Waterton, Charles

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(b. Walton Hall, Yorkshire, England, 3 June 1782; d Walton Hall, 27 May 1865), natural history.

Waterton was the twenty-sixth lord of Walton Hall, being the eldest son of Thomas and Ann Bedingfield Waterton. His family staunchly upheld the Roman Catholic faith and consequently had suffered persecution since the Reformation. Waterton was educated at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit school, and his detestation of all that was Protestant was a formative and decisive factor in his career. As a boy his energy and high spirits, as well as his pursuit of nature, caused the “holy and benevolent” fathers of Stonyhurst to give up the rod and attempt to tame this incorrigible imp by making him, as he wrote, “rat-catcher to the establishment and also fox-taker, foumart-killer, and crossbow-charger at a time when the young rooks were fledged. Moreover I fulfilled the duties of organ-blower and football maker with entire satisfaction to the public” (Essays, xxvii).

Thus was formed the eccentric of later years, whose indomitable courage and love of nature and travel led him to undertake a famous journey in 1812. Starting from Stabroek (now Georgetown, Guyana), where his family owned plantations, Waterton traveled alone up the Demerara and Essequibo rivers and over the Kanuku Mountains as far as the Rio Branco, a tributary of the Rio Negro; this was an incredibly difficult journey, not made easier by Waterton’s proneness to accidents and illness caused chiefly by his own eagerness and temerity. His description of this and other journeys in Wanderings in South America gave many almost unbelievable stories which upset the orthodox scientists of the time, whom Waterton described as “closet-naturalists” ; he included Audubon, James Rennie, and William Swainson in this category. Swainson, who also collected South American birds, described Waterton’s “tendency to clothe fact in the garb of fiction,” although Waterton was, above all, sincere and truthful, being carried away only by his impetuosity and enthusiasm. Among his many eccentric adventures were his capture of a live caiman (crocodile) by riding on its back (see Illustrated London News, 24 August 1844), and his taking of a live ten-foot boa constrictor by the Watertonian expedient of punching it on the nose and hustling it into a bag before it recovered.

In each instance Waterton’s object was the scientific one of dissecting the animal and preserving its skin. This led to the formation of his collection of superbly mounted and preserved specimens at Walton Hall. He invented a new and advanced taxidermic technique of removing the whole interior and preserving only the skin and exterior parts with an alcohol solution of mercuric perchloride. The technique is described by Waterton in Wanderings (1825 ed., 307). Sir Joseph Banks wrote of his unrivaled skill in preserving birds. His collection, a large part of which may still be seen at Stonyhurst, was greatly enriched on his third visit to Demerara in 1820, when he took 232 birds, two land tortoises, a sloth, five armadillos, an ant bear, and the caiman, but he was justly annoyed when a customs delay caused the loss of his live Tinamus eggs, from which he had hoped to breed this little-known quail.

Waterton’s original object in his first journey had been to collect “a quantity of the strongest wourali poison” (ibid.,1) and he succeeded, giving an early and accurate account of the preparation of the South American arrow poison curare (p. 54). in which he was preceded only by Alexander von Humboldt in 1800. Waterton’s descriptions of the blowpipe and darts also were original (p. 58). He tested his curare on animals and correctly deduced that “the quantity of poison must be proportioned to the animal” (p. 69). Back in London, in 1814 Waterton conducted experiments on donkeys with the aid of the veterinarian William Sewell and the surgeon Benjamin Brodie. The most famous related to Wouralia, the ass whose life was preserved by energetic artificial respiration through a tracheostomy after she had received a large dose of curare (p.81). This is a technique now revived in modern surgery. These experiments served to draw attention to curare, which later was investigated by Claude Bernard and is now in common medical use. Waterton pronounced himself ready at any time to treat cases of hydrophobia with curare but seems usually to have arrived too late. Later the drug was used successfully by others in the treatment of tetanus.

Waterton’s fame as an explorer induced Lord Henry Bathurst, then secretary for the colonies, to offer him an important task, the exploration of the then almost unknown island of Madagascar. True to his eccentric nature, Waterton refused, pleading sickness, but probably influenced by religious prejudice, and so was officially ignored for the rest of his life.

Returning to Walton Hall, Waterton began the project of bird protection for which he deserves to be best remembered. It was Waterton–and not Audubon, as is often thought–who set up the first bird sanctuary; he enclosed Walton Park with a three-mile, seven-foot wall at a cost of £10,000. He banned guns and encouraged the birds to return to a natural state. Among his scientific writings, probably the most interesting is his argument with Audubon and Swainson on the manner in which vultures seek out their food (Essays, p. 17).

Waterton achieved fame and notoriety in his life-time both for his journeys and for his literary skill in describing them. Although his style was akin to that of his hero Tristram Shandy, his biographer Norman Moore states that the Essays belong to the literary class of Gilbert White and are not inferior in the quality of their observations. The comparison is not without justice; White was among Waterton’s favorite reading.

Waterton’s contributions to science, ultimately, were small: some increase in knowledge of curare, an original method of taxidermy, and above all the idea of animal and bird conservation. His nature was eccentric, forthright, outspoken, and lovable; but since he refused to conform, he remained outside the science establishment.


Wateron’s books are Wanderings in South America, the North–West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the years 1812, 1816, 1820 and 1824 (London, 1825), which describes his four journeys and has been republished many times; and Essays on Natural History Chiefly Ornithology (London, 1838), which includes an autobiographical note. He wrote many articles for London’s Magazine of Natural History, some of which appear in the Essays.

His admiring but verbose biographer, Richard Hobson, wrote Charles Waterton, His Home, Habits and Handiwork (London, 1866), which is the chief source for Waterton’s eccentricities. Sir Norman Moore, who had known him intimately, wrote a personal tribute in his article on Waterton for Dictionary of National Biography, XX, 906–908. An obituary notice is in Illustrated London News (17 June 1865). See also Richard Aldington, The Strange Life of Charles Waterton (London, 1949): and K. B.Thomas, Curare, Its History and Usage (London, 1964), 34-40.

K. Bryn Thomas