and the Secretive Way Inwards
Christen Smith biography by Aileen Hennes.
Published in number 1 of Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift in 2001.
Christen Smith might very well have been considered Scandinavia’s second Princeps botanicorum had he lived long enough to finish his work.
But as chance would have it he did more botanising for the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew than he did for the Tøyen Garden in Christiania (now Oslo), of which he was the principal. This ultimately resulted in him being committed to oblivion by two nations rather than being bestowed with greatness in one.
Only a handful of Norwegians know about Christen Smith : a few botanists, naturally enough, and otherwise, amateurs of fell walking, who have taken Smiths scientific explorations to mean that he was an aficionado of their sport.
I myself came across him on reading “Narrative of an Expedition to explore the river Zaire, usually called the Congo, in South Africa, in 1816, under the direction of Captain J.K.Tuckey, R.N.”
A large part of this narrative turned out to be a biography of one ‘Chetien’ Smith from Drammen in Norway and his diary of the journey: It was the stuff of high adventure and the story had me riveted. When I finally shut the book and looked around the overheated and fuggy library of the London Zoological Society, where so many secrets are kept, I wondered why I’d never heard of this man before? Sir Joseph Banks – instrumental in sending Christen Smith on his final voyage of exploration – is still a central figure in England’s history, whereas Christen Smith, Norway’s first professor of botany and an internationally recognised scientist in his time, is as good as forgotten in his native land.
What is in a name
Christen Smith was born at Skoger outside Drammen in 1785. His father Lauritz Lauritzøn, (who carried the additional name of Smid as his father had been chief smith at Akershus Castle) brought the family to Skoger in 1668, before the two villages of Bragernes and Strømsø on either side of the river Drammen joined forces and became the town of Drammen. The surname Smid (or Smed) changed at some point during the following century to become Smith, probably influenced by the family’s trade in timber with England. But wherever the name of Christen Smith appears in writing it almost always seems to be some sort of variant of either the first name or the surname, as in Captain Tuckey’s narrative where we have “Chetien” Smith. Another frequent variant is Christian; nearly all the African plants that he discovered are named Christiana Africana, apart from when his surname is used. The problem then is one of proliferation; the name of Smith was so common even in the budding stage of botany, that one was hard put to find ways of using it. We have Smithia, Smithiella, Smithiantha, Smithiodendron and Smithorchis; still we are dependant on place and date to determine which Smith we are talking about. Thus we can say with certainty that it is Christen Smith who has named Sempervivium Smithii on the Canary Isles, Odontospermum Smithii on the Cape Verde Islands and Veronica Smithiana in the Congo.
When Christen Smith died, not quite 31 years of age, he had experienced enough to fill a long life. But Smith, who two years previously had been made professor in botany at the newly opened University in Christiania, was just at the beginning of his career.
The Romantics versus the Enlightenment
From which ideas stemmed his inspiration? For his enormous energy was surely inspiration fed. Christen Smith was educated both as physician and botanist. Physician because his father insisted that he should have something to fall back upon. And botanist? It was in the air.
During the 18th century man began to take stock of what was from then on to be defined as ‘natural resources’. In Europe this inventory took the shape of a countdown as plants and animals alike were being wiped out on a large scale by agriculture and hunting. This ‘stock taking’ – which in the early days could easily have been a substitute term for ‘natural history’ – ran alongside the Romantic Movement. In many instances there is a distinct overlap, as in the case of Henrik Steffens, natural history scientist and natural philosopher (the first person to graduate in natural history in Denmark in 1794), and J.C.Dahl, the first master of Norwegian fine art, who also contributed to the building up of the Collection of Natural History in Bergen. Somewhat later there is also P.Chr.Asbjørnsen – fairytale collector and marine biologist – who was the first to introduce Darwin’s theory of evolution in Norway in an anonymous article published in ‘Budstikken’ (The Courrier) in 1861 – two years after the publication of “The Origin of Species”.
The romantics, not yet prepared to step into nature in order to paint, furnished themselves with an imaginary mountaintop on which they languished while mourning the world’s final and tragic sunset. But the tragedy they enacted was not to be man’s final adieu. As Caspar David Friedrich paints them, draped in the voluminous capes that were fashion at the time, they slumber in the summer night, their dreams engagingly replete with “the dormant intelligence of matter” (Schelling). Upon waking, and realising that death is but an influence on life (Novalis), it is to a brand new sunrise and the stirrings of a new optimism. For according to Novalis, humanity is on a mission to educate the earth. The sorrow of irrevocable loss endured by the romantic held the germ of a new human flourishing. In Europe we were letting slip the heavy cloak of religion from our shoulders. “Letting slip” is in this case exactly what happened as none of the parties concerned had the express wish to “throw off” religion. That was not where the challenge lay; the challenge, that is to say the theory of evolution – which already hovered as a probability behind the scenes during almost a century before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace presented their findings – had to result in at least a redefinition of the veracity of Christianity. However, we are not there yet; we are still in a time when Jean-Baptiste Lamarck theorises on the subject and Erasmus Darwin writes in a poem: “Teach me, Creation, teach me how/T’adore the vast unknown” – and with these words showing a return to perhaps a pre-Christian pantheism.
It is against this backdrop that Christen Smith climbs the real mountains – the Norwegian “Riesengebirge”, later to be known as Jotunheimen (Home of the Giants) – and enters henceforth the annals of the Fell Walkers Society. That the romantic belief in man’s place in nature and nature’s place in man had aphrodisiac qualities is self evident, judging from the potent energy it released.
Christen Smiths wanderings in Norway coincided with the lean years caused by the Continental Blockade. With either his Danish professor and close friend Jens Wilken Hornemann, or the flower painter Bayer, the botanist Wormskiold, or the German geologist Leopold von Buch he went annually on long walks up and down the country. He botanised, mapped, studied climate and climatic influences on the flora, wrote a paper on the glaciers and found time to instruct people he met on how to make bread from lichens and mosses rather than eat the unhealthy bark loaves that were the norm when wheat rations were at an all time low. Hunger was part and parcel of everyone’s daily life at the time, also that of the travellers. Smith would come back from his walks in a state of exhaustion.
In October 1813, on his return from a many month long journey that had taken him through Jotunheimen and across the mountains north of Lom, he’d visited the coast by Molde where he had collected algae. From there he walked back over the mountains by way of Kvikne and Røros, before heading south past Lillehammer and on to Drammen. On his return to Skoger he found that his father was dying. He died only days after Christens homecoming. Christen himself fell seriously ill after this journey, but on recovering he sorted through and arranged his collection of plants and algae. In November of the same year, professor Treschow suggested he apply for the professorship of botany at the University of Christiania.
Thus it was that in 1814, the Danish-Norwegian king Christian Fredrik appointed him professor in “Botany and State Economic Sciences”. The appointment came with special permission to travel abroad for a year to a year and a half before he was to take up his post. For this he planned to use his inheritance, but he would get a share of the expenses covered, as his work would obviously benefit the university and the botanical garden (that was still under construction) at Tøyen, in Christiania.
All in all Christen worked for about a month in his new position before he left. The plan was to go to England, France, Switzerland, Italy, and then back through Germany. In short, he expected to do “The Grand Tour”, as had been the habit of every gentleman before the French revolution, regardless of whether their field of interest was in art, architecture, social – or sexual – intercourse.
Alas, this was not to be.
Christen left Norway in June, but due to bad weather, did not get to London before August. After a brief visit to Kew Gardens, where he bought £30’s worth of seeds for the Tøyen Gardens, he went to Scotland and spent the autumn in the highlands. From there he went to Ireland and winter was passed botanising in the hills surrounding Dublin. Back in London in spring he met Sir Joseph Banks, at the time president – or as some would have it – ‘ruler’ of The Royal Society. Through him he re-encountered his old friend, the geologist Leopold von Buch, who was planning an expedition to the Canary Isles. It was decided that the two of them – who had developed strong bonds of friendship on previous travels – should go together.
The voyage became a scientific success. Out of the 578 plants that Christen Smith collected, 48 were new discoveries. He sent home to Christiania a packet of seeds for the Tøyen Gardens, out of which resulted a date palm that lived until 1999. His plan was to return to Norway and his professorship as soon as he had sorted through the material he had gathered.
However, at that moment in time the British government was equipping an expedition to the Congo for the purpose of finding out whether or not there was a link between the River Zaire (Congo) and the Niger. Joseph Banks, who had evidently taken a liking to Christen Smith, suggested that he should go on the expedition and serve as geologist as well as botanist. He supposed that as a result of all the travelling professor Smith had done in the company of the Baron von Buch, he would have gleaned sufficient knowledge to do the job perfectly!
A great part of the “Narrative of an Expedition…” consists of a lengthy “Memorandum of an Instruction to Captain Tuckey from The Office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain”, which leaves no doubt that the expedition’s members are to concern themselves with a lot more than just finding out whether two rivers meet. In the memorandum the correctness of previous surveys is questioned. It is in fact stated that the existing data does no credit to those Europeans who have inhabited the region during the last 300 years: “That a river of such magnitude as the Zaire, and offering so many peculiarities, should not be known with any degree of certainty, beyond, if so far as, 200 miles from its mouth, is incompatible with the present advanced state of geographical science…”
‘Those Europeans’, that is to say the Portugese and Spanish, are still carrying on their slave trade – which the British relinquished in 1807 – and that despite considerable economic encouragement from Britain to change their ways. When The Office of Lord High Admiral suggests that Captain Tuckey’s ship, aptly named the “Congo”, should be anchored at The Tall Trees, an anchorage that is considered to have a healthy climate, it is strongly recommended that none of the expedition’s members have anything to do with the slave traders – whether black, white or Arab – on the Portugese Station nearby, other than to observe the extent of their dealings in human slavery. It is advised that they proceed to Embomma as soon as possible, for although there is a slave market there as well, it is nevertheless a town where they can make contact with interpreters and respectable locals who may serve as guides. On board the “Congo” are two freed slaves, Benjamin Benjamin and Somme Simmons, who are to be repatriated.
At Embomma they are instructed to unload the goods carried by the transport ship “Dorothy” and before sending her back in the general direction of Spithead, Captain Tuckey must press upon the officers of the transport how important it is not to be seen to have any dealings with slavers.
Continuing the journey after this point the captain must bear in mind that: “…the occurrence of rapids, or of a cataract, impeding the navigation of the river, is not to be considered as a sufficient obstacle to the further prosecution of the attempt to discover its source”.
Although the maps are inadequate and the scientific knowledge scant the general condition for travel in the central African regions is well documented. It is precarious, there will almost certainly be lives lost. It is a big investment and nothing about this expedition is left to chance. The instructions are specific for each and every man. There are lists of words to be filled in with the equivalent in any of the languages that they will encounter. Thus it is soon discovered that the ‘River Zaire’ means the ‘River River’ and from then on it is known as The Congo. The sailing ship ‘Congo’ is sailing up the river Congo, well provided even in the minutest of detail: …their Lordships have directed a very excellent dipping needle, by Blunt, to be supplied for your use.
The copious directions for the scientists also deal with specifics: …of samples of animals, whether tame or wild, there should never be more than three of each species whereof the guts must be pickled in spirits, and the skin, head and skeleton to be transported in a desiccated state. This is followed by special instructions to the four carpenters on how to construct wooden boxes for the larger specimens. All in all the carpenters are going to be kept busy, they are to make tests on the different types of wood they come across in order to find out what usage they might have, they are also to ask the locals what use they make of them. When they have done this they shall accompany Mr Smith in his search for exotic fruit and if this proves to be out of reach they are to cut down the tree. Professor Smith is instructed to concentrate on writing his diary, of which he has to make three copies in case of accident, such as losing it overboard or it being eaten by a crocodile. To take care of the botanical samples there is Mr Lockhart, a gardener from His Majesty’s Garden at Kew, whilst Professor Smith’s assistant in taking geological samples – shape and size of said samples being specified – is one Mr Galway, a volunteer. These samples must also come with an account of what use, if any, they may be put to locally.
In London, a group of men are making a puzzle of the entire world; the expedition is meant to provide them with a considerable missing piece. The Empire shall expand!
An inner landscape
In the same year as the expedition is launched – in 1816 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan – a Dream Vision” is published. In this first edition Coleridge himself calls the poem ‘a psychological curiosa’. It is a journey of exploration, an opium induced plunge into an inner landscape, which nevertheless echo visions held by the explorers.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
It is a time of longing. A time for exploration. Europe is old and showing signs of decrepitude, but there are other places… On the 22nd of February 1816 Christen Smith leaves from Charing Cross, heading for Sheerness at the mouth of the Thames, where the sailing ship “Congo” is ready for embarkation. On the first page of his diary he writes: “Complete strangers came and bid me farewell with tears in their eyes and expressions that said that they expected never to see me again”. Apart from the fact that he has noted down the observation it is impossible to say what impression it made on him. After 300 years of white men’s reports from The Dark Continent everybody knows that it takes its toll in lives and in the Admiralty’s instructions there is a note to the captain ‘to spare the people as much as possible, from long and severe exertion’…
His friend, Baron Leopold von Buch, accompanies Christen to Sheerness and the two of them enjoy the view from Shooters Hill as though they were on an ordinary picnic. Later, when he’s joined the ship and The Congo is sailing along the south coast of Britain, Christen’s comments shows waning interest. The flat, monotonous landscape, formed by agriculture, bores him and he dreams of that which is to come:
A savage place! As holy and enchanted
However, The Congo is laid up in Cornwall for nearly a month waiting for the wind. The wind is being capricious; the captain hires the pilot twice, but has to cancel his request on both occasions. Christen, along with Mr.Tudor – comparative anatomist – hire horses and start to explore. His first visit to a copper mine proves Sir Joseph Banks and the Admiralty right in deeming him a capable geologist. Only his modesty maintains that he’s an amateur.
Apart from these excursions there are few distractions, although there is always the welcome exception of the sailors talk. This does not concern itself overly much with the future, but rather dwells on past exploits and what they ‘with God’s will’ have endured. Napoleon looms large in their stories. Two Dutch officers that Tudor and Smith meet one evening when they are ashore, had fought against the man in every battle until they eventually were taken prisoners in Archangel. The captain himself relates of seven years of house arrest in Tours, where he got married to another prisoner with whom he had two sons, one of whom they lost on a stormy night when they were chased out of town by ‘the pale little demon’s ‘ soldiers. Their devastating loss was reduced by war to mere incident.
War torn Europe is tired. One is tired of Europe and the imagination turns elsewhere incessantly:
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran
At long last they are on their way. On the first of April they are sailing past the Canary Isles. Christen is moved by the memories of his stay there and would like nothing better than to go ashore and continue where he left off botanising only a short while ago. Congo is still a long way off and so far the voyage has been tedious; but from now on the ocean itself starts to reveal its identity as the source from which all life has sprung, in the next few days they observe many varieties of fish and jellyfish and the great sea turtles whose carpaces are covered in none other than Sir Joseph Banks’ own barnacle: Cancer fulgens. At times they are followed by whales whose giant shapes – larger than the ship – shimmer beneath the surface of the water until they surface to breathe.
Onboard, however, there is a source of irritation in the form of one Mr. Cranch – shoemaker, Methodist and a good father to his numerous children – this autodidact knows no bounds when it comes to gathering up from the ocean anything and everything he sees and Christen worries about him taxing the Captain’s patience with his absurd behaviour.
A brief visit is paid to the Cape Verde Islands, where the cliffs plummet perpendicularly into the ocean, barely revealing an entry into the bay and the small village of St.Jago. On both sides of the entry are grandiose fortifications with batteries mounted; on closer inspection one notices that the canons have no undercarriage and that the soldiers guns are held together with string; however, the island has its own natural defence, the currents in the narrow passage leading into the village are considerable and two of the boats capsize on rowing ashore.
There is nothing much to recommend St.Jago, but on a provisory round of inspection Christen notices an interesting flora. He intends to go back to the ship and load up with what he needs for two days of botanising, but with the captain’s boat overturning his plan is thwarted. They have to stay overnight in St.Jago. The overnight stay turns out to be more agreeable than expected, but in the morning they wait in vain for their paraphernalia to arrive. While waiting they stroll around the town and out onto a plain where near naked men and women are collecting water from a well. The well is 3 fathoms deep and the temperature of the water 76 degrees F, observes Christen, while Mr Tudor sighs wistfully on beholding ‘the pendulous breasts and other charms’ that puts him in mind of the ‘Venuses they shall behold in the Kingdom of Congo’.
A savage place! As holy and enchanted
As ever beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!
They wait until ten o’clock, but when there is still no boat to be seen, the scientific gentlemen decide to leave without their gear. But they have not gone far, before their guide, one John Corea, feels pangs of hunger and they are obliged to stop at a tavern. Although the meal of chicken and cassava root turns out to be excellent Christen is annoyed at losing time.
Finally finished eating they move on through a landscape perfumed by filigree’d mimosa, coconut palms and orange trees, where paradisical birds are flying about unafraid amongst flowers and trees, many of which are still unknown to science. But the pace they are walking at is too slow for Christen who frets at the thought of perhaps not having time to mount Pico Antonio; at his own natural pace he’s is in the habit of wearing out a pair of shoes in a days journey. And then, to add to his chagrin, they meet Mr.Cranch, who, armed with a gun, is teaching the island’s wildlife that their state of innocence and grace is a thing of the past.
Nevertheless, Christen Smith collectes 88 species of plants on the Cape Verde islands, out of which a great number are unknown and will from now on carry his name.
A dome of pleasure
In light of the times in which he lived, Smith’s extraordinary capacities are cloaked in modesty. He showed no sign of the megalomania that characterises, for example, Sir Joseph Banks, whose first journey of exploration together with Captain Cook, left little recognition for the Captain’s own exploits. Nevertheless, another voyage of exploration, this time with destination Antarctica, was being planned. Banks, however, disapproved of Cooks choice of vessel and had it refitted not only for an entourage of scientists and volunteers, but for an orchestra, a suitable concomitance of servants, as well as an atèlier for the fashionable painter Zoffany and of course, a female companion (a Miss or Mrs Burnett, who had agreed to be dressed as a man for the duration of the voyage) – for the obvious warmth and value of such companionship in Antarctic weather.
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
The story goes that Captain Cook beheld the refitting with great patience. But one can imagine the smile quivering about his lips when the entire orchestra lost their footing during the trial voyage due to the fact that the ship had become too top heavy. The end of that story is that Cook went without Banks to Antarctica. After 30 years of constant war The Admiralty had learnt to appreciate real competence. Banks was made an admiral and relegated to being a showpiece in the capital’s fashionable salons.
Entering the vast unknown
Climbers of mountains, plungers of depths, visionaries, name-givers to all the world’s animals and plants; these early scientists balanced on a knife edge of ecstasy:
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced
They are lost in wonder. And at the time wonders still abound. Five days before they spot the continent of Africa, an island comes floating towards them. For Christen it is not an entirely unexpected sight as he’s learnt from other travellers about these islands expulsed into the ocean from Africa’s rivers. Seeing it though, he can’t help but be as wonderstruck as any other. They board the island, but in the examination of this little piece of a continent adrift, in reducing it to: 120’ lenght, consisting of reeds and straw of mainly the Donax and Agostris types, with some remnants of Justicia bush and inhabited by animals of the family Sæpie…, the Wonder is once and for all removed. He does not know it himself, he has no idea just how “Wonder removing” the blinding white detergent of science is going to be. He’s sailing towards Africa, on an ocean of wonders, sometimes stained by earth the colour of blood, sometimes unexpectedly cold, past the birthing ground and nursery of the big whales. The map they have is not always reliable, they take new measures, add a little more information to the as yet incomplete picture that mankind has of his cradle. While sailing under a changing night sky into another hemisphere there is a part of every man onboard longing to learn how ‘to adore the vast unknown’.
Some of the men catch fever in the Bay of Guinea, but it’s nothing serious, they are soon back on their feet. Nevertheless, the awareness of the fever is with them now like a dark and menacing shadow, and there is trepidation on approaching a land shrouded in dangerous tropical mist. A dead albatross floating on the water does not bode well. But the landscape is beautiful, writes Christen to his mother, describing it as resembling the densely wooded coast of Denmark, were it not for the palm trees. From Cabinda, on the north side of the mouth of the Congo, people are paddling out to meet them in hollowed out tree trunks. Naked black men standing upright whilst paddling the 12 -14’ long crafts, puts Christen in mind of drawings he’s seen from the Pacific (Quite possibly drawings done by Banks).
The good people are invited onboard and the first man on deck introduces himself in more than adequate English as Tom Liverpool. He’s envoy and translator for the Mafook, who’s already on his way in a European boat complete with a white flag and parasol. But the meeting turns out to be a disappointment for the Mafook who has slaves from all over Africa for sale. Upon learning that England has forbidden this lucrative trade, he compares the king to the Devil incarnate. Nevertheless, the visitors know to avail themselves of the captain’s offer of brandy and biscuits, and those with pockets, that is to say the Mafook in his red robes and his attendants in military outfits, stuff their pockets full. The others are sent back to Cabinda with a list of needed supplies. The supplies do not materialise, but what’s worse is that the guests, who are dancing and shouting, overstay their welcome. When Captain Tuckey’s patience finally runs out he hails one of the many canoes that have come out to watch the spectacle and gives them the choice of transporting the Mafook and his staff back to shore, or be rammed.
Vague longing is turned into expectation when the sailingship “Congo” reflects its bulk in the waters of its namesake, the mythical river. Every man onboard is searching the riverbank for his inner vision, but behind the muddy shores the jungle remains unfathomable. Yearning hearts find no answers. In each and every one a new sensibility has to awaken if they are to extract anything at all from the tangles of the mangroves. More evocative than this dull visual input are the sounds, a cacophony of strangeness that create a sense of the alien; that indefinable ‘something’ they have come there to define. Animal and bird cries, rhythmical drumming, croaking, rustling and whispering – it is a neverending chorus, falling and rising in diurnal rhythm, with only ‘the instruments’ changing.
When they are finally past the estuary, Christen describes how wonderful it is to wake up in the mornings to the cries of parrots and monkeys and to discover daily new natural treasures. He’s put in mind of a drawing he saw as a child of an Egyptian palm – obviously a vital part of his inspiration – and he praises his surroundings in a meditative, unobtrusive manner.
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery
There is nothing wild, strange, or particularly dramatic in Christen Smith’s description of the Congolese landscape. He compares the first stretch between Embomma and Matadi to the river Drammen. In fact his descriptions are so bland that one suspect he may be asking himself why he’s there in this Promised Land, when after all, it is so much like everywhere else.
And the hippopotamii? His only description of the beast is when he in vain tries to shoot one. Apart from this it is his botanising and his geological observations that dominate the pages of his diary at this point; that and a certain display of irritation at his social duties. During audiences with village chieftains, Christen sneaks away as often as not and makes lists of what he sees growing in the cultivated vegetable gardens. In one village he finds to his surprise poppies and cabbages planted in rows next to each other alongside many more predictably exotic vegetables and he also notices a scarlet flowered Clerodendron planted to adorn the entrance to one of the huts. However, here as in Norway he seems to know more about the plants of the region than the natives and can tell them which fruits are edible and which are not, over and above those that are already part of their diet.
Social and sexual life
One day he comments wearily in his diary that they must expect another evening onboard of noisy blacks getting drunk on brandy. Brandy is the tender whether one is asking for free passage, a guide, or provisions. Women are seduced, or bought with brandy. Christen describes a day when he alone visits a village and a young girl is sent back with him as a gift to the captain. He escorts her into the captain’s tent, but on seeing the captain the girl tears herself loose, screams and hides under the bed. This frightened girl is a far cry from the mature and savage woman envisaged in Coleridge’s poem, howling in the night for her demon lover. Nevertheless, Frank Clark, son of the Chieftain of Embomma, whom Christen describes as “my friend and the best of the royal household”, sees to it that the expedition’s members are well supplied. “Frank arrived with a weeping girl last night and later on with another”.
Smith is unusually frank in his descriptions of their sexual exploits. Later explorers like Pogge, Wiessman, Conquilhat and Becker hint at sexual experiences, but they have been able to present their deeds in a kinder light. Christen did not get the opportunity to clean up his act by weeding out certain things from his diary. When Mr Lockhart faithfully brought it back to Kew Gardens intact, it was sent off to Denmark for translation and the translator did not presume to make changes. Thus we have a unique report.
The ominous rational mind
Meanwhile, the freed slave Somme Simmons has found his tribe and it becomes obvious that he is both highly valued and high on the social ladder in his society. Both his father and grandfather pay visit to “The Congo” and relates how the boy was entrusted to an English sea captain in order to get a British education. The captain, despite giving the father his solemn word, had sold the boy in slavery and he had ended up on a West-Indiaman. When Simmons eventually made it to England it was as a slave. Now he functions as translator. However, there are certain things that are beyond mere translation; it proves impossible to translate, or to explain, the motivation of the explorers. Their strange behaviour is often perceived as threatening.
When some natives of Embomma presents Mr. McKerrow with an electric fish, explaining that ‘it shoot tru’ de’ arm’ the biologist seems unimpressed. He simply takes out his tape measure and notes down in the little book he always carries around, the vital statistics: Length 3’6, large head, wide and flat, 6 incisors, 4 in the lower mandible and 2 above, serrated jaw, short tongue, small eyes, body without scales, breast fin near the gills, pelvic fin close to anus, soft dorsal fin close to the tail…
(A similar case of cultural incomprehension happened in our days and much closer to home, when a few years ago the Greeks arrested a number of British plane spotters for alleged espionage. These ‘anoraks’ were met by a wall of disbelief when they claimed that sitting on an airport in Greece in scorching summer heat in order to note down numbers on airplanes was simply an alright way to spend their holidays).
And mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
Changing Matter into Spirit is simple for all human beings, but the other way around? Reducing a God-given gift of a fish into words and numbers… It smacks of heresy and hubris. Did the scientists, those owners of a new knowledge, see themselves as ‘gods’, or at least demigods? The explorers had taken the path that Novalis calls the secretive way inwards, they were exploring not only the physical world, but their own minds. But behind them, back in London, more manipulative heads were plotting the future for mankind.
A new concept of rationality, one closely linked to the economy, was evolving. Today we tend to see the words ‘rationality’ and ‘market forces’ as twins, not identical, but where you see the one the other is seldom far away. These concepts are not in use, as such, in the directive from the Admiralty but they are there for certain, in the offing. From now on it is all about trade, or rather, plunder. Animals, plants, trees, minerals are soon to be removed from their natural surroundings and made to serve a purpose, however capricious, in a man made scenario. Mahogany becomes more readily thought of as the deck of a yacht rather than a giant tree and the elusive okapi, living its life away from prying eyes in the deepest, darkest jungle, is put on display in the barren enclosures of the zoo.
The Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg coined the expression “The young dead” for the Romantic poets; it has been suggested that Christen Smith be included under that mantle. Ecstasy was always present in his life; it was his muse that came most likely with a built in death wish. For in ecstasy one finds the seed of a fundamental disappointment. All in all, twenty-one men died on the expedition to the Congo; captain Tuckey himself, all the scientists and ten of the crew got the tropical fever.
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
The first symptoms of the fever showed itself on the 13th of September. North of the Yellalla Falls the expedition had proceeded on foot. They had followed the river past the Sangala weir and rented canoes for the next stretch, which took them into a landscape that was vibrantly lush. But at this stage they were badly supplied with food and all the time near exhaustion. The river, that had often disappointed the explorers, showed a nobler aspect here and Christen compare it to Ravnsfjorden. He describes a varied and exuberant wildlife, with scenes along the riverbank of apes and monkeys, predators and prey drinking side by side and framed in by beautiful flowers.
And close your eyes on holy dread,
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
In his fevered state he was brought back to the transport ship “Dorothy”. Of the party that went on that final stage of the expedition only the gardener Mr Lockhart was not consumed by the fever. What caused it? Captain Tuckey describes the weather as exceptionally fine, not too hot during the day and neither too cold at night. But the water they drank from the river, the hunger, the exhaustion and possibly also contagion from the women they slept with, might singly or all together have been the trigger.
When Christen Smith died on the 22nd September, his body was lowered into the Congo river by The Tall Trees – the safe, fever free haven.
In the two months he spent in the jungle he collected 620 new plants. Mr Lockhart, the gardener, brought the entire collection, as well as the diary, back to Kew Gardens. The diary was sent to Denmark, where it was translated into English by Dr Rydberg and consequently published in its entirety as part of the aforementioned Narrative of an Expedition in 1818.
The Tøyen Gardens in Christiania never did receive its share of Christen Smith’s discoveries and others took over the development of the botanical gardens he for a brief moment had invested with all his enthusiasm. Today it is suffering the fate of so many other botanical gardens and natural history museums all over Europe, they are becoming monuments of themselves, residing in more or less decreptitude on borrowed time, tolerated in the landscape like old books in ancient libraries, facing the mundane iconoclasm of city planners, or perhaps, like Hannah Arendt’s proverbial ‘dead letters’ to be resuscitated once again by someone who cares.
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