CATESBY, Mark (1683 – 1749) Vol.II, Tab. 34, The Sea Hermit Crab

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Painted and etched by Mark Catesby (1638 - 1749)
Etching with hand color, paper dimensions: approximately 19 x 14 inches
From Volume II, Part 7 of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands
London: 1736 - 1771

Currently known as the giant or sea hermit crab, Petrochirus diogenes and angular sea-whip, Pterogorgia cf anceps*, Catesby described these subjects as follows:

The Structure of Crabs and other crustaceous Fish is so intricate, they being composed of so many irregular Parts that an exact description without the Figure would be very tedious to the Reader, I shall therefore content my Self to describe them in fewer Words, yet sufficient to distinguish them from others of the same Tribe; hoping the Figures will make amends for any Defiencies in the Descriptions.

CANCELLUS maximus Bahamensis.

The Sea Hermit Crab.

This Crab was eight Inches long, the Eyes when extended from their Sockets a full Inch in Length, on each Side of the Eyes was a short Horn, from the Nose proceed two Pair of Feelers, one Pair much shorter than the other and forked at their Ends, on each Side of the Mouth are a Pair of Pinchers or short Claws. It had two large scaly Claws alike in Size and Shape, having three Joints in each, the Head, Legs, Claws and Fore-part of the Body crustaceous; the Hind-part, which is the larger Part of the Body is of a tender flesh Substance, and covered with only a thin Skin, the Head is large and round, the crustacious Part of the Body short With six Ribs running Lengthways of it; a small semi-circular Shield crosses the Body at the joining of the crustacious to the tender Part; from under which and on the Back of the Fish grow two small Legs with four joints each, and forked at the Ends, a little above which grow two more such like Legs of three Joints each, above which are four more, two of a Side much longer and slenderer, having five joints a-piece; all these are set with briftly hairs. The fleshy Part of the Body is divided into eleven Parts or Joints by ten circular Membranes or Rings; it tapers and grows very small towards the Tail, which is again crustaceous: Out of it arises three crooked Claws beset with Bristles, by which the Creature holds it self fast in the Shell it hath chosen for its Habitation, by hooking these Claws into the small Turns or spiral Cavities thereof, from one Side of the fleshy Part of the Body arise four Tufts of Hair, somewhat resembling Feathers, each about two Inches long, and on the other Side are 10 or 12 small short Tufts of Hairs. These Crabs inhabit the Shells of the Buccinum magnum variegatum, Lister 359. N0 12 they abide in the shallow Parts of the Sea, near the Shores of the Bahama Islands, and like the Land Hermit Crab, get into those Shells only that are empty, not dispossessing any Fish of its Shell, and therefore have been improperly called the Soldier Crab.

Lithophyton compressum obscure lutescens marginibus purpureis asperis.

These Plants grow at the Bottom of the shallow Seas of the Bahama-Islands, some of them arrive to the Height of near three Feet, tho' most of them not above half so high; the Joints are thinner, and grow at greater Distances than any other of the Coralline kind I have observed; the Branches are somewhat flat of a dusky Yellow or Straw Colour, with a faint Stain of Purple at the Edges, which is not peculiar to this Plant, but is what a great many other Substances, besides the Sea Shrubs, are much liable to.

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.