28 August 2013

Beccari the explorer and Singapore

Who is the Italian explorer that Halophila beccari is named for? And did he visit Singapore?
Odoardo Beccari
Photo from Wikipedia
Odoardo Beccari (1843–1920) was an intrepid Italian explorer of Southeast Asia who "wandered almost alone where few white men have been able to go".  Upon Beccari's death, I. H. Burkill wrote "Beccari never missed an opportunity of collecting and though Singapore was to him but the means of getting into the wilder lands, he collected not a little in the island"


Naturalists and scientists today will appreciate some of the amazing stuff that Beccari did include taking photos of rattan-palms "with the use of an ingenious apparatus for removing shadows". And even today, commiserate with Beccari's experience with customs processes: apparently the great tuber of Amorphophallus titanum that he discovered "reached Marseilles alive, but perished there because of the inflexibility of the laws against importing living plants."

Beccari was renowned for his work on palms, and Burkill also said "It is intended in the Botanic Gardens, Singapore, to make, with palms first described by Beccari a small avenue as a memorial to this great naturalist, who ever since Singapore had a botanic department has been a frequent correspondent, and was always ready to give the assistance of his profound knowledge."

I wonder if the palm avenue dedicated to Beccari still exists in the Singapore Botanic Gardens today?

Here's how to pronounce Beccari in Italian.

Here's the full fascinating account in memory of Beccari by I. H. Burkill.

Odoardo Beccari by I. H. Burkill in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society © 1921 Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society on JSTOR

At the age of seventy-seven, on October 26th, 1920, Odoardo Beccari, the great naturalist and traveller, died unexpectedly of heart failure in Florence.

Beccari obtained a degree in the Natural Sciences at the University of Bologna in 1864; and immediately after that met in Genoa the Marquis Giacomo Doria, already a traveller of note: there they planned together the first of Beccari's four journeys to the wonderful East, — Beccari the botanist, and Doria the zoologist. The preparations for it took Beccari to London, and caused the commencement of his life-long connection with Kew. The two explorers set out in April, 1865, spent a short time in Ceylon, and reached Sarawak in June via Singapore, thereby starting Beccari's fifteen years of busy collecting and travelling.

It is well before anything else to state whither those years took him:—(1) in Sarawak with Doria until March, 1866, when the latter's health gave way, and in Sarawak alone to January, 1868: (2) in Eritrea in the company of the Marquis O. Antinori from February to October, 1870; (3) eastwards again, to New Guinea from November, 1871, with L. M. D'Albertis, who like Doria broke down; in the Aru and Kei islands from February to September, 1873; in Celebes to June, 1874; in the Moluccas to January, 1675: in Dutch New Guinea to March, 1876; and then back to Florence in July of the same year; (4) in 1877 across India to Australia and New Zealand with E. D'A/bertis; and parting in Java at Batavia in 1878, alone for a final exploration in southern Sumatra.

The wealth of the material got upon these travels was enormous: his first journey resulted in 20,000 botanical specimens representing 3,300 species of the Higher Plants, in a collection of 800 fruits in spirit, in a big collection of timber samples, and in his 48 orang-utans: his collections from Eritrea ran to 600 numbers; and his later collections were upon the same scale, both botanical, zoological and ethnological. This vast store, so much of it got together in the Dutch Indies, the Government of the Netherlands, it is said, wished to buy; but Beccari preferred that it should go to Italy, whence he distributed his duplicates liberally. The botanical and ethnological parts now lie at Florence, and the zoological part at Genoa.

Intrepid, and yet very wise in his dealings with the wild tribes, Beccari wandered almost alone where few white men have been able to go. His visit to the Kaputts region of central Borneo is a case in point; his climbing of the Arfak mountains in New Guinea with five natives another: and his penetration of southern Sumatra a third. When, and in a large part where he travelled, head-hunting was among the inhabitants an honourable pastime.

In Sumatra he discovered. the Aroid, Amorphophallus titanum,— the tuber (1) so heavy that it required two men to carry it. In Borneo it was his wont to fell the enormous Dipterocarps and other forest trees, that the material which he collected might be perfect. He never missed an opportunity of collecting and though Singapore was to him but the means of getting into the wilder lands, he collected not a little in the island.
The gianormous flower of the Titan arum
bloomed at the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 2011
Photo by Loh Kok Sheng.

Repatriating himself finally in 1880. Beccari settled down in Florence to study his immense collections, and to publish his results, his home an old castle, and his way of living very simple. There he married: and three sons fought for the Allies in the Great War.

In the first short interval between his expeditions, he had founded the Nuovo Giornale botanico Italiano, which is still published as the organ of the Societe botanic& Italiano. On his return from his second expedition to the Far East he commenced his "Malesia," being essays on groups of interesting Malayan plants, beautifully illustrated, by his own pencil, the coat of reproduction met in part by means of a grant from the Bentham Trustees(2) in London: the first volume appeared at Genoa in 1877, the second from 1884 to 1886 and the third from 1886 to 1890.

In 1892 he was occupied jointly with Sir Joseph Hooker in monographing the Indian palms for the Flora of British India. In 1902 he published his Nelle foreste di Borneo, which was translated into English (1904) by Dr. K H. Giglioli in a somewhat modified form under the title of "Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo."

In 1908 and 1914 the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta. published his two magnificent monographs upon the rattan-palms. The plates for these were executed from photographs taken by Beccari with the use of an ingenious apparatus for removing shadows. In 1912 he monographed the palms of Madagascar for ,the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He published many smaller works, chiefly in the journal Webbia, and for the most part upon palms.

It is significant of this—-his great interest—-that Malesia opens with an account of the palms of New Guinea, and with the words "a predilection for the plants of this family has made me on all occasions to ensure that they should be represented in my collections by complete specimens and that I should always record their appearance alive." After this essay on palms come others on various natural groups of plants, selected in each case with the idea of clearing ground where the difficulties lay thick. The second volume of Malesia is occupied by his classical essay entitled "Piante ospitatrici," that is plants which provide hostels (for ants, etc.). The third renews the subject of the Palms, and is like the first, a series of systematic studies in difficult groups of plants.

He prefaced his essay on "Plants which provide hostels" by a discussion upon the part stimulation or irritation by insects could have had in calling into existence characters now inherited, such as hollow stems and hollow tubers, eminently prepared as it were, for the insects to occupy them. In this his views were Lamarckian, —-that is to say he accepted Lamarck's "inheritance of acquired Characters" as a working force in the shaping of this world. Such views have long been unacceptable to the majority of workers on Evolution: but he set them forth again in his Nelle Foreste di Borneo where the possibility of the pull of river currents in giving submerged leaves length that becomes 'ultimately inherited, is among further illustrations one of the more striking.

Death found him engaged in preparing for the press his New Guinea diaries; and in putting the last touches to two further monographs of palms, one on the Lepidocaryeae in English, and the other on the Areceae in Italian. These monographs are likely to be published shortly. A third on the Borassineae was left somewhat advanced.

It is intended in the Botanic Gardens, Singapore, to make, with palms first described by Beccari a small avenue as a memorial to this great naturalist, who ever since Singapore had a botanic department has been a frequent correspondent, and was always ready to give the assistance of his profound knowledge.


(1) This great tuber reached Marseilles alive, but perished there because of the inflexibility of the laws against importing living plants. Beccari, however, had sent seeds to his friend the Marquis Corsi Salvatori; and the huge herb flowered at Kew from them in 1889, eleven years from the date of Beccari's finding it.

(2) George Bentham, co-author with Sir Joseph Hooker in the great Genera Plantarum, bequeathed in 1884 a sum of money for the provision of illustrations to botanical works.

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