As a rare book dealer in the amazing city of New York, I am always searching out and uncovering treasures. I recently made an especially remarkable acquisition – a hand-painted manuscript album prepared in 1831 from “Living specimens caught on the Island near Macau.”
Unlike other “pith” manuscripts of the period (made on paper from a plant in the Ginseng family), this was not a tourist manuscript, but one prepared for careful scientific observation and study. Given the rising tensions between China and the West, especially on account of the problematic Opium trade which would soon lead to war, scientific excursions of this sort were no doubt very dangerous.
The man who prepared the album was Rev. George Harvey Vachell of the East India Company. Vachell sent specimens to leading scientists of the day including the professor of Charles Darwin, illustrating that Macau contributed to our understanding of biology at a critical scientific period. It is rumored that Vachell was even offered the post of a botanist on the HMS Beagle Expedition in 1831, before it famously went to Darwin, leading to his Theory of Evolution by natural selection.
If you believe in the “butterfly effect” – had Vachell accepted the Beagle post – scientific history would have been irrevocably altered. What was he doing instead? Evidently, observing these lizards!
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