CATESBY, Mark (1683 – 1749) Vol.II, Tab. 63, The Alligator, The Mangrove-Tree

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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 9 of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands
London: 1739 - 1771

Currently known as the American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis and red mangrove tree, Khizophora mangle*, Catesby described these subjects as follows:

LACERTUS omnium maximus, Crocodilus dictus.

The Alligator.

The Largeness, Strength, and terrible Appearance of this formidable Animal, occasioning to be to often observed and described, I conceive it less necessary to be so particular in its description as otherwise I should be in so remarkable a Creature: I shall therefore endeavour to observe some Things which have been omitted by others. They are amphibious, and tho' the largest and greatest Numbers inhabit the Torrid Zone, the Continent abounds with them ten Degrees more North, particularly as far as the River Nous in North Carolina, in the Latitude of about 33, beyond which I have never heard of any which Latitude nearly answers to the Northermost Parts of Africa, where they are likewise found. They frequent not only salt Rivers near the Sea, but Streams of fresh Water in the Upper Parts of the Country, and in Lakes of salt and fresh Water, on the Banks of which they lye lurking among Reeds, to suprise Cattle and other Animals.

In Jamaica and many Parts of the Continent they are found above twenty Foot in Length: They cannot be more terrible in their Aspect than they are formidable, and mischievous in their Natures, sparing neither Man nor Beast they can surprize, pulling them under Water, that being dead, they may with greater Facility and without Struggle, or Resistance, devour them. As Quadrupeds do not to often come in their Way, they mostly subsist on Fish, but as Providence, for the Preservation, or to prevent the Extinction, of defenceless Creatures, hath in many Instances restrain'd the devouring Appetites of voracious Animals, by some Impediment or other, so this destructive Monster, by the close Connexion of the Joints of his Vertebra, can neither swim nor run any other Ways than strait forward, and is consequently disabled from turning with that Agility, requisite to catch his Prey by Pursuit, therefore they do it by Surprize in the Water, as well as by Land; for effecting of which Nature seems in some measure to have recompensed their Want of Agility, by giving them a Power of deceiving and catching their Prey, by a Sagacity peculiar to them, as well as by the outer Form and Colour of their Body, which on Land resembles an old dirty Log or Tree, and in the Water frequently lies floating on the Surface, and there has the like Appearance, by which and his silent Artifice, Fish, Fowl, Turtle, and all other Animals are deceived, suddenly catch'd and devoured.

Carnivorous Animals get their Food with more Difficulty and lets Certainty than others, and are often necessitated to fast a long Time, which a slow Concoction enables them to endure: Reptiles particularly, by swallowing what they eat whole, digest slowly, eat seldom, and live long without Food. Wolves are said to gorge themselves with Mud, to supply the Want of better Food; for the like Cause may Alligators swallow Stones and other Substances, to distend and prevent the Contraction of their Intestines when empty, and not to help Digestion, which they seem to be in no Need of. For in the greater Number of many I have opened, nothing has appeared but chumps of Lightwood and Pieces of Pine Tree Coal, some of which weighed eight Pounds, and were reduced and wore to smooth from their first angular roughness, that they seemed to have remained in them many Months. They lay a great Number of Eggs at one Time, in the sandy Banks of Rivers and Lakes, which are hatched by the Heat of the Sun, without further Care of the Parents. The young ones so soon as they are disengaged from their Shells, betake them to the Water and shift for themselves; but while young they serve as a Prey, not only to ravenous Fish, but to their own Species. It is to be admired that so vaft an Animal should at first be contained to an Egg, no bigger than that of a Turkey.

In South Carolina they are very rat numerous, but the Northern Situation of that Country, occasions their being of a smaller Size than those nearer the Line, and they rarely attack Men or Cattle, yet are great Devourers of Hogs. In Carolina they lie torpid from about October to March, in Caverns and Hollows in the Banks of Rivers; and at their coming out in the Spring, make an hideous bellowing Noise. The Hind-part of their Belly and Tail are eat by the Indians. The Flesh is delicately white, but has so perfumed a Taste and Smell, that I could never relish it with Pleasure. The Figure here exhibited, represents the Size and Figure of an Alligator, soon after the breaking out of the Shell.

Candela Americana, foliis Laurinis, flore tetrapetalo luteo, fructu angustiore.


These Trees vary in Height, being in some Places twenty, in others above thirty Feet high, in Proportion to the Depth or Richness of the muddy Soil in which they grow. The Bark is smooth, of a light brown, in the smaller Branches inclining to red: The Leaves are somewhat like those of the Bay, with their middle Veins yellow, having Inch long Foot-stalks: The smaller Branches are jointed at the Distance of every Inch: The Flowers grow usually two or three together, and sometimes on single Footstalks, of two or three Inches in Length, having each four yellow Petals, which before they open are covered with a greenish Calyx, dividing into four Parts; the Flower is suceeded by green succulent Substances, in Form not unlike a Pear, at the small End of which hang a single Seed, about six Inches in Length, in Form of a Bobin, with which Lace is made. These Seeds when they fall, are carried floating on the Water, and lodged on muddy Banks, where their larger Ends settle in the Mud, and take Root, the smaller Ends sprouting, as in the Figure. These Trees propagate not only by their Seeds in this Manner, but the smaller Branches falling into the Mud strike Root, and in a few Years become Trees, which increase in like Manner, and extend their Progress some Miles.

In shallow Salt Water these impenetrable Woods of Mangroves, are frequented by great Numbers of Alligators, which being too big to enter the closest Recesses of these Thickets, the smaller ones find a secure Retreat from the Jaws of their voracious Parents; These watery Woods are also plentifully stored with ravenous Fish, Turtles, and other Animals, which prey continually one upon the other, and the Alligators on them all, so that in no Place have I ever seeen such remarkable Scenes of Devastation as amongst these Mangroves, in Andros, one of the Bahama Islands, where the Fragments of half devoured Carcasses were usually floating on the Water. They grow in most Parts of the Earth under the Torrid Zone, and are found but a little North or South of the TropicksThe Hortus Malabaricus describes two or three Kinds, Vol. VI. p. 59. 61, 63, 65.

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.