August 11, 2011

Introduction to a Systematic History of Shelled Animals

Joachim Johann Nepomuk Anton Spalowsky (1752–97) was a veritable polymath in the Austrian Empire of the late 18th century. Little is known of his life, but it is thought that he was of Polish Silesian ancestry. He was a surgeon attached to the civic regiments of Vienna and a member of the Royal Bohemian Society of Sciences in Prague. His erudition is evidenced by the range of his publications. His 1777 inaugural dissertation treated poisonous plants and related topics. He went on to write works on shells, birds, and mammals, and even a disquisition on economics and numismatics. Spalowsky’s 1795 treatise on conchology, Prodromus in Systema Historicum Testaceorum (Introduction to a systematic history of shelled animals), is among the rarest of published books on mollusks and other shelled organisms. The work remains of importance for its original descriptions of several new species and varieties. Although Spalowsky intended to write an introduction to all shelled animals, his death in 1797 precluded the publication of a more comprehensive review. The 13 engraved plates are beautifully colored by hand with watercolor and gouache. Gold and silver leaf was applied under the watercolors to capture the iridescent quality of the shells. A descriptive Latin caption heads each plate. The main part of the book is in parallel Latin and German texts, in double columns.


François Nicolas Martinet (circa 1725–1804) was an engineer and draftsman who became an engraver and produced illustrations for works by Denis Diderot and Benjamin Franklin and for books by the most influential ornithologists in 18th-century France. Before Martinet, illustrators often depicted birds disproportionately, incorrectly, or in stiff, unnatural poses. Martinet introduced realism to his illustrations, showing how birds appeared in the wild in their natural habits. In the early 1770s, he set out to produce his own plates for a collection entitled Ornithologie: Histoire des Oiseaux, Peints dans Tous Leurs Aspects Apparents et Sensibles. Martinet produced two sets of plates under this title: a two-volume set in folio with more than 200 plates and no text; and a nine-volume set in octavo with 483 plates and with text by him describing the birds. Both editions are extremely rare. Shown here is an incomplete version of the folio edition consisting of 174 plates of illustrations, engraved with etching, colored by hand with watercolor. Each plate has a caption consisting of the bird’s common name in French with additional text. The book is printed on a fine blue cotton paper that softens contrasts and creates an effect of sky behind the birds. Martinet has mostly positioned perching birds on tree branches or on rocks or grassy hummocks, but several of the most attractive plates include a fuller treatment of the background and the bird’s natural environment.

August 17, 2011


This early-19th century playing card is from a set of 60 such cards, each devoted to a different province or territory of the Russian Empire, which at the time included the Grand Duchy of Finland, Congress Poland, and Russian America. One side of each card shows the local costume and the provincial coat of arms; the other side contains a map. This card depicts Georgia, an ancient kingdom that was annexed by Russia in 1801. Located in the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia bordered the Black Sea and Turkey to the west, Persia (present-day Iran) to the south, and the Caspian Sea to the east. Tiflis (present-day Tbilisi) was the administrative center. The card indicates that the distance from Tiflis to St. Petersburg was 2,625 versts, and from Tiflis to Moscow, 1,905½ versts. A verst is a Russian measurement of distance, no longer used, equal to 1.0668 kilometers.

August 24, 2011

Togo under the German Flag

Germany, a latecomer to the competition among the European powers for colonies in Africa, established the Togoland Protectorate in 1884. Encompassing the territory of present-day Togo and the Volta Region District of Ghana in western Africa, Togo was portrayed by German imperial circles as a model colony, financially self-sufficient and benefiting from bridges, roads, and railroads built to support an agricultural industry based on cacao, coffee, and cotton exports. Later historians disputed this characterization, noting the often harsh treatment of the Togolese under German rule. The German authorities used scientific expeditions to extend their control to the interior of the colony. Heinrich Klose was a researcher from Berlin who, in 1894–98, spent nearly four years in Togo and took part in an expedition to its northern areas. Togo unter deutscher Flagge (Togo under the German flag) is his account of his stay and the expedition to the north. The book contains valuable information about the geography, people, and economy of the country, but it was also intended to validate the model colony thesis and to argue that the success of Togoland was evidence of Germany’s abilities as an imperial power. Germany lost the colony in 1914, when it was occupied by French and British forces in the early days of World War I.

Funafuti; Or Three Months on a Coral Island: An Unscientific Account of a Scientific Expedition

Funafuti is a coral atoll that is part of Tuvalu, a sovereign nation located in the west-central Pacific Ocean, midway between Hawaii and Australia. This book is an account of a scientific expedition in 1897 to Funafuti, which at the time was part of the British protectorate of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The author, Janet William Edgeworth David, the wife of Professor T. W. E. David of Sydney University in Australia, accompanied her husband on the expedition. The object of the expedition was to take deep borings of coral reefs in order to advance the state of scientific knowledge about the reefs and their origins, and specifically to test the theories advanced by Charles Darwin in his Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842). David’s book, subtitled An Unscientific Account of a Scientific Expedition, includes many wry remarks on the expedition and its participants. But it also contains detailed information about the atoll and people of Tuvalu, including chapters on King Tupu and his sub-chief, language, law, nursing of the sick, tattoos, food and cooking, clothes and plants, and animals. Also included are nine traditional tales and stories and the texts of 31 songs in Tuvaluan and English.

Report by Mr. Arthur Mahaffy on a Visit to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, 1909

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the west-central Pacific Ocean were first visited by Europeans in the early 19th century and became a British protectorate in 1892. In January–March 1909, Arthur Mahaffy (1869–1919), a British colonial official, made an inspection visit to the protectorate to review economic and social conditions, and in particular to examine the system of taxation used to support the protectorate’s government. Mahaffy’s eight-page report, which was submitted to the Office of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific in Suva, Fiji, in July 1909 and published in London in 1910, contains information about the system of land tenure in the islands, the graduated land tax in effect, the production of copra and coconuts, and social, economic, and demographic trends. Mahaffy concluded that conditions on the island were generally favorable, a finding seemingly contradicted by the decrease of the native population that he observed as “well marked on almost every island of the group,” and which he attributed to imported diseases, a falling birth rate, and various other causes. The protectorate became a British crown colony in 1916. In 1979, the colony was divided to form the independent countries of Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands) and Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands).