As a boy William Swainson had only two passions: drawing and collecting. Plants, birds, shells, spiders and insects were the be all and end all of his world. His father’s periodic attempts to instill some rigour into his son’s education were of little avail. But his father cannot have been too displeased, for he himself was devoted to natural history. In him the enthusiasm was alloyed with practicality, for he was a hardworking and senior collector of customs. (He reportedly caught pickpockets by deploying fish-hooks in the pockets of his frock coat!)
William, on the other hand, dreamed of exotic creatures residing in the lushness of the tropics. In 1803, at age 14, he started work in customs, but three years later his sympathetic father found him a junior post in the Commissary-General (Supply Corps) of the British army of occupation headquartered in Palermo, Sicily. It wasn’t exactly the tropics, but it was exotic. Undeterred by any shortcomings of grammar, he wrote, illustrated and published his first book about collecting and preserving natural history specimens at age 19. Swainson’s light duties allowed him plenty of time to further his collections of plants and animals from Italy, Malta and Greece, to visit the great art galleries of Florence and Rome and to develop his talent for landscape painting and scientific illustration.
In 1815, in poor health, Swainson retired from the army on half pay and returned to Liverpool. His passion for collecting continued undiminished, however, and later that year he joined parties of German and Italian naturalists exploring the interior of Brazil, from where he despatched vast collections of indigenous plants and animals to British and French museums.
In 1820, a vacancy appeared as a keeper at the British Museum. Swainson applied for the post—backed with impressive testimonials from distinguished biologists—and fully expected to get the job. But, having no academic background, he was passed over—an acute disappointment.
He married soon afterwards, and travelled with his wife, Mary, to Paris. They spent six happy months in France, visiting galleries and theatres and sketching at the Jardin des Plantes.
Swainson often moved in exalted circles. He collected specimens for Sir William Hooker at Kew Gardens and for Sir Joseph Banks at the British Museum (the latter supported Swainson’s election to the Royal Society), and was in close touch with the professors of natural history at Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh. Among his friends he counted several of the Italian nobility, Prince Charles Napoleon, the leading French biologist Baron Cuvier, the poet and bird illustrator Edward Lear, and John Audubon, the world’s finest bird artist. From Audubon Swainson learned the new technique of colour lithography, and Audubon acted as his French interpreter when they visited the great Parisian biologist Geoffrey St Hilaire. Audubon named a North American warbler for Swainson—one of three bird species which carry his name, the others being Swainson’s hawk and Swainson’s thrush.
Returning to Britain, Swainson worked prodigiously, writing and illustrating monographs on natural history subjects Exotic Conchology, The Birds of Brazil, Elements of Conchology, Birds of Western Africa, Natural History and An-angement of the Flycatchers–and illustrating Richardson’s Fauna Borealis Americana: Birds. He also wrote and illustrated the encyclopedic Cabinet of Natural History, Taxidermy with the Biography of Zoologists, and Zoological Illustrations, published in monthly parts.
His next project was to revise the entomological part of Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Agriculture and Gardening, to be followed by a companion volume on zoology. He also wrote On the Habits and Instincts of Animals, On the History and Natural Arrangement of Insects and A Reatise on Malacology—a total of 20 books in as many years. His speed of work must have been astonishing, for all his publications were enlivened with thousands of detailed, accurate illustrations in pencil, pen, watercolour, steel engraving and litho.
At the time, there was no coloured printing, so every coloured plate in every copy sold had to have colour applied by hand—Swainson’s hand. Fortunately, print runs were short, and the plates in some volumes were uncoloured.
Everyone agreed that the quality of his illustrations was unsurpassed. But the same could not be said of his text. Long descriptive captions accompanied the sheaves of illustrations, and they contained frequent errors. William Broderip, a loyal friend and supporter, took Swainson to task for sloppy proofreading. Thirty errors in six pages was far too many, he commented on one occasion. Swainson saw such criticism as mere pedantry, and deeply resented it. Broderip persisted, and Swainson eventually ended the friendship.
He seems never to have taken criticism as something he could benefit from, but to have closed his mind against it, either ignoring or attacking the critic. When one of Swainson’s books was not well received, Broderip, in his last, futile letter to Swainson, noted that an author needs to decide whether “to pass his whole life in warfare or steadily pursue his object.”
In the course of his work, Swainson became one of the chief exponents of a cock-eyed taxonomic theory which grouped all plants and animals into fives or multiples of five—the so-called quinarian system, which Swainson describes in his Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural History (1834). Swainson, a devout Anglican, thought these groupings of plants and animals—which were circular, rather than linear or branching, as we consider taxonomic relations to be today—were ordained by God, and that by understanding them we could look into the mind of the Creator. Other biologists soon abandoned the system—especially when Charles Darwin began to shed light on the origin of species—but not Swainson. Once his mind was made up, it was not readily altered.
To judge by the many letters and diaries he left, William Swainson’s early family life was close, supportive and affectionate, even playful. But in 1835, Swainson’s “sainted” wife died, leaving him emotionally devastated and with five children to bring up. “Oh my beloved Mary,” he wrote, “the earth is ) et fresh over thy grave and with this has departed the greatest blessing with which a merciful Father has blessed me. I am now a solitary mourner with no one to cheer me after the mental labours of the day.”
His fortunes in other directions nose-dived, too. His beloved quinarian system was ridiculed, and his investments in Mexican gold mines collapsed. With little of a pecuniary nature to show for his immense labours, Swainson’s outlook soured. He became bitter and critical about the British scientific establishment, which had failed to embrace his ideas, and decided there was no future for him and his children in Europe. He looked abroad for a new start. Australia tempted him for a while, but then he fixed on the fresh young colony of New Zealand.
In 1839, he joined the Church of England Committee to appoint a bishop in New Zealand and the Wakefields’ Committee of the First Colony of New Zealand, applying for land in the Wellington district. His decision to emigrate was another example of Swainson’s intractability. All his family and friends, including the parents of his deceased wife, attempted to dissuade him from going, but he would not be swayed. Even evidence that Captain Thomas McDonnell—the man to whom Swainson had hitched his star—was a swindler did not derail Swainson.
But there was one hitch to his plan. The rules of emigration forbade Swainson from sailing to New Zealand with his children’s governess, Ann Baddley, a former school teacher and a pious, virtuous “woman of strong” character.” So Swainson married her, despite opposition from his children.
Leaving his youngest son, Edwin, to be brought up by the governor of Gibraltar, Swainson, his new wife and remaining four children sailed for New Zealand in 1840. But Swainson’s troubles had only begun.
Many of the family’s belongings and most of Swainson’s books and illustration proofs, despatched on another boat, were lost at sea, and the English fruit trees he carried with him did not survive the heat of the tropics. As had been feared by others in England, the £400 paid to McDonnell for land in the Hokianga resulted in no title, and the family was forced to remain in Wellington, where the vessel landed.
The Swainsons spent two years in Thorndon, where Swainson established the Wellington Horticultural and Botanical Society, before moving to a new house on a 150 ha block of bush in the Hutt Valley in 1843 (directly below today’s suburb of Melling). He called his property “Hawkshead,” after some ancestral land, and set about clearing and stumping the bush. After two laborious years he had cleared only 2 ha, one of which of which he planted in wheat.
To make ends meet, Swainson sold off large collections which he had left behind in Britain, including 10,000 dried plant specimens collected in Sicily and Brazil, thousands of insects, 759 prints and sketches of birds and a large collection of bird skins.
Still misfortune dogged him. A consignment of lithographic plates was wrecked off Cape Terawhiti. A collection of preserved birds and insects decayed. Creditors failed him. Local petty chief Te Kaeaea, also known as Taringa Kuri (“Dog’s Ear”), disputed Swainson’s occupation of the Hutt land and set about clearing and burning the bush, driving Swainson’s labourers off, planting crops and cutting boundary lines across the farm. On one occasion, Swainson came to physical blows with Te Kaeaea.
Swainson and his neighbours could never leave their properties for fear of interference from aggrieved Maori who, encouraged by Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, established a fortified pa nearby. In 1846, troops set fire to the pa, leading to an escalation of the violence. Martial law was proclaimed in Wellington, and several of Swainson’s settler neighbours were killed. Swainson’s eldest son, Willie, 22, fluent in Maori and a capable bushman, joined the military adventures as a scout and liaison, serving at times as a guide for Governor Grey.
In the winter of 1846, troops of the 65th Regiment, abetted by Willie Swainson, who had been made one of the leaders of a group of 150 “friendly” Maori, drove marauding Maori from the Hutt Valley. Swainson Jr was awarded the New Zealand War Medal for his part in the skirmishing, and the governor arranged for Te Kaeaea to be given some other land in exchange for the disputed area in the Hutt.
Now freed from some of the pressures he had laboured under for years, Swainson felt able to expand a little. He was re-united with part of his museum collections, previously kept in Hokianga, and he wrote to the naturalist Walter Mantell (in October, 1846), “I seem now to have exhausted the Valley of the Hutt, as far as I can ramble therein, so that now I am directing my attentions to the inhabitants of the ocean, namely Shells. I have been led to these by a theory which appears not to have been yet adverted to or thought of. We all know that Animal Life is as little developed on New Zealand Islands as are honest men.
To be serious, the land is geologically new, but then the Ocean is as old as the Creation and therefore should abound with animal forms peculiar to that element, and this, I think, it really does, although they have not been properly searched for. In England, for instance, we have but four species of Patella [limpets], while on the Port Nicholson rocks I have already found seven besides a new Syphonaria, other localities will no doubt possess other species . . . Mr Taylor, also, stimulates me to a Conchology of New Zealand, and if my friends in different quarters will aid me by specimens, I really think I could very soon produce something better than has been done in Dieffenbach’s book by Assimus Grey, as we call him in England, a name he seems determined to keep up by including The Ass among the New Zealand quadrapeds.
“I wish you had been here to see our Governor [George Grey]. You would, I am sure, be delighted with him if only for his urbanity and his love for Science . . . He wants me very much to do something to elucidate our Native Zoology. He wishes me to visit him at Auckland, but I am not as young as I was. Having been so long used to bush fare I apprehend the change of life might do me no good. Do let me know something about the Shells of the Wanganui Coast and also of the River.”
He went on to comment that “The Hutt looks wretchedly—houses empty, fences broken down, roads over fields and through crops and all the traces and effects of military despotism i.e. Martial Law. I am now the only ‘gentleman settler’ for the Riddifords have gone, Stillings is going and most of the settlers above me had gone to other districts.
“And this brings me to ask you how Terranaki agrees with you, suffering as you do from Rheumatic toothache? I grieve to say this winter has attacked me also, and I have been confined by it to the house nearly six weeks and even now it has not left me. I really begin to dread the return of this most excruciating disease next winter and am almost tempted to look out for a milder and dryer locality. Such I am told is Terranaki . . . Is there land to be sold, not far from the town? Fifteen or twenty acres is all I should covet, for farming in New Zealand will only do for the labourers. Have you much Wind? What fruit will ripen? What are Provisions? And what the price of Labour? I have six allotments in the projected town. Could any more be purchased very cheap? So as to have three or four acres in the suburbs?”
Nothing seems to have come from either his renewed interest in shells or the idea of shifting to Taranaki. Perhaps the words “very cheap” provide a clue. Writing in September 1847 to his son George, now an 18-year-old pupil at St John’s College, in Auckland, Swainson complained, ” . . I need not remind you . . . that [for] all such expenses [clothing] you have now the full means of providing and that so far from pressing my poor and insufficient purse, which is not even equal to providing clothing even to myself. You should, as I am sure you will, look forward to the time when you can give us a little help. We have been very unfortunate this year in our farming. . .”
Misfortunes continued for Swainson. Just five months later (February, 1848) a fire destroyed much of Hawkshead, including six months’ provisions, all his farm implements, money to pay for the coming harvest and a cabinet of about 1000 exotic butterflies.
However, there were occasional bright spots. Later in 1848, Swainson sold an acre of land he owned in Melbourne for £700, which cleared most of his debts, and the governor offered him a job as postmaster general of the southern division.
How much of Hawkshead had been rebuilt before the next disaster struck is uncertain, but in October, 1848, Willie wrote of “earthquakes which have been felt, more or less, during the last three weeks. They have entirely destroyed or rendered uninhabitable all the brick houses in Wellington.” In December, William wrote, “All the chimneys and the plaster walls inside were thrown down and the timbers so injured that we have been obliged almost to rebuild the walls. The expense has been so heavy that we have only done one half of the house . . . notwithstanding all the promises of the Governor, nothing has yet been done for me, so that I remain just as I was.”
Lack of money was a constant refrain with Swainson. Nine months after his daughter, Mary, married, Swainson grumbled to one of his sons: “I was obliged to sell the remaining town acre I had, in order to meet the expenses of your sister’s marriage, which was far greater than it ought to have been, considering the altered circumstances of my fortunes . . . and which she ought to have considered, which she did not, and thus I am suffering and shall suffer the consequences for years.”
In 1848, Swainson wrote the first of a planned series of articles on farming for the Wellington Spectator, warning settlers that they could not rely on forest ash to sustain their crops, which would demand supplementary manuring. An anonymous correspondent so ridiculed Swainson that he discontinued his newspaper series, and for a period ceased writing altogether.
In those days, most grass and pasture seed arriving from Britain was of very poor quality, full of weeds and tares, with sometimes only one in a thousand seeds germinating. Swainson was the first person to grow pure lines of high-quality pasture seed, which he sold at the Hutt Bridge on Saturday mornings. In 1848, he became a trustee of the Wellington Mechanics Institute, a forerunner of the Workers Educational Association. The second Mrs Swainson did well to manage the Hutt farm, its cows and its finances—tasks beyond the capacity of her impractical husband. In the years that followed, three more children, all girls, were added to the family.
Swainson drew many pencil sketches of early Wellington—its landscapes, roadside scenes, island views and coastlines, stockades, bridges and pa. During three months in 1847 he made 70-80 pencil sketches of local scenery and farm livestock. These sketches provide some of the most valuable pictorial records of Wellington’s earliest years, especially as they were drawn before the big earthquakes of 1848 and 1855 raised the shoreline and altered the coastal scenery. He made many sketches of local trees, being especially fascinated with the climbing and scrambling vines, but we have only one drawing of a native animal from that period: an unprepossessing flatworm.
He dispatched fern specimens to Edward Wakefield, then living in France, and put together a pressed collection of New Zealand ferns with the intention of publishing. However, exhausted by his farming exertions, his drive to describe, catalogue and illustrate nature had diminshed.
By 1850, Swainson had turned against Wakefield, whose theories on colonisation he damned at length to the New Zealand Magazine, and often commented publicly on the “barbarity of civil life in New Zealand.”
In May 1851, Swainson sailed on the survey ship Acheron for Australia, hoping to arrange the sale of some land he owned in South Australia to clear his debts. The unexpected arrival of his wife’s sister and children from England—destitute and about as welcome in Swainson’s impecunious Hutt establishment as fleas on a starving dog—perhaps also had a little to do with his journey. His sketches of South Island coastlines made on this trip still survive in the Greenwich Maritime Museum.
In August that year, he received a letter from Walter Mantell, advising him of his election as an honorary member of the NZ Royal Society. He replied: “. . . this is the first intimation I have received that such a Society was in being; or that there existed in Wellington generally, the slightest regard or appreciation for scientific pursuits. On the contrary, I have invariably found, during the twelve years I have had the misfortune to reside in that Settlement that the Government has treated with marked neglect . . . every effort I have made to benefit the community, by what little knowledge I may be thought to possess in Europe. Under such circumstances I cannot conceive how a Scientific Society can exist with few, if any, working members . . .
“I am fearful likewise, that should my name (however humble) be publicly announced as connected with the Society, I may be thought to favour the assertion so repeatedly made by admirers of the Wakefield System (and by which I was myself deceived) that Science is just as much honoured and cultivated in New Zealand as in the Mother country. I may then be instrumental in keeping alive one of those delusions which have allured so many Gentlemen as settlers, to the Colony, only to experience bitter disappointment or absolute ruin. For these reasons I beg respect‑fully to decline the honour you allude to.”
What did Swainson think of Australia? He liked the variety of insects and shells, thought the landscapes (except in Tasmania) very dull, didn’t mind the summer heat but “would not be exposed to another winter here [in Illawarra] on any circumstance whatever.” He was amazed by a devastating storm, and “liked the common people very much indeed, while the gentry are the most unmannerly, conceited, inhospitable set of people I have ever met with in all the countries I have visited.”
Though no botanist, Swainson persuaded the governor of Victoria to employ him in describing the timber trees of that state. This was no easy task, as their study—notably the eucalypts—had baffled several earlier naturalists. When he submitted his report, in 1853, Swainson claimed to have identified 1520 kinds of gum tree and 213 casuarinas. He complained that he had run out of Latin words to name all the new species.
But his thinking was flawed by his obsession with the number five, and his report was never published or taken seriously. A contemporary biologist condemned Swainson’s writing about gum trees as “an exhibition of species-making unparalleled in the annals of botanical literature” and the great botanist Hooker declared, “In my life I think I never read such a series of trash and nonsense. There is a man who left this country with the character of a first-rate naturalist (though with many eccentricities), and he goes to Australia and takes up the subject of Botany of which he is as ignorant as a goose. “In fairness to Swainson, prior to his visit only some 40 species of eucalypt had been described, and today about 700 species are recognised.
Swainson’s Australian land sale proved far less profitable than he had hoped, and he spent another year in Tasmania, examining trees and searching the desolate coasts for rare shells, which he wrote about in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Van Dieman’s Land, Hobart. He returned to the Hutt in 1854, only to have his favourite child, Mary (now a mother herself), die of scarlet fever. Three months later, the great Wairarapa earthquake ofJanuary 23, 1855 (see New Zealand Geographic No. 46) destroyed Hawkshead, turning “that once beautiful spot into a scene of desolation and ruin.” It is unlikely that the house had been fully repaired from the damage it sustained in the 1848 earthquake.
On December 7, 1855, Swainson died of bronchitis—disillusioned and forgotten by many, certainly impoverished, but not entirely beaten. His last known letter (to his son, Willie) expressed a desire for fresh bulbs so that he could complete a series of unfinished drawings. He went on to note: “I am much pleased of your increasing fondness for gardening and shall always be happy to send you anything I can spare from this place. A garden as Bacon says ‘is the purest of human pleasures,’ and truly do I find it so, as in youth, so in age, and no other outdoor recreation is so delightful to me.”
Swainson’s grave lies among tall trees behind the Lower Hutt Public Library—a secluded spot brightened in most winters by hundreds of over-wintering monarch butterflies. Yet even in death, had luck and injustice dogged him. His widow destroyed many of his papers, letters and mementos, and most of his plant and animal collections rotted, were dispersed or lost. Several plants and animals named after him were later reclassified and given new names. And while the recently published Dictionary of New Zealand Biography devotes a page and a half to Swainson’s tormentor, Te Kaea ea, Swainson, the internationally famous naturalist and artist, receives no mention.
Swainson helped swell the collections of many European museums, where other biologists put his specimens to better use, notably Charles Darwin, who followed close on his heels and completely outshone him in biological theory. The Alexander Turnbull Library, in Wellington, holds well over 2000 Swainson illustrations, and more survive in other libraries and private collections in Britain and Australia, although many are fire- or water-damaged. Five boxes of Swainson’s Brazilian and British plants can be seen in the collections of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
Swainson left other memorials in New Zealand. His daughter-in-law, Maryanne, founded a school for girls in Fitzherbert Terrace, Wellington. Known originally as Miss Swainson’s School for Girls, it later became Samuel Marsden College.
Swainson’s widow and several children moved to one of his properties in the Manawatu, where the family name is still well known. Swainson’s daughters married to become Halcombes, Turtons, Beethams and Marshalls, the Honourable Dennis Marshall, a former Minister of Conservation, being one of Swainson’s great-grandsons.
Swainson’s science may have failed him, but his wonderfully delicate, painstakingly executed illustrations show us where his true genius lay. His reputation as one of the world’s most eminent nature illustrators has not diminished with the years.