Imagining the Tropical Colony: Henry Smeathman and the Termites of Sierra Leone

Edited by Starr Douglas and Felix Driver

in Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print October 2005 | ISBN: 9780226164717
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226164700 | DOI:
Imagining the Tropical Colony: Henry Smeathman and the Termites of Sierra Leone

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This chapter discusses Smeathman's writings on termite colonies. It examines the visual mapping of tropical nature through the work of naturalist Henry Smeathman. In the course of his travels in Sierra Leone and the Caribbean during the 1770s, Smeathman effectively followed the route of the triangular trade, using this experience to draw parallels and contrasts between tropical nature in both its “rude” and its “cultivated” state. Smeathman's spectacular sketches of termite colonies provided a different kind of mapping of tropical nature, resulting in a composite image of landscape simultaneously picturesque, topographic, and analytical in form. His paper in Philosophical Transactions was accompanied by a series of striking illustrations, including a spectacular sketch of the habitations of the Termes bellicosus that has attained something of an iconic status among entomologists. The story of these images, their own natural history as it were, provides a particular focus for this chapter. These images constituted particular ways of constructing tropical nature. Their combination in a single composite image rendered tropical landscape in simultaneously picturesque, topographic, and analytical terms. This fusion of modes of depiction usually considered distinct, if not contradictory, raises more general questions not only about composition and genre but also about the visual cultures of natural history.

Keywords: tropical; colony; termites; entomologists; Henry Smeathman

Chapter.  8090 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Colonialism and Imperialism

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