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Catesby, Mark. Appendix Pl. 6, The Cacao Tree

Catesby, Mark. Appendix Pl. 6, The Cacao Tree

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Mark Catesby (1638 - 1749)
Etching with hand color, paper dimensions: approximately 19 x 14 inches
From the Appendix (Part 11) to Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands
London: 1747 - 1771

Currently known as the cacao, Theobroma cacao*, Catesby described this subjects as follows:



The Cacao Tree. 

The trunks of these trees are about eight inches thick, and twelve foot in height, with afliining smooth bark. The leaves grow alternately, are broad and pointed, set on flat pedicles near an inch long. The flowers put forth only from the trunk and larger branches, in clusters of about eight or ten ; each flower consisting of five capsular leaves, and five petals, with stamina and a slilus. From one of these little tufts of blossoms usually succeeds a single fruit about the bigness of a Swan's egg, but longer, more tapering, and ending in a point. The fruit hangs pendant, and, when ripe, has a shell of a purple colour, in substance somewhat like that of a pomegranate, and furrowed from end to end, containing in the middle many kernels of the size of acorns, inclosed in a mucilaginous substance, and which are known amongst us by the name of Cacoa Nuts, of which is made chocolate. 

What remains sufficient to be said of this excellent tree, is the following short transcript from an author of great observation, and whose veracity I have often experienced. Dampier, Vol. I. p. 61. 

“A Cacao-tree (says he) at its full growth is a foot and an half thick, and feven or eight feet to the branches. A well-bearing tree ordinarily has about twenty or thirty cods upon it; two crops of them are produced in a year, one in December, but the best in June. They neither ripen nor are gathered at once; but for three weeks or a month, when the season is, the Overseers of the Plantations go every day about to fee which are turn'd yellow, cutting at once it may be not above one from a tree. The cods thus gathered they lay in heaps to sweat, and then bursting the shells with their hands they pull out the nuts. There are generally near an hundred nuts in a cod. When taken out they dry them in the fun upon mats spread on the ground; after which they need no more care, having a thin hard skin of their own, and much oil, which preserves them. Salt-water will not hurt them; for we had our bags rotted, lying in the bottom of our ship, and yet the nuts never the worse. The trees are raised from nuts set in the places where they are to bear, which they do in four or five years, without transplanting. They flicker the trees while young from the fun and winds, with plantains set about them, which are destroyed by such time that the Cacao-trees are of a pretty good body, and able to endure the scorching heat of the sun.”

The Cacao-tree is a native of America, and grows in no other part of the world. The places of its growth are in the Bay of Campeachy, on Costa Rica between Portabel and Nicaragua, the coast of Caraccos, Guaiaquil, and Colima

At Jamaica, in the year 1714, I saw the remains of extensive Cacao-walks, planted by the Spaniards, when in possession of that Island; a sufficient inducement, it must be thought, for their successors to continue the same gainful agriculture; when the profits, as well as the culture of the plant, was and is still as well known to us as to the Spaniards themselves. Whatever infatuation continues to possess our countrymen in the neglect of it, 'tis certain that the balance of trade, in this branch, is considerably against us; the Spaniards, and of late the French, supplying not only us, and our northern Colonies, but all Europe with this valuable commodity, I cannot but think it deserves the consideration of the legislature; for were a method found to encourage its cultivation, our Sugar-islands (being as well adapted to the growth of it as any part of America) might not only supply our home-consumption, but come in for a share of exportation to foreign markets. 

Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749)

Facts regarding Catesby’s early years are scant. It is known that he was born in the ancient market town of Sudbury, England to a father who was a legal practitioner and mayor of Sudbury and to a mother from an old Essex family.  It seems that he received an understanding of Latin and French and was familiar with the eminent naturalist Reverend John Ray. Following his father’s death, he was endowed with the means to pursue his interest in the natural history of North America.

Catesby arrived in Virginia in 1712 as the guest of his sister and her husband, Dr. William Cocke, an aid the Governor of the colony.  Soon he was acquainted with the well-connected William Byrd, a Fellow of the Royal Society whose diary contains passages discussing Catesby’s strong curiosity with all things relating to North America. 

This included plants native to the fields and woods of Virginia through which Catesby traveled, collecting examples of botanical specimens unfamiliar in England, which he illustrated and sent back to his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll and the apothecary and botanist, Samuel Dale.

Catesby’s first trip to the New World was extensive and included a visit to Jamaica. Although he felt that his approach to a larger understanding of its natural history was lacking in structure, his experience would inform his future expeditions. 

Following his return to London in 1719 Catesby resolved to return to the colonies and gather additional information for his illustrated Natural History... He gained the financial support of members of the local scientific community, many of who were members of the Royal Society keen to send a naturalist to Carolina who could provide an accurate account of its resources.  Among those who belonged to the Royal Society was William Sherard, who after examining Catesby’s drawings, was key in advancing the project. With further backing by Sir Hans Sloane, court physician and naturalist whose collection would form the basis for The British Museum, Catesby sailed to Carolina in 1722.

Catesby’s four years of travels following his second arrival in North America brought him throughout South Carolina, parts of Georgia, and the Bahamas. He was 

intent on visiting the same location at different times throughout the year in order to observe his subjects as they developed. In addition to gathering botanical specimens of potential horticultural importance, he also acquired birds and other creatures.  

Catesby’s patrons in London were eager to receive examples of the varieties of plants and animals he encountered but collecting, packaging, and sending them back to England served as a distraction to his intended Natural History...  Nevertheless, he continued to observe, paint, and write descriptions of the previously un-investigated wildlife he encountered on the shores and in the swamps, woods, and fields of the middle American colonies.

Catesby returned to England from his final voyage to America in 1726 and spent the next seventeen years preparing his Natural History... He envisioned his work containing colored plates reproducing his studies from nature in a substantial, folio-sized format, an achievement nearly unprecedented in earlier natural history publications. Catesby arranged for financing in the form of an interest-free loan from the Quaker Peter Collinson, a fellow of the Royal Society. Nevertheless, the cost of paying professionals to prepare his delineations on copper plates for printing was too great. To this end, with the assistance of Joseph Goupy (1689–1769), a French artist living in London, he taught himself to etch.  In addition to producing nearly all of the plates for his publication, Catesby closely supervised the coloring of the engravings, either painting the impressions himself or closely overseeing the work to insure its fidelity to his preparatory work. To further finance the project Catesby sold subscriptions, offering his book in sections of 20 plates to be published every four months.

The first volume of Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands, containing one hundred plates, was completed in 1731 and no doubt facilitated his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in February, 1733. The second volume, also containing one hundred plates, was finished in 1743 and was supplemented with twenty plates based on information sent to Catesby by John Bartram and others in in America appeared in 1746–1747. Of the approximately 180 - 200 copies of the first edition produced, roughly 80 copies remain complete and accounted for and there are an unknown number in private collections. A second edition was issued by George Edwards in 1754 and a third edition, published by Benjamin White, in 1771 who continued to print examples of the plates until at least 1816. As early as 1749 editions were produced for the European market with translations of the text in German, Latin, and Dutch. In these the plates for the first volume and appendix were re-etched by Johann Michael Seligmann and the plates for the second volume re-etched by Nicolaus Friedrich Eisenberger and Georg Lichtensteger.  

Catesby’s tenacity resulted in a sweeping and compelling study of American plants, animals, and marine life native to little documented lands in which he strove to assign scientific nomenclature to his subjects. Indeed, Linnaeus, in his 1758 Systema Naturae, made use of much information brought to light by Catesby using it as the foundation of his system of binomial nomenclature for American species.

Throughout the production of his Natural History…Catesby lived in London with his Elizabeth Rowland with whom he had four children and married in 1747, before his death in 1749.

*From James L. Reveal’s Identification of the plants and animals illustrated by Mark Catesby for The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands in the appendix of The Curious Mr. Catesby, University of Georgia Press.

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