Catesby's second trip to America lasted only four years but was
amazingly productive in spite of his sponsors' seemingly incessant
demands for specimens. Catesby felt their requests interfered with
the very work they were supporting as collecting and shipping duplicate
specimens and copying his watercolors for individual subscribers
took time from his collecting and drawing new species.
1 His situation was made even more difficult by the unreliability
of shipping then. Storms and pirates threatened the vessels, and
thirsty sailors often drank the rum which Catesby used to preserve
his snakes, reptiles and amphibians!
Catesby's second trip to America began in Charles Town, South Carolina,
where he landed in 1722. Regretting the unstructured nature of his
first collecting visit, Catesby carefully planned this one, timing
his specimen collecting trips so that he would see each region in
a different season. In this way, he was able to record the buds,
flowers and seeds of plants and the migration patterns of birds.
He traveled up the Savannah River "140 miles up Country" to the
frontier outpost of Fort Moore, near present day Augusta, Georgia.
He also studied the wide coastal plain.
The startling number and variety of new species forced Catesby
to further refine his methods of study. His long-held fascination
with botany probably combined with his awareness of his sponsors'
commercial interests, to prompt him to first turn his attention
His next choice of subject, birds, was determined by his botanical
interest as he saw birds as "having oftenest relation to the Plants
on which they feed and frequent."
4 Plants and birds are the sole subjects of his first volume.
He delayed his in-depth study of marine life until he reached the
Bahamas in 1725. He devoted the rest of his stay in America to the
study of snakes, other reptiles and amphibians. He thought that
North American mammals too closely resembled European ones to justify
portraying any but those as yet untreated by other naturalists.
Whenever possible, Catesby painted from life. This innovation gave
many of his prints their dynamic quality. Catesby was unassisted
for much of this work in the field. He did write Sherard requesting
funds to buy a "Negro Boy" but there is no record that he did so
nor further mention of the subject.
5 He did enlist the help of Native Americans on several occasions
and in several capacities, from that of guide to that of porter.
6 Judging from his writing in the Natural History, Catesby
is indebted to Native Americans for a good deal of his knowledge
of and exposure to particularly elusive plants and animals.
He also turned his observer's eye on the
native peoples. The
results of the early anthropology were mixed as the reader can see,
particularly in Volume II's "An Account of Carolina and the Bahama
Islands." Catesby did insist on observing them first hand and rejected much of the sensationalist lore surrounding them, he failed to distinguish between different tribes.
Catesby also showed a keen interest in how African slaves
used the local plants, as well as those imported from Africa, to
supplement their meager diets.
While Catesby was impressed and enlightened by the agricultural
and botanical knowledge of Native Americans and enslaved Africans
and African-Americans, he was dismayed by the lack of interest of
most European colonists for the ecosystem they were already changing.
Catesby's observations of a natural world in flux are particularly
interesting. He addresses changes in the environment in "An Account
of Carolina and the Bahama Islands" as well as in his descriptions
of individual species. In his page on the rice-bird Catesby considers
how the migratory patterns of the rice-bird are altered by the cultivation
of the foreign species rice.
7 According to Catesby, the natural world was not a garden
which only needed to be harvested, though to be sure, his descriptions
of nature's plenty often seem Edenic. Nor was it simply a violent
wilderness in need of man's taming hand, though again, many of his
descriptions such as his account of the flood depict seemingly bloodthirsty
animals intent upon carnage.
8 In Catesby's view nature was changing and changeable. At
times, this change was beneficial at other times, it came at a high
price. Catesby's anthropological work, particularly with enslaved
African-Americans and with Native Americans in the Natural History
obliquely addresses his concern with migration, the creation of
new communities and their costs and benefits. His attention to such
matters is interesting in light of his own role in facilitating
the exchange both as an importer of seeds and plants and as an advocate
of the New World's "products" as he called nature's bounty.