Sunday, 16 July 2017

Francis Masson, plant hunter: 1741-1805 - by Sue Purkiss

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post introducing the plant hunters - you can find it here. Logically, my first subject should be Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), a wonderful, larger-than-life character who travelled with Captain Cook on his first voyage round the world, and then persuaded King George III to put him in charge of his garden at Kew, which Banks developed into the immensely important botanic garden which it still is today. He also became President of the Royal Society, and played a considerable part in fostering the talents of scientists such as the Herschels and Humphrey Davy.

But as it happens, I wrote about him some years ago, when the History Girls were asked to choose their favourite historical character. So you can read about him here - but this month, I'm going to write about Francis Masson.

Francis Masson

Masson was closely linked to Banks. Born in Scotland, he was working as an under gardener at Kew when Banks spotted his potential, and sent him off with Cook on his second round-the-world expedition. (Banks was meant to be going himself, but the Admiralty felt that his conditions were a trifle unreasonable - among other things he wanted to take a pack of greyhounds and his own personal orchestra - and they were unable to agree on terms.)

After three and a half months at sea, Masson parted company with Cook at Cape Town, in South Africa. As is the wont of plant hunters, he went looking for plants and found danger; on Table Mountain, he was so entranced by the glorious variety of flowers before him that he lost all sense of time and direction, and completely forgot that he had been warned that a gang of escaped convicts was on the loose - until he heard the sound of men's voices, and, more ominously, clanking chains. He crept through the undergrowth to an old shepherd's hut, where he sheltered till he was able to slip away as dawn broke.

Strelitsias - Bird of Paradise flowers - on Table Mountain: one of the hundreds of species Masson sent back to Kew. 

Evidently not put off by this brush with danger, he hired a covered wagon, a driver and a guide/translator, and set off cheerfully on a 400 mile round trip into the interior. Naturally, along with a range of exciting new plants, he encountered treacherous rivers, steep mountain paths, poisonous snakes, rampaging hyenas and so on. But he made it back safely, and to Banks' delight, was able to deliver more than 500 new plants to Kew.

But after risking life and limb in search of new plants, gardening at Kew really just didn't cut it any more, so he was soon off again; this time via Madeira, Tenerife and the Azores to the West Indies. His difficulties this time began when he got to Grenada, and the French invaded. (Bear in mind, this being Jane Austen month, that their dates overlap - hers are 1775- 1817 - and that while her books have the drawing room in the foreground, they have war in the background: many of her male characters are in either the navy or the army.)

Instead of hunting for more plants, Masson found himself conscripted into the militia and then captured and imprisoned by the French. He lost his plant collection, but, thanks to the intervention of Banks, he was released. (But how long would the messages necessary to achieve that have taken?)

Things didn't get a great deal better. In St Lucia, his next port of call, a hurricane destroyed his new plant collection and his journal. Disheartened and miserable, he sailed home early in 1781.

Another plant introduced by Masson - the streptocarpus, or Cape Primrose.

However, he bounced back, and after a pleasant two-year trip to Portugal, in 1786 he went back to Cape Town. Travelling was much more difficult this time, as Britain and Holland were at war and the Dutch were in charge in South Africa. Nevertheless, he stayed here for some years, only returning home in 1795. As usual, he couldn't settle, and persuaded Banks to send him off again, this time to North America. He'd survived so much, but the bitter Canadian winter was too much for him; he died there, thousands of miles from home, in 1805.

For the information in this post, I'm indebted to The Plant Hunters, by Toby, Chris and Will Musgrave, published by Seven Dials.

Sue Purkiss's novel for children about the plant hunters - Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley - comes out at the end of September.


Joan Lennon said...

Love this world of plant hunters - and looking forward to Jack Fortune!

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Joan! I just can't get over how insanely brave they were...

Leslie Wilson said...

Very interesting indeed.