter Bates, the great Victorian naturalist who, in 1848, set sail for the Amazon and remained in its ‘glorious forests’ for eleven years.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the images of England that had risen into his mind on the eve of his eventual return: ‘pictures of startling clearness’, he wrote, ‘of the gloomy winters, the long grey twilights, murky atmosphere of factory chimneys and crowds of grimy operatives, rung to work in early mornings by factory bells; of union workhouses, confined rooms, artificial cares and slavish conventionalities’.

How far his last resting place amid London suburbs feels from that ‘land of perpetual summer’ in which he passed what he thought of as the best years of his life. The real monument to Bates is not this stolid pillar. It is the memoir which, encouraged by Darwin (whom Bates helped enormously – not least with his theory of mimicry which provided evidence of evolution by natural selection), he wrote of his time in Brazil. The Naturalist on the River Amazons, first published by John Murray in 1863, was, Darwin declared, ‘the best work of natural history travels ever published in England’.

The mid-nineteenth century was a remarkable era for the naturalist. No one had yet explained how life on earth, in all its eye-stretching diversity, had evolved. The tropical rain forests, the world’s richest and most intricate terrestrial ecosystem, remained a teeming mystery.

Imagine what it must have been like for the 23-year-old Bates, a hosier’s apprentice from Leicester with a passion for beetles but no academic credentials (bar a short paper ‘On Coleopterous

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About the contributor

Rachel Campbell-Johnston is the art and poetry critic for The Times. She lived for more than a year in the Amazon in the company of H. W. Bates and other exotic creatures.

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