I’ve just reached for my Brooke Bond tea card album “Butterflies of the World”, which came out in 1964. The reason for doing this is that I recall from my youth reading that Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, Ornithoptera alexandrae, the world’s largest butterfly, was first described from a female killed by gun shot. The tea card, it turns out, was indeed the source of that knowledge. The shooter was Albert Stewart Meek (1871–1943), naturalist and explorer, and this 603-page giant of a book is all about him, his exploits and his discoveries.
Meek was employed by Lionel Walter Rothschild to collect anything Animalia for his museum at Tring. This Meek did in south-east Asia, mainly in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Much of what he found was previously unknown to science. John Tennent’s preface hints at Meek’s character and strained family relationships, which may partly explain his wish to get away from it all. There is then a series of maps showing the areas explored and an introduction covering, amongst other things, the history and perils of collecting in Meek’s time, his specimens and his letters. Twenty chapters follow, the first dealing with his father and his dodgy exploits, the rest detailing his life chronologically. Chapter 2 takes us up to 1894 when he was 23 and had carried out his first expeditions, in Australia, and had his first collecting agreement with Rothschild. Chapters 3 to 17 each cover a period of one to three of his most productive years, whilst chapters 18 to 20 cover the 28 years leading up to his death. Helpfully, each chapter has a very short précis in green type. These notes helped me to home in on the shooting of O. alexandrae (ironically an unusually small female), which happened in late 1905 or early 1906 and is covered in Chapter 11. That holotype is now in London’s Natural History Museum and there is a delightful picture of Meek’s grandson and great grandson holding the drawer in which it resides. As it happens, this event seems not to have greatly excited Meek at the time and is described by him in a 48-word afterthought in a letter to Tring’s Karl Jordan. We learn from John Tennent that several of the large butterflies collected a century ago were brought down by dust shot used primarily for shooting small birds without damaging their plumage. How wrong it all feels now! On page 333 there is a summary of what is known about the butterfly, some illegal trading and the problems encountered in trying to protect it.
Of course, the book covers very much more than this eye-catching story – so much more, that attempting to summarise it here would be futile. The one-volume abridged version of Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples is a little over 600 pages in length. John Tennent uses a similar number of pages on one of them, and brings him out of obscurity. The research that went in to all of this is extraordinary. It involved digging out and sifting through articles, letters, obituaries, collections etc., and seeking out numerous people all over the world to talk to about the man. The 21 pages of references give a clue as to what must have been involved.
Weighing in at 3.26 kg, this book is hard to read comfortably from your lap. In spite of its huge size, the great majority is text, although there are some magnificent photographs sprinkled throughout (including – Fig, 6.4 – the cover of Antenna 42(2)!).
Appendix A is a useful summary of the relationships between Meek and some key people mentioned in the book (parents, siblings, wives, children, the Eichhorns and the Barnards). Appendix B presents pictures from his book: A Naturalist in Cannibal Land; others from an article written by Frank Fox in 1913, and 81 photographs from Meek’s photograph album, courtesy of Sir David Attenborough who now has it in his library. Appendix C contains an important chronology of Meek-related events from 1871 to 1944.
John Tennent has been able to write this book with such authority not only because of years of research, but also because he has experienced searching for butterflies in the same remote areas. It is a terrifically engaging read. In his foreword, Dick Vane-Wright says “This is the story of a remarkable naturalist and explorer, by a remarkable naturalist and explorer”. I couldn’t put it better.