The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

Pedagogy through print: James Sowerby, John Mawe and the problem of colour in early nineteenth-century natural history illustration

a1 Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH


These gems have life in them: their colours speak,

Say what words fail of.

In an ambitious treatise on the estimated wealth of the British Empire in the year of Waterloo, Patrick Colquhoun added to his calculations of the revenues produced by overseas property the potential profits created through exploiting natural resources. In his ‘political arithmetic’, Colquhoun recognized that an increasingly lucrative resource could be found in ‘mines and minerals’, where ‘various articles extracted from the bowels of the earth, which the new discoveries in chemistry have rendered valuable articles of commerce, have tended greatly to increase the value of the mines’. Such information, accumulated through travel, skilled techniques of identification and analysis, and collecting, proved central to regulating judgements about potential overseas investment by the government.

Practices in natural history intersected with the development of British commerce in a number of ways. Mineralogists specially trained to identify rare species of minerals scoured distant shores and collected sack-loads of specimens, seeking information about natural resources that might nourish a developing imperial economy. One such British mineralogist was John Mawe, who in 1804 received patronage from Portugal's Prince Regent to embark on ‘a voyage of commercial experiment’ to the Portuguese territory of Brazil and assess the value of the gold and diamond industries that might revitalize their ailing and isolated economy. National and individual economic interests were informed and served by the multiplication of such acts of commercial speculation, which focused on various kinds of natural resources. Mawe was very conscious that the mineral kingdom held much to be explored. Unlike botany, with Linnaean taxonomy rendering order to the kingdom, knowledge in mineralogy was far from comprehensive. Mawe lamented that ‘few have thought the knowledge of Minerals worthy of their attention, although to them we owe our national strength and riches’. Others also argued that because it addressed national interests, research and education in the earth sciences should be publicly patronized.