CATESBY, Mark (1683 – 1749) Vol.II, Tab. 38, The green Turtle

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

Currently known as the green sea turtle, Chelonia mydas and turtlegrass, Thalassia testudinum*, Catesby described these subjects as follows:

Of the different Kinds of Sea-Tortoise, with their Properties in general.

The Sea-Tortoise is by our Sailors vulgarly called Turtle, whereof there re four distinct kinds: The green Turtle, the Hawks-bill, the Logger- head Turtle and the Trunk Turtle. They are all eatable, but the green Turtle is that which all the maritime Inhabitants in America, that live between the Tropicks, subsist much upon. They much excell the other kinds of Turtle, and are in great Esteem for the wholesome and agreeable Food they afford.

All Sorts of Turtle except the Loggerhead Turtle are timorous and make little Resistance when taken, but in Time of Coition all the kinds are very furious and regardless of Danger: The male Copulates by the help of two Horns or Claws under his fore-Fins, by which he holds and clings to the fleshy Part of the Neck of the Female: They usually continue in Copulation above 14 Days: They have four Legs, which are of much greater Use to them as Fins to swim with, than as Legs to walk with, which they do awkwardly and with slow Pace. They never go on Shoar but to lay their Eggs, which is in April; they then crawl up from the Sea above the flowing of high Water, and dig a Hole above two Feet deep in the Sand, into which they drop in one Night above an hundred Eggs, at which Time they are so intent on Natures Work that they regard none that approach them, but wilt drop their Eggs into a Hat if held under them, but if they are disturbed before they begin to lay, they will forsake the Place and seek another. They lay their Eggs at three, and sometimes at four different Times, there being fourteen Days between every Time, so that they hatch and creep from their Holes into the Sea at different Times also: When they have laid their Complement of Eggs they fill the hole with Sand, and leave them to be hatched by the Heat of the Sun, which is usually performed in about three Weeks.

TESTUDO marina viridis.

The green Turtle.

There are great Plenty of this Kind of Turtle amongst the Bahama-Islands, yet none breed there, they come from Cuba and the Continent. Their Eggs, which differ much, and are plainly distinguishable from those of the other Kinds, being never found there; whereas most of these Islands do plentifully abound with the Eggs of the others. This Kind is preferred to the Rest, and is esteemed a very Wholsome and delicious Food: It receives its Name from the Fat of it being of a green Colour. Sir Hans Sloane has informed us in his Natural History of Jamaica, that 40 Sloops are employed by the Inhabitants of Port Royal in Jamaica for the catching them: Their Markets are supplyed with Turtle as ours in England are with Butchers Meat. The Bahamians carry many of them to Carolina where they turn to good Account, not because that plentiful Country wants provision, but they are esteemed there as a rarity, and for the Delicacy of their Flesh. They feed on a Kind of Grass growing at the Bottom of the Sea commonly called Turtle Grass.

Alga marina, graminea anguistissima folio. Hist. Jam. 61. – Vol.I

This Plant grows in shallow Water; several grassy narrow Blades shoot from a stringy fibrose Socket, Socket, which arises from the Root, fixed at the Bottom of the Sea.

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.