Last week, I mentioned that I was attempting to research details of the lives of the 19th Century naturalists Jules and Édouard Verreaux, and indicated that I would share what I had been able to find. This is that post. I warn you, it's going to be a trifle incoherent. I'm no Brian Switek, and the problem is that despite the significant presence of Maison Verreaux in mid-1800s European zoology, none of the Verreauxs (Verreauxes?) seem to have left much in the way of personal accounts of their activities. As a result, one is forced to try and cobble together details from secondary sources and other writer's allusions, and when one does find more than one description of a certain event, the descriptions often conflict. (There are also a few significant references that I don't have access to.)
Jules Pierre* (born 1807), Jean-Baptiste Édouard (1810) and Joseph Alexis (the youngest) were the three sons of Pierre Jacques Verreaux, the founder in 1800 (or shortly afterwards) of the firm Maison E. Verreaux in Paris. Their mother Joséphine was the sister of Pierre Antoine Delalande, another well-known French naturalist. Maison Verreaux was a commercial taxidermy and natural history firm, bringing in specimens from all other the world and reselling them to interested parties, including a number of museums (the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle seems to have been a big customer). In 1818, at the age of eleven, Jules accompanied his uncle Delalande to South Africa, and was there until 1820. He was to return to the Cape in 1825, after his uncle's death, and became a curator of the South African Museum in 1829.
*Not even his name is unequivocable - a couple of sources give it as "Pierre Jules".
In 1828, Jules Verreaux was sued for marriage by the family of Elisabeth Greef, a young woman who had borne an illegitimate child to Jules earlier that year (McKenzie, 2005). Jules had previously proposed marriage to Elisabeth, only to revoke the proposal later. Jules defended himself in the court with the claims that he was ignorant of having made such a proposal due to his not speaking Dutch, that he was a minor and so not empowered to make such a proposal without parental consent, and that it was all Elisabeth's fault anyway for being a slut (he even went to the extent of engineering for Elisabeth to mistakenly embrace a old boyfriend of hers while being watched by hidden witnesses). The court was not impressed by Jules' "artful, malicious and diabolical" behaviour - his claim of ignorance was obviously an outright lie, and Elisabeth was no more improprietous than any other young woman of the time. Unfortunately, Jules' minor status was an impassable legal hurdle, and the marriage suit had to be turned down. The judge did suggest to Elisabeth that she renew the suit once Jules reached his majority, but this never happened - as McKenzie (2005) suggests, perhaps the emotional trauma of being publicly scrutinised for slatternry was more than Elisabeth was willing to put herself through again.
In 1829 or 1830, Édouard joined his brother in the Cape, taking custody of a large collection of South African specimens collected by Jules and returning with them to Paris in 1830 or 1831. One of these specimens, though it attracted relatively little attention at the time, was to become the subject of much controversy in the 1990s - the stuffed body of a young BaTswana man. See Parsons (2002) and Molina (2002) for the history of "El Negre", as this figure became known. Jules claimed in a letter to Georges Cuvier to have stolen the body from a graveyard the night after its burial, at no small risk to himself from its guards (though to be honest, I can't help wondering if he had jazzed up the story a little in order to increase the apparent value of the specimen - if so, the pitch failed. Cuvier didn't buy the body). The collection of human remains was not entirely uncommon at the time - the specimens from Delalande's earlier expedition to the Cape included nearly two dozen skeletons and a number of skulls, while the remains of Tasmanian aborigines were to be among material later collected by Jules in Australia. Only a few years earlier, in 1816, Cuvier himself had conducted his dissection of Sara Baartman, who had been patronisingly eroticised as the "Hottentot Venus" (despite not being a Hottentot). While Maison Verreaux never handled a huge number of human specimens (the unfortunate BaTswana notwithstanding), this was probably a matter of commercial interests rather than due to any ethical considerations (Molina, 2002).
During the period of 1832-1838, things get confusing (which is annoying, because this is one of the periods I most need to find out about). What is certain is that Édouard returned to the Cape in 1832 in the company of the youngest brother, Alexis, who was to remain in South Africa until his death in 1868 (Gunn & Codd, 1981). Édouard then took ship to east Asia in 1832 or 1833. In Jules' 1874 obituary in the Ibis, it states that Jules also travelled to east Asia, and implies that the two brothers both remained there until 1837. However, other sources (Stresemann, 1975; Gunn & Codd, 1981) state that Édouard returned to Paris in 1833 or 1834 to take over the running of Maison Verreaux's home office. Meanwhile, Stresemann (1975) implies and Dubow (2006) states that Jules remained as curator of the South African Museum until 1838! I have little idea how to decide between these accounts*, but it is certain that Jules returned to Paris in 1837 or 1838 and became established at Maison Verreaux. Also certain is that the wreck of the ship "Lucullus" in 1838 resulted in the destruction of a large number of specimens collected by Jules Verreaux on their way back to Paris from abroad (despite one source referring to Jules himself only narrowly surviving the wreck, in this regard at least I am inclined to trust the obituary, which states that Jules had returned on a separate ship from his specimens).
*Normally, I would trust the obituary as having been written closer to the time, but the obituary has a slipshod composition and 'boy's own story' tone that, to be honest, undermines its credibility for me. In cases where it disagrees with other sources, it also tends to form the minority.
For the next few years, Jules remained in Paris, but in 1842 (we're back on firmer dates now) he travelled to Australia with the backing of the Muséum national, where he was to remain until 1847. No detailed account of Jules' movements in Australia exists, but he seems to have mostly travelled in New South Wales and Tasmania. He may have also travelled to New Zealand about this time. After his return to Paris, he concentrated most of his attention on bird specimens, though continuing to handle a number of other taxa. His taxidermic diorama 'Arab Courier attacked by Lions', featuring a man mounted on a camel being (as the label said) attacked by two lions (the lions and the camel were all stuffed specimens; the man in this case was a mannequin*) was highly awarded in 1867 (dioramas were a great source of public entertainment before the invention of film). Offhand, the lions featured in the diorama were the Barbary subspecies, Panthera leo leo, which was to become extinct not long afterwards.
*Molina (2002) implies that it could have originally been a real human and later replaced by a mannequin, but other than the previous case of the BaTswana there seems little reason to entertain this suggestion.
Édouard Verreaux died in 1868. Jules Verreaux fled Paris at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, and was received enthusiastically in England by the young ornithologist Richard Bowdler Sharpe. He remained in England until his death in 1873.
While Jules Verreaux was highly praised by his associates during his lifetime, the affair with Elisabeth Greef was symptomatic of a certain, shall we say, economical attitude to the truth. This attitude has, unfortunately, clouded Jules Verreaux's legacy in zoology. Maison Verreaux specimens became notorious for poor locality data (usually with little more detail than 'Madagascar' or 'Australia'), and what little data there was has often proven unreliable. In at least a few cases, specimens were attributed to completely inaccurate localities (Olson et al., 2005). These misattributions may even have been deliberate, in order to give a specimen a more valuable provenance (Olson et al. mention, among others, a Virginia rail originally labelled 'Martinique' for which the original locality had been crossed out and 'Nlle Zelande' [New Zealand] written instead). As a result, many Verreaux specimens simply cannot be trusted as far as you can throw them. So the answer to my original question that sparked this search, whether a supposedly Australian Verreaux specimen held at Paris actually came from Australia, or whether it could perhaps have come from south-east Asia instead, can't be pinned down to anything more definite than "Who knows?"
Dubow, S. 2006. A Commonwealth of Knowledge. Oxford University Press.
Gunn, M. & L. E. W. Codd. 1981. Botanical Exploration of Southern Africa: An Illustrated History of Early Botanical Literature on the Cape Flora. CRC Press.
McKenzie, K. 2005. Scandal in the Colonies. Melbourne University Publishing.
Molina, M. 2002. More notes on the Verreaux brothers. Pula: Botswana Journal of African Studies 16 (1): 30-36.
Olson, S. L., R. C. Fleischer, C. T. Fisher & E. Bermingham. 2005. Expunging the ‘Mascarene starling’ Necropsar leguati: archives, morphology and molecules topple a myth. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 125 (1): 31-42.
Parsons, N. 2002. One body playing many parts- le Betjouana, el Negro, and il Bosquimano. Pula: Botswana Journal of African Studies 16 (1): 19-29.
Stresemann, E. 1975. Ornithology from Aristotle to the Present. Harvard University Press.