Caribbean Beat Magazine

A Very True Observer: Philip Henry Gosse

Mary Adam explores the life and work of Philip Henry Gosse: "the father of Jamaican ornithology"

  • Yellow-crowned Elaenia (Alania Cotta [Myiopagis cotta]) Photograph courtesy National Library of Jamaica
  • Long-tailed Humming-bird, male (Trochilus polytmus). Photograph courtesy National Library of Jamaica
  • Hunter (Piaya pluvialis [Hyetornis pluvialis]) Photograph courtesy National Library of Jamaica
  • Red-throated Blue Tanager (Tanagrella ruficollis). Photograph courtesy National Library of Jamaica
  • Blue Quit (Euphonia jamaica [Pyrrhuphonia jamaica]) Photograph courtesy National Library of Jamaica

Life was not easy for Philip Henry Gosse in the early 1840s. He trained for a career as a naturalist, but it was a tough way to make a living.

Shy and retiring, he had been interested in natural history since childhood. He had worked hard and by the age of 34 he had already published popular scientific books and had contributed papers to the Royal Society. But he was almost broke.

When a commercial dealer suggested that he should go to the West Indies to collect exotic insects and other specimens, he agreed; and so he boarded a ship bound for Jamaica on October 20, 1844. Gosse spent 18 of the happiest months of his life in Jamaica, and he did indeed collect insects, some 7,800 of them. But his real interests lay elsewhere.

He had stern and passionate views on the natural history of the time, feeling that it was too much a science of dead things; of objects “all shrivelled and stiffened . . . their limbs, members, and organs measured, and the results recorded in thousandths of an inch.” Instead, he wanted to observe and record the habits of living things in a state of nature, while their “attitudes are full of the elegance and grace that free, wild nature assumes.”

Before long he became entranced with the variety of strange and beautiful birds that he saw in Jamaica. Subsequently he published three books: Birds of Jamaica in 1847, Illustrations of the Birds of Jamaica in 1849, and A Naturalist’s Sojourn in Jamaica in 1851. His books were well received at the time but none of them was ever reprinted and all are rare today.

By a happy turn of events, nearly 150 years later Gosse’s work attracted the attention and scholarship of D. B. Stewart, himself a keen ornithologist, who at the time was professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of the West Indies in Mona, Jamaica. Stewart became fascinated by the life and work of this little-known but outstanding naturalist. He compiled a single volume from Gosse’s three books, selecting the best from each for the benefit of present-day readers who would be unable to consult the originals, and adding short, rich biographies of Gosse and his associates. The result, Gosse’s Jamaica 1844-45, is a treasure, not only for its historical value and for the charm and force of Gosse’s writing, but also because some of his observations are sufficiently unique and strange to be of continuing interest today. As Dr Stewart says, Gosse was one of the first zoologists to study animal behaviour; observant and astute as he was, he saw some exceedingly interesting things.

Gosse arrived in Jamaica on December 5, 1844. He asked to be put ashore at Port Royal on the tip of the Palisadoes instead of going into Kingston with the other passengers, despite having spent nearly two months at sea.

This decidedly odd request may have stemmed from his solitary nature — he didn’t care much for towns. It is doubtful that he ever went to Kingston until over a year later, and then only when he heard of the work of Dr Anthony Robinson, a surgeon who had studied Jamaica’s birds nearly a century before and whose valuable unpublished manuscripts and illustrations were in the Library of the Jamaica Society in Kingston. (He confesses that he found the Palisadoes barren enough. However, he did collect his first specimen there. Also, he was short of cash and may have been worried about expenses in Kingston.)

Two weeks later, Gosse settled on the ideal location for his purpose. This was the Bluefields district in south-west Jamaica, not far from Savanna-La-Mar but very far from Kingston (several days by sailboat). He lodged at Bluefields House for the next 18 months, with Mr and Mrs Coleman, Moravian missionaries.

The countryside around Bluefields had everything that a naturalist could wish for, especially a great range of habitats – sandy seashore, coral reefs, mangrove swamps, caves, abandoned sugar estates, pasture land, dry stone walls (harbouring spiders and reptiles and myriapods in their crevices), secondary woodland, mountains, bamboo groves, coffee and citrus, virgin forest, and a freshwater stream meandering through the property. The entire area abounded with wildlife. Not least, the Colemans provided him with a large workroom for the preparation of his specimens, probably underneath the main house.

The Author’s Preface and the first nine chapters of Gosse’s Jamaica are taken from the Sojourn. In them Gosse shows his powers of observation and his talent for vivid, picturesque description. But it is in the excerpts from the Birds that we begin to understand what manner of man Gosse really was, the true extent of his gifts. He had an uncanny ability to figure out what birds were doing — which is not at all easy, as anyone who has tried it will know.

Stewart cross-checked Gosse’s accounts with modern authorities, rearranged the birds to fit today’s classification system, and added helpful facts and comments throughout the text. He wisely chose to omit Gosse’s detailed descriptions of the forms and colours of the birds and their measurements, all of which are available in modern popular books. He opted instead for Gosse’s field notes, his extended accounts of bird behaviour, which go beyond what can be found in standard sources — or even, perhaps, in any source, given that some of his observations are almost certainly unique.

Gosse worked tirelessly. There is no evidence that he had any social life or that he wanted any. He was happy in the seclusion of Bluefields; but his favourite spot was even more remote, a lonely, forested mountain trail between Bluefields and Rotherwood which he liked for its coolness as well as for its solitude.

He rose early, two hours before dawn, and went out on horseback, often with his assistant Samuel Campbell (Sam), a young Jamaican whom he hired early inJ anuary 1845 at a salary of four shillings a week. They quickly developed a relationship of mutual respect and affection.

Mornings were taken up with collecting and observing, while the afternoons were usually spent in the workroom, preserving beetles, butterflies, snails, birds, plants and so on; dissecting, writing up notes, observing captive live specimens, drawing and illustrating. He went back outdoors in the late afternoon, often staying well into the night, when a whole new set of creatures was abroad — frogs, owls, bats, fireflies. Most of his notes were made “on the spot, in the midst of the animated beings which they describe”.

Early in 1846, when he had been in Jamaica for over a year, he wrote to Richard Hill, a magistrate in Spanish Town and a keen naturalist. Thereafter they corresponded frequently and became lifelong friends. Hill, who had been active in the campaign to abolish slavery and who was later appointed to the Privy Council, communicated his own extensive notes in letters to Gosse, and told him about Dr. Robinson’s manuscripts – which finally induced Gosse to tear himself away from his beloved Bluefields.

He visited Hill in Spanish Town in March 1846 and together they went to Kingston to compare their notes with those of Dr. Robinson. Gosse quotes many of Hill’s contributions verbatim, and in fact he credited Hill as co-author. But Gosse took nothing for granted, and whenever possible verified the observations for himself — or sometimes added something he had seen which amplified or altered Hill’s conclusions. His obsession with accuracy gives his work enduring value.

Gosse devoted himself to recording “the condition of living things, of things in a state of nature … their songs and cries; their actions, in ease and under the pressure of circumstances; their affections and passions, towards their young, towards each other, towards other animals, towards man; their various arts and devices, to protect their progeny, to procure food, to escape from their enemies, to defend themselves from attacks; their ingenious resources for concealment”, and so on. This was his self-appointed task and Gosse’s Jamaica shows how well he succeeded.

It is stuffed with fascinating bits of information, facts and anecdotes, some of them startling or even sensational, some of them delightful, others merely mundane (the samples given here barely scratch the surface).

He noted that the White-Winged Grebe (Least Grebe) dives underwater “with the quickness of thought”, this being its chief resource for concealment. Gosse was unable to obtain a specimen until he hid himself and his shotgun behind a bush. He inferred that the Grebes took alarm at the small but sudden motion of the falling hammer of the gun.

At the either extreme he commented on the curiosity of the Rainbird (Jamaican Lizard Cuckoo), which has the remarkable habit of approaching people for a closer look, “watching our motions with much apparent interest” (and bringing to mind those jokey cartoons of birds with binoculars in Gary Larson’s Far Side). He even recorded a hummingbird hovering within a foot of his eyes, peeping interestedly under the brim of his panama hat.

Most birds are more wary, flying away or otherwise making themselves scarce at the least hint of danger. But, as Gosse records, they have all sorts of temperaments — shy and retiring (like himself), or fearless, or suspicious; solitary or gregarious or merely social; cunning, pugnacious, fierce, mischievous. He notes the great variation in flying ability among species, some being feeble or laborious on the wing, while others are strong fliers, such as the Bald-Fate (White-Crowned Pigeon), which he often saw “just before nightfall . . . rushing along with arrowy swiftness in a straight line to some distant wood.”

One of Gosse’s recurring themes is the “unremitting industry” of his birds. No doubt, being a workaholic himself, he recognised the symptoms in other species. He identifies the food of different species, often from the stomach contents, and their varying means of obtaining it. (Ever the collector, he recounts finding in the stomach of one the “fragments of a brilliant little Buprestid, the possession of which I envied it.”)

A captive Green Tody (Jamaican Tody) “searched for prey industriously” — he judged that it captured one insect per minute. He sees a snipe probing for food in the mud of a swamp and says, “So absorbed is the bird in its occupation, that I have shouted aloud, without its taking any notice; nor when its eye at last caught the motion of my hand, did it more than run, somewhat leisurely, away.” (This seems unusual for a snipe, so maybe this one was getting old and was hard of hearing — some wild birds can live for 20 years or more.) The tiny Vervain Hummingbird flits from flower to flower, “exactly in the manner of the honey-bee, and with the same business-like industry and application.” Birds work for their living.     Now and then he links some behavioural quirk of a species to its structure. Thus, for instance, he compares the Swallow with the Green Tody. Both catch insects on the wing, but in very different ways. The Swallow spends much of its time swooping to and fro on its powerful wings hawking for insects. The Tody, on the other hand, sits on a twig, and “ever and anon sallies out upon a short feeble flight, snaps at something in the air, and returns to his twig to swallow it.

In Gosse, there is a distinct impression that some birds are mildly handicapped, or at least constrained, by their structure; and that the bird adapts its behaviour to suit — that it makes the most of what it has, so to speak. A striking instance is the case of the Ringed Gowrie (Collared Swift), which has oddly-formed legs. One of the joints cannot be properly extended so that the bird is unable to walk in the normal way. It can, however, cling to vertical surfaces, where the strong tail helps it to brace itself. Gosse quotes the following from Dr. Robinson’s manuscript: “When by any accident this bird falls to the ground, it creeps or scrambles to some rock or shrub, where bending its tail and expanding its wings, it elevates its body, and at the same time throwing its legs forward, catches hold of the rock, &c., with its claws, and climbing up to a proper height, throws itself back and recovers its wings.”

This way of looking at the link between structure and behaviour is subtly but significantly different from the adaptation concept that is so firmly entrenched in evolutionary thought today.

Gosse succeeded in conveying in words the impression of bird calls and songs, a very hard thing to do. Especially noteworthy are the peculiar noises of the “garrulous” Jabbering Crow (Jamaican Crow), “the only example I am aware of, in which the language of man is resembled by a bird in a state of nature . . . everyone who hears it is struck with its likeness to speech, though he cannot detect any known words: it is the language of a foreigner.” Or the awesome “solemn music” of the Solitaire (Rufous-throated Solitaire), heard only in deep forest high in the mountains; and the faint but sweet song of the minute Vervain Hummingbird, “his slender beak open and his spangled throat quivering, as if he would expire his little soul in the effort.” Some of Gosse’s descriptions must rank among the finest pieces of nature writing ever to appear in print.

He lavished some of his most loving detail on nests, particularly the tiny but intricate nests of hummingbirds: “The sides are tightly banded round with the threads of spiders’ webs, very neatly put on, and the whole exterior is studded with a minute whitish lichen. . . a most compact and beautiful little structure.” He never saw the nest of the Tichicro (Grasshopper Sparrow) but surmised that it was built on the ground in thick tussocks of grass. This later proved to be correct. (James Bond — the ornithologist, not the spy — says it is an arched dome situated on the ground, but how did Gosse know?) His account of a hummingbird’s method of keeping the nest clean has to be read in its entirety.

Gosse kept birds in captivity whenever he had the chance, the better to observe them at close quarters. He saw a Scarlet-fronted Gallinule (Common Gallinule) swimming underwater with its wings as well as with its feet, reminding him of a turtle  (he tied a string to its foot and let it swim in a pond). He continues, “When immersed, the whole plumage was coated with a pellicle of air, which had a singular and beautiful effect.” It sometimes kept its head underwater for so long that he feared it had drowned, “but on being touched, it raised its head uninjured.”

A young captive Screech Owl (Barn Owl) lay down to sleep, resting its head on the floor, while Long-tailed Hummingbirds (Streamertails) slept perched on lines strung across the room; when asleep the head was not under the wing but was drawn back slightly on the shoulders. He commented on the differences in personality between the individual Streamertails, “some being moody and sulky, others very timid, and others gentle and confiding from the first.” He goes on, “I have noticed this in other birds also; Doves, for instance, which manifest individuality of character, perhaps as much as men, if we were competent to appreciate it.”

If we were competent to appreciate it. This is what understand- ing animals is all about, and it was Gosse’s special and rather rare gift. Not surprisingly he sometimes saw tantalising evidence of intelligence in birds (no quotes here …you’ll have to read the book). He described such incidents with his usual accuracy and restraint, without fanfare; it was all in the day’s work. Although he expressed mild surprise and wonder, he had none of today’s scientific hang-ups about animal intelligence. Rather, he seems to have had what Pasternak called an “aristocratic sense of equality with all living creatures.” His work may be as relevant today as when it was first written, for he repeatedly shows evidence of his dedication to truth.

Gosse collected and preserved over 21,000 specimens, shipping them off in batches to a dealer, Hugh Cuming, in England. The great majority were insects and plants; some 1,500 were birds. He earned a total of £577 for his specimens. Dr. Laurence Croft of the University of Salford, who is writing a new biography of Gosse, says that Cuming, would have sold the specimens to anyone who was willing to buy. Many went to Lord Derby, a private collector. Others probably went to the British Mu-seum.

Dr Croft transcribed Gosse’s letters to Cuming from the original manuscripts in Leeds University (they are too old and fragile to be photocopied), and has kindly supplied a transcript of one, written on January 3, 1845. In it Gosse expresses anxiety about his finances (“I did not succeed in realizing the amount I expected to have at my disposal on leaving. Indeed I have now with me scarcely £50…).

Interestingly, the letter shows that he bought some shells for shipment to Cuming. And, painfully naive in matters of business, he laid himself open to exploitation by saying, “I am tormented with fears also lest what I have collected should prove to be already in the market and consequently of little mercantile value.” It’s only too easy to imagine a dealer rubbing his hands in glee.

In his Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago, Richard ffrench mentions the flourishing millinery trade of the early 19th century — it is an awful thought that some of Gosse’s hard-won specimens may have ended up as feathers in the hats of fashionable London ladies. Gosse himself may well have suffered distressing internal conflicts, for besides being a true scientist, he genuinely loved the little creatures he saw; indeed, hard up though he was, he often let captured birds go free. He would have preferred, I imagine, for all his specimens to go to museums for the benefit of science. But apparently he had no say in the matter.

Gosse was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1856 for his work on rotifers and sea anenomes. He continued to write popular scientific books and later in life produced a two-volume work on rotifers together with C. T. Hudson. He died in 1888. His son, Edmund Gosse, published a biography of his father in 1890. Many years later, in 1907, Edmund wrote the controversial Father and Son, A Study of Two Temperaments, which was considered “unfilial”. Edmund initially published it anonymously. Dr Croft’s upcoming biography will shed new light on their relationship based on his discovery of some of Gosse’s papers in Leeds.

Gosse’s grandson donated a manuscript journal to the National Library of Jamaica. To D. B. Stewart’s disappointment, it turned out to be little more than a record of Gosse’s finances while he was in Jamaica; it is not the handwritten field notes, which must have been voluminous, and which apparently are still missing.

Dr Stewart writes that the Birds of Jamaica is regarded as the ornithological classic of the English-speaking Caribbean, and that David Lack says “it was far ahead of its time and remained one of the best bird books on any part of the world for at least half a century.” Stewart also supplies a comment from Sir Richard Owen, the zoologist and comparative anatomist, a contemporary of Gosse, who said of the Sojourn, “Mr Gosse is a very true observer and a very beautiful describer of what he sees.” And in reference to an earlier book by Gosse, the Church of England Quarterly Review said, “Were we to attempt to make extracts to show the beauties of this fascinating book, we should reprint the whole.”

Gosse’s Jamaica was published by the Institute of Jamaica in 1984. It sold slowly but steadily and is now virtually out of print. The publishers still receive requests for it. A couple of hundred paperback copies were expected to be available early this year, but there were no plans for a reprint. It is the all-too-familiar fate of good books published in the Caribbean — markets are too small to be viable or publishers lack the resources for wide publicity and distribution.

It’s a shame for a book like Gosse’s Jamaica to go out of print. Its readership is limited neither to Jamaica nor to ornithologists, but extends to the wider community of people everywhere who are interested in animal behaviour, a field in which Gosse was a pioneer and in which he excelled. It is a classic of natural history writing, and may soon itself be a collector’s item — unless, of course, the Institute of Jamaica decides to reprint it.