In seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, girls and women were encouraged to take up natural history as an educational and leisurely pursuit. In late eighteenth-century England especially, botany was increasingly regarded as an appropriate female activity that would stimulate moral and spiritual improvement. Most women studied local or European flora and fauna. However, there are some who travelled across the Atlantic as part of imperial networks – often as wives or daughters of navy officers, colonial administrators, or diplomats – to explore the natural history of places such as Surinam, Mexico, Antigua, and Brazil. Others remained in Europe but studied the plants and animals of the Americas through transatlantic correspondences or travel accounts. 

This exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library explores the rich variety of ways in which European women contributed to the creation and dissemination of botanical and zoological knowledge of the Americas. From the collection, cultivation, and study of plants and insects to the production, translation, and illustration of travel journals, women were important contributors to the development of this scientific area of study that flourished in the context of empire.

Insects in the Americas

In the 16th and 17th centuries Europeans began to turn to insects as a new field of study. This was further stimulated by the work of, among others, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), who used the microscope to study the morphology of insects, and Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), who made important discoveries on the anatomy of insects. European interest in insects also grew because of the increasing number of travellers bringing back zoological specimens from overseas voyages of exploration. The JCB houses the works of Virginia Ferrar (1627?-1688) and Maria Sibylla Merian (1747-1717), two European women whose captivating work on insects both reflected and shaped this unfolding field.  

The Flora and Fauna of the Caribbean

In the late eighteenth century it was not uncommon for elite and middle-class British women to accompany male relatives, often plantation owners or Royal Navy officers, on journeys to the British colonies in the West Indies. Curious to learn more about their new surroundings, some women set about studying, collecting, and recording the native flora and fauna of islands such as St Kitts, Jamaica, and Antigua. The JCB holds the natural history works of Maria Riddell (1772-1808) and Lydia Byam (baptized 4 September 1772 - ?), two eighteenth-century women who contributed to European botanical and zoological knowledge of the West Indies.

Sketches of Latin America

In the early decades of the nineteenth century, British merchants, diplomats, soldiers, and explorers travelled to Latin America in ever greater numbers. They travelled for different reasons: to fight in the independence armies of Simón Bolívar, to seek out mining or other commercial opportunities, or to explore the flora and fauna of places such as Chile, Brazil, Peru, and Mexico. Women would occasionally accompany male relatives on these long and often arduous travels. Unfortunately, very few women left written records of their travels, and even fewer published their accounts. The works that do exist, however, demonstrate that some British women engaged in botanical activities in Latin America. At the JCB we can find the works of two such women: Maria Graham (1785-1842) and Emily Elizabeth Ward (1798- 1882).

Natural History in Translation

Ward and Graham belonged to a select group of early nineteenth-century British women who travelled to Latin America and got to study the natural world with their own eyes. However, there were also women who contributed to natural history writing of the Americas without ever crossing the Atlantic. Helen Maria Williams (1759-1827) and Sara Coleridge (1802-1852), for example, translated influential travel narratives by European male travellers into English. In this period, translation was often seen as an inferior and derivative ‘feminine’ literary activity. But for Williams and Coleridge translation provided a way to access specialized botanical knowledge and participate in scientific discourse. In addition, their high-quality translations made the knowledge of Latin American flora and fauna contained in these works available in English for the first time.


This exhibition was curated by Lilian Tabois (PhD candidate, English and Related Literature, University of York).