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Catesby, Mark. Vol.II, Tab. 60, The Bead-Snake, The Virginian Potato

Catesby, Mark. Vol.II, Tab. 60, The Bead-Snake, The Virginian Potato

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Mark Catesby

The Bead-Snake, The Virginian Potato, Vol.II, Tab. 60

Etching with hand color

14" x 19" sheet

From Volume II, Part 8 of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands

London: 1737 - 1771

Currently known as the scarletsnake, Cemophora coccinea and sweet potato, Ipomoea hatatas*Catesby described these subjects as follows:

ANGUIS niger, maculis rubris & luteis eleganter varius.

The Bead Snake.

These Snakes are usually about the Size of the Figure,some less, and some I have seen three or four Times as big. The ground Colour of them is black, deeper on the Back and fainter under the Belly: The upper Part of the Body is adorned with large Spots of a bright red Colour, between which, at regular Distances are yellow Spots. They live mostly under Ground, and are seldom seen above, but are frequently found and dug up with Potatoes, at the Time those Roots are taken out of the Ground, which is in September and October. They have nothing of a Viper, either in Form or Quality, but are very inoffensive.

Convolvulus Radice tuberoso esculento. Hist Jam. Vol. I. p. 150.

The Virginian POTATO.

This excellent Root seems to merit the Preferrence of all others, not only in Regard to the Wholsomness and Delicacy of its Food; but for its more general use to Mankind than any other Root, it being one great Part, if not the principal Subsistance of the greater Part of Africa, and is likewise in great Use, both in America and in the Southern Parts of Asia. They being of so easy Culture, so quick of Growth, and of so vast an Increase, that the propagating it, seems more agreeable to the Indolence of the Barbarians, than cultivating Grains, which require a longer Time with more Labour and Uncertainty: In all our Colonies of America as well Islands, as Continent, these Roots are in great Esteem and Use. The common white People as well as the Negro Slaves subsisting much upon them, nor are they thought unworthy a Place at principal Tables. In Virginia and to the North thereof, they are Annuals, and produce no Flowers. They plant them in March, and dig them up in October, and to prevent their rotting, keep them in Holes under Ground near their Fires: In Carolina, where the Winters are more moderate, they are not necessited to keep them so warm: And in the Bahama Islands, and other Places between the Tropicks, they are perennial and produce Flowers, yet are annually planted. The most Kinds, and best Potatoes, that I observed, were in Virginia, and because the Names, they are called by in different Colonies, are so various, I shall call them by those Names only by which they are known there.

I have observed only five Kinds of Potatoes specifically different from one another, the Common, the Bermudas, the Brimstone, the Carrot, and the Claret Potatoes.

The Common Potato is of a muddy red Colour on the outside, but being cut appears white with a reddish Cast, they commonly weigh from half a Pound, to four, five or six Pounds, usually are long, irregularly shaped and pointed at both Ends; this, is an excellent Kind, and is most planted.

The Bermudas Potato is larger and rounder than the Common, very white within, and covered with a white Skin, this is a tender find, requiring more Warmth in keeping, and a different Culture from the rest, this is the most delicate Sort, but not so much planted as the Common Potato, because of its not keeping so well. This Potato only produces a white Flower, the Flowers of the other Kinds being purple.

The Brimstone Potato grows to a large Size, and is shaped like the Common, the Colour of it both given its Name, and in Goodness it is esteemed next to the Common.

The Carrot Potato is named so, from its Colour both without and within, being like that of a Carrot, these grow to a very large Size, and are of great Increase, tho' of little Esteem, being the most insipid.

The Claret Potato seems to be propagated more as a Curiosity than for any peculiar Excellence it hath. The Colour of it without and within is that of Claret.

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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