Three of a Kind

Patrick Wilcken

Three of a Kind

Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon

By John Hemming (Thames & Hudson 368pp £19.95)

Bates's drawing of his camp being disturbed by a caiman
Bates’s drawing of his camp being disturbed by a caiman

In 1848, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates – then unknown, self-taught naturalists in their twenties – left Liverpool, setting sail for Belém, near the mouth of the Amazon. Both had come from similarly modest backgrounds with limited formal education, but were energised by a Victorian entrepreneurial spirit. They planned to spend years collecting plants and animals in the tropics, financing their travels through the sale of specimens that they would dispatch from the Amazon back to England. The following year they were joined by the 31-year-old Richard Spruce, a schoolteacher turned botanist who was an established amateur naturalist, having already collected in the Pyrenees.

In Brazil Bates became an all-rounder: a collector, field naturalist and evolutionary theorist with a passion for insects. Spruce consolidated himself as a gifted botanist who focused on the less glamorous end of his trade – ‘bladderworts, arums, grasses, and sedges’. Wallace, on the other hand, remained an exuberant intellectual omnivore, as happy tracking down indigenous rock art as hunting for the elusive umbrella bird. Spruce did not return to England for fifteen years, and in poor health; Bates spent eleven years on the Amazon and Wallace four. Their eventful journeys, which took them thousands of miles up and down the Amazon and its main tributaries, form the backbone of this fascinating group portrait. Read more.