Plant Collecting in Madagascar

Plant Collectors in Madagascar and the Comoro Islands
By Laurence J. Dorr
(The Royal Botanic Gardens, 1997)

Reviewed by Blair Orr

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 4, April 1998 (pp. 87-89).

Copyright © 1998 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

Madagascar is a remote island with high montane forests, lush vegetation, dry bush, wide-spread destruction of the original forest cover, and rare species found nowhere else in the world. While Laurence Dorr does not claim to include all those who have collected plants there, his book cannot be missing many of them. Over one thousand collectors are arranged alphabetically. Although the level of detail varies considerably from collector to collector, each is described in a uniform fashion. Dorr gives biographical data, including nationality, dates of birth and death, travels, and publications; eponymy (plant names derived from the collector's own name); selected references; locations of portraits and photographs; the collector¼s itineraries; locations of collections; locations of samples of the collector¼s handwriting; exsiccatae (dried specimens of plants without seeds); herbaria where samples are stored; and the location of important manuscripts. Most of the descriptions are brief and technical. But the longer descriptions of early travelers are fine reading, for who would have gone to Madagascar before 1900 except those whose characters mixed curiosity, wanderlust, and zeal in quantities that exceeded the European norm?

While recent collectors have tended to be specialists in the fields of plant conservation, ecology, and taxonomy, earlier collectors had varied interests and usually travelled in other parts of Africa and the world. Readers will find a reference to Olive Murray Chapman, more known for travel-writing than botanical work. Her travelogue Across Madagascar, published in 1942, is cited. Richard Coppinger was a naval surgeon who wrote Cruise of the Alert. Four years in Patagonia, Polynesia, and the Mascarene Islands (1878‚82). Coppinger¼s plant-collecting was limited and his specimens reside in only one herbarium, yet Dorr¼s book contains numerous references to his time in Madagascar. Similarly, William Deans Cowan-- author of The Bara Land: A Description of the Country and People and a missionary to Madagascar during the late eighteen-hundreds--published on his travels in Madagascar as well as on specific topics such as the ethnobotany of Madagascar ferns. Fortunately for readers of The Journal of African Travel-Writing, it is frequently these historical collectors who receive the most extensive treatment in Dorr's book.

One of the most intriguing collectors described here is Jules Prosper "Bibikely" Goudot, whose nickname--Malagasy for "insect"--denoted his intense interest in bugs. The Malagasy viewed him as a fool and, therefore, ignored him at a time when Europeans in general were held in suspicion. In the mid-nineteenth century he became so immersed in Malagasy culture that he resigned as a collector for a Paris Museum, became fluent in Malagasy, adopted the local customs, and married a Merina woman. This is part of the soap opera of botanical exploration evident in Plant Collectors.

There are also marriages between botanists (the author and his wife, for instance) and divorces. In the eighteen-seventies, Mary Pool collected and labeled the collection that bears the name of her husband, William. While the Pools' actions were not truly fraudulent, it appears that some collectors appropriated the specimens of others and added them to herbaria collections under their own names. Today this would be scientific misconduct; then it was scientific rivalry.

Readers of Plant Collectors will find that botanical exploration has not been limited to Europeans and Americans. While most of the Malagasy botanists have collected recently, some Malagasy collectors were working in the early nineteen-hundreds. Among the many Malagasy collectors represented in these pages are an infantry unit, the Malagasy Rifles, which collected in 1902, and more than five hundred foresters employed by Eaux et Forets of Madagascar, whose collection numbers are listed here.

Over the course of fourteen years, Dorr, associate curator of botany for the Smithsonian Institution, compiled the elements required for this comprehensive work. Modern plant taxonomists with an interest in the flora of Madagascar will need this book for their work. Readers with an interest in African travel will be drawn to the book's richness of detail. It is highly recommended for any library keeping a collection on Africa or general botany. The book comes with a read-only CD-ROM that is a page-for-page duplicate of the text, photos included. The useful "find" feature of this format mimicks the same function in most word-processing software. For example, readers can enter the word "puppeteer" and find out why one from Chicago ends up in Madagascar. A CD that allows editing is also available from the publisher.