You could never accuse Charles Waterton of inconsistency. Over five years, he sent nineteen articles to the Magazine of Natural History, attacking Audubon, his friends, his supporters, his associates and there is every chance, given time, he would have got around to having a go at his bootmaker or his dog. Some of the criticism is measured and considered, but the majority of it comes across as the crazed ramblings of an eccentric English country squire. Which comes as no great surprise, because that’s just what they are.
Waterton’s Roman Catholic family had held great tracts of land in Yorkshire prior to the Norman Conquest and, as Waterton puts it in his memoir,
‘… things had gone swimmingly for the Watertons,’
up until the days of King Henry VIII, when that King fixed his eyes on a buxom lass but was refused permission to marry her by the Pope, so he ‘became exceedingly mischievous’ and caused himself to be made head of the Church, whereupon,
“… he suppressed all the monasteries, and squandered their revenues amongst gamesters, harlots, mountebanks, and apostates.”
After their Reformation, the new religionists made the Watertons pay a penalty of twenty pounds a month for refusing to hear a married parson read the prayers in a church stripped of its altar, its crucifix, its chalice and its tabernacle. Waterton’s grandfather was jailed at York for supporting the hereditary right of kings, in the person of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and had his horses confiscated by the magistrates, although they offered to sell him one back, provided it was worth less than £5 – the laws forbade Catholics from owning a horse worth more than that amount – and when ‘Dutch William’ took the throne, that ‘sordid foreigner’ doubled the taxes paid by Catholics.
|Stonyhurst College, Hurst Green, Lancashire|
In 1796, young Waterton was sent to school at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, which had just been signed over to the Jesuits, making Waterton one of the earliest pupils to attend. In the woods and fields around Hurst Green, Waterton was able to give his love of nature its full rein, and the Jesuits encouraged his interests as well as inculcating a love of literature in their charge.
|Gateway at Walton Hall|
His master, Father Clifford, predicted that nothing would keep Waterton at home and that he would travel to many far distant lands. Clifford also made him promise that he would never drink wines or spirits, a promise he kept throughout his life, (when, in 1824, he built a wall, three-miles long and nine feet high, around his Walton Hall estate, at a cost of £9,000 (£2.4 million in today’s money), he said he paid for it with ‘the wine I do not drink’).
|The Grotto, Walton Hall|
When he finished his time at Stonyhurst, he returned to Walton Hall, where he spent the best part of a year riding and fox-hunting, before he went to Spain, in 1802, to visit two of his uncles, and where he experienced pestilence and an earthquake.
|Waterton and the Vigour of Nature|
In 1804, he travelled to Demerara, where another uncle had a plantation, and delighted in the natural history of Guiana, and after returning to England in 1806, following his father’s death, he made four more journeys to the Americas, which he wrote about in his Wanderings in South America, the North-West of the United States and the Antilles (1825).
|Charles Waterton - Wanderings in South America, the North-West of the United States and the Antilles - 1825 (2nd Ed. 1828)|
The book was very popular at the time, and in it Waterton foregoes the guide-book style of travel writing and instead gives detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna he encountered, providing, for instance, the first accounts of the giant ant-eater, the sloth and the toucan.
|Wrestling a Cayman|
Perhaps the most famous incident in the Wanderings is his capture of a live cayman, ten and a half feet in length, which was hooked in a river and onto which Waterton threw himself, wrestling its forelegs behind its back,
‘thus they served me for a bridle … he continued to plunge and strike, and made my seat very uncomfortable. It must have been a fine sight for an unoccupied spectator.’
The creature was taken back to Waterton’s camp where, after breakfast, it was killed and dissected. In another incident, when surprised by a boa, Waterton put his fist into his hat and punched the snake in its open jaws.
|Punching a Snake|
When he returned to Walton Hall, he published a collection of writings Essays on Natural History, chiefly Ornithology (1838), and established what is regarded as the world’s first nature reserve, forbidding hunting and fowling on his estates. He was also the inventor of the artificial nesting box, which he placed in the trees around Walton, and in buying a telescope, with which to watch the birds on his estate, he has a claim to be the world’s first birdwatcher.
|Charles Waterton - Essays on Natural History, chiefly Ornithology - 1838|
Although he hated the term, he became known as the ‘eccentric squire’, which was probably deserved – he had a habit of ducking below the dinner table and biting his guests’ legs, in the manner of a dog. The fashion of the day was for men to wear their hair long – Waterton wore his hair closely cropped. When in Rome, he climbed to the cross that served as a lightning conductor on the dome of St Peter’s basilica, and left his gloves upon it; when Pope Pius VII asked him to remove them, he climbed back up again and did so.
|Walton Hall estate|
In an attempt to ‘navigate the atmosphere’ (i.e. fly), he jumped from the roof of an outhouse, only to hit the ground with a ‘foul shak.’ He was a skilled taxidermist (the final chapter of his Wanderings is as good an introduction to the art as you are ever likely to find), and he prepared the skin of a red howler monkey, which he called the ‘Nondescript’, said by some to be a caricature of an enemy, Treasury Secretary J R Lushington.
But it was not all madness. When in Guiana, he taught taxidermy to a black slave, John Edmonstone, who moved first to Glasgow and then Edinburgh when he gained his freedom, and where he in turn taught taxidermy to the University students, including one Charles Darwin. Both Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace acknowledged that, as boys, they were inspired to study natural history after reading Waterton’s Wanderings.
He introduced the valuable medicine curare into England, which he had seen the peoples of South America using in their blowpipes, and also introduced the Little Owl into this country. In 1829, at the age of 47, he married Anne Edmondstone, who was 17 at the time. She died in childbirth a year later, Waterton blamed himself and, as penance, thereafter slept on the bare floor with an oak block as a pillow. He can also lay claim to be one of the first environmentalists, as he fought and won a legal battle against a soap manufacturer whose factory was polluting the waters surrounding Walton Hall.
In spite of his wrestling caymen, punching boas, surviving earthquakes and plagues, he died at 83, when he tripped over a briar root, broke his ribs and injured his liver. He was buried between two oak trees on his Walton estate.
Waterton’s only son, Edmund, failed to keep up his father’s works. He opened up Walton to shooting parties, in an attempt to clear his debts, and eventually sold the estate to Edward ‘Soapy’ Simpson, the same polluting manufacturer that his father had defeated in the legal case.