Last week’s post finished with Francis Masson returning to Kew in 1775 after a successful plant collecting expedition to the Cape of Good Hope. But he was clearly a man with itchy feet so the following year he was off again “undertaking an extensive plan of Operations” to “The Spanish Main”. However, the Caribbean wasn’t the Cape, and that was clearly where his heart lay. He eventually returned to southern Africa for another 10 years, although there were still more transatlantic adventures to come.Masson’s success at getting seeds, bulbs and even living plants back to Britain set off what can only be described as a mad craze for Cape plants. Linnaeus even named a genus of rather strange South African bulbs Massonia in his honour for doing this.
More significantly he is, according to Sir James Smith, the founder of the Linnean Society, the man responsible for the “novel sight of African geraniums in York or Norfolk” and for the fact that “now every garret and cottage window is filled with numerous species of that beautiful tribe and every greenhouse glows with the innumerable bulbous plants and splendid heaths of the Cape.”
There was just one problem with all this globetrotting: the late 18thc was a time of almost continual worldwide warfare with its consequent political upheavals, and plant hunting was, unsurprisingly, not exempt from its influences.
So….read on to find out more about the adventures and discoveries of one of Britain’s greatest, if least well-known, plant hunters…
One of the reasons that Masson is less well-known than he deserves is probably because, although he is known to have written a diary during his travels, only the one about his first trip to the Cape, which formed the basis of last week’s blog, survives. When he died he left what little property he had to his nephews. It “consisted chiefly of the journals of his various travels, drawings and collections of dried plants and other natural productions.” His nephews quickly sold everything to James Lee, the Hammersmith nurseryman, but regrettably there is now no trace of them.
As a result our knowledge of Masson’s travels comes from a couple of letters to his hero Carl Linnaeus in Upsala in Finland and his surviving correspondence with Sir Joseph Banks and William Aiton at Kew. Unfortunately even a large part of this was destroyed after Aiton’s death, so our sources are very limited. Luckily some of his drawings and paintings survive in both the Natural Museum and the library at Kew.In 1777 and 1778 Masson visited the islands of the eastern Atlantic – the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries, where according to Banks he “succeeded in sending home… the whole of their produce, the greatest part of which prov’d new to European botanists.” Not only did Masson send plants and seeds back to Kew but he also sent seeds and herbarium specimens to Carl Linnaeus asking him to help identify or give them names. Later he published a short account of the island of San Miguel in the Azores in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, although there is very little about plants in it.
3 of his letters to Linnaeus can be found in The Selected Correspondence of Linnaeus edited by James Smith, the founder of the Linnean Society in 1821: https://archive.org/stream/b28038654_0002#page/562/mode/2up
and his account of San Miguel at:
http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/68/601.full.pdf+html?sid=d1261ea6-29d3-44fb-a597-d5ec892844e0Amongst the plants he collected were some members of what is now classified as Pericallis. If that name doesn’t mean much the subsequent hybridization between them, led to what has become a popular houseplant – the cineraria. He also sent back echiums, senecios, cytisus and carlinas.
But this was merely the start of his journey, because in 1779 at the age of 38, in what he called “the afternoon of his life”, he carried on towards the Spanish Main as per Sir Joseph Banks’s instruction. This is where he got caught up in geopolitics. The British colonies in North America had declared their independence from the crown in 1776. France formally entered the war in their support in 1778, along with Spain in 1779 and the Dutch in 1780. So between then and 1783 Britain was at war with all the other great maritime colonial powers.
As a result Masson had to abandon his original plans because, as Banks dryly remarked, “it was in vain for him to apply for a passport.” Instead he botanized on the islands that were in British hands before he got caught up in the tit for tat military and naval actions between the English and French. He was on Grenada in July 1779 “when the French attack’d..[and] was cal’d upon to bear arms in its defence…and was taken prisoner fighting in the trenches.”
When eventually released by the French Masson managed, along with others, to reach nearby St Lucia which was temporarily in British hands. It was almost as unlucky an experience since a terrible hurricane hit the island in October 1780 and he lost everything, not just his notes and botanical collections but virtually all possessions including his clothes as well.
Banks sent a note to George III with details of all Masson’s expenses, adding that he had been “indefatigable in the execution of his duties.” But “having found “by fateful experience that in time of war the purpose of his mission could not effectively be fulfilled”, Masson must have been glad to take ship back to London in 1781.
Banks went on, that since “at present the war …making it necessary for Ships from all parts of His Majesties dominions to come home in Convoy, almost precludes the Idea of Mr Masson being employed with success in any part of the world.” However, “being unwilling to remain idle” as soon as it was finally over Masson was off again. Firstly to Portugal, then along the Spanish coast, to Gibraltar and north Africa, before returning via Madeira two years later.
But it was the Cape that was the great attraction to Banks, and presumably to Masson as well. During the war the British had tried unsuccessfully to seize the Cape from the Dutch but although it was now assumed to be safe to go, relations remained strained. Dutch suspicions of British visitors remained high and despite being received “in the most friendly hospitable manner” by the governor Masson’s movements were severely restricted. The Dutch East India Company was worried about potential spying leading to another attempt at a British takeover, and had ordered “that no stranger hereafter should have liberty to explore the country”.
Eventually Masson was allowed to travel but only inland, and on condition that he went nowhere that took him within three hours of the coast and did not climb mountains that would have given him a view of the coast. Unsurprisingly this severely limited the range of his missions and reduced his opportunities to find new plants. Apparently he even wanted to leave and go on to Bengal where “there is an ample harvest of natural Curiosities to be reaped”.
Nevertheless he set to work. Packets of seeds soon began to return to Kew: “I was much afraid that the part of the seeds which was collected last year would not arrive in time to be sown this spring in which case they would have been rather old… [but now] …they are contained in two small chests and will be delivered by the India Company Ship Princess Amelia. They contain about six hundred articles.” Others were sent back with passengers, not always British, on ships, again not always British, returning to Europe.
There is a tantalizingly brief note about Masson written much later in the recollections of James Main, another Scottish botanist and plant collector, who was on his way to China in 1792. His ship had brought news of the renewed declaration of war against the French, although this time the Dutch were allies of Britain, and having delivered it to the Governor he met Masson.
Masson “found some new species of Proteae which is not yet described, and some other genera, which now convinces me these mountains although so near the Cape, have never been properly explored.”Banks was pleased writing that “the plants you have sent home have succeeded so much better than any you sent home when you was last at the Cape that we have every reason to praise your industry…” It appears too that Banks had decided to move Masson from the Cape to Botany Bay but “finding from your letter to Mr Aiton you had an aversion to the place… another person should be sent there” and so Masson stayed on at the Cape.
His expenses claims survive and, together with his letters, which show that he travelled a lot during his ten year stay. There were two major expeditions – one back to the semi-desert Karoo and the other to Namaqualand, and many others close to Cape Town itself, but without his journals we have little detail of his adventures or what he found. However some of his introductions can be traced through Hortus Kewnesis where, for example, amongst the 102 species of pelargonium listed no less 47 had been sent by him.
The War with France had resumed and so in March 1795 Masson returned to Britain feeling “compelled to leave the Cape of Good Hope lest he should lose, in an expected invasion, the Collection of living Plants made during ten years residence”. Once home he wrote to Carl Peter Thunberg, with whom he had been corresponding since they first met, that he had “a collection of growing plants which I have been so fortunate to bring safe home , all my Staplei (about 30 species) are now growing in Kew garden.”
He was, he wrote, “indulged” with royal permission “to remain a year at home”, but being Masson he was “unwilling to waste so much time in idleness” and wrote a book about one of the new plant families he had found: Stapelia. These are bizarre succulents, and sometimes known as the “carrion flower”. Stapeliae novae, or, … new species of that genus discovered in the interior parts of Africa was issued in 4 parts and contained 41 coloured plates made from his own drawings.Masson’s success at getting seeds, bulbs and even living plants back to Britain set off what can only be described as a mad craze for Cape plants. His impact on British gardens and greenhouses can be seen from the fact that nearly a third of the 786 plates in the first 20 volumes of William Curtis’s Botanical Magazine were of his introductions.
But this barely scratched the surface. There are far too many others to list in any comprehensive way here, but, apart from the few already mentioned there were all sorts of proteas, gladioli, calendulas, xeranthemums [everlasting flowers] , hibiscuses, ericas, tritonias, lobelias, amaryllises, gardenias, agapanthus, strelitzia, kniphofia and zantesdeschia. It was an extraordianry achievement.But the itchy feet soon marched him off again. He was anxious to “recommence his employment as a collector” and was “ready to proceed to any part of the globe” that the king required because “many are the portions of it that have not been fully explored by Botanists.” He then added “all of them are equal to my choice.” Its a good thing that he wasn’t that fussy because his next destination was completely different: Canada.
It was another terrible journey. Britain was at war with France again and en route his ship was attacked and seized by French privateers and the crew and passengers transferred to a ship bound for Baltimore which “suffered many hardships from weather, want of water and provisions”. They finally reached New York having taken four months to cross the Atlantic. It was then a long overland trek north.His letters home to Kew show that Masson then spent the next seven years based in Montreal and collecting plants mainly in the area of the Great Lakes, although it is likely he also went as far south as Virginia. Not many specimens survive. There are a few sent back in 1799 and which are now in the Natural History Museum and some others sent back in 1805 at Kew. Amongst them was Trillium grandiflorum.
By 1805, Masson was obviously feeling his age  and asked for permission to return home. Even though this was granted war intervened again and he delayed his passage because of French naval activity and instead carried on plant collecting, this time at British outposts along the Gulf of St Lawrence. He sent Kew specimens of fruit, nut, and willow trees, complaining that heavy rains had kept him from further collecting and announced he would be returning in the spring. But it was not to be. Masson died that Christmas in Montreal, and was buried at the newly built Scotch Presbyterian Church there.
Francis Masson established a solid reputation as intelligent and observant born traveller. In its obituary of this “mild, gentle, and unassuming” man, the Montreal Gazette noted that “travellers who occasionally met him in remote countries . . . and men of science that knew his unremitting botanical labours and could estimate his talents, bear equal testimony of his merits and their writings incontestably evince his very uncommon success.”
His botanical legacy is enormous. Joseph Banks told King George III as early as 1782 that Masson had brought back
a profusion of plants unknown . . . to the Botanical Gardens of Europe . . . by means of these Kew Gardens has, in great measure, attained to that acknowledged superiority it now holds over every other establishment in Europe, some of which, the Trianon, Paris, Upsala, till lately vied with each other for pre-eminence without admitting even comparison from any English garden.
And his legacy lives on in virtually every garden in the country, a fact that was recognized very early on. Sir James Smith, the founder of the Linnean Society was to write just a few years later of the “novel sight of African geraniums in York or Norfolk…Now every garret and cottage window is filled with numerous species of the beautiful tribe and every greenhouse glows with the innumerable bulbous plants and splendid heaths of the Cape. For all these we are principally indebted to Mr. Masson…” [cited in Encyclopaedia Londinensis, 1816]
If this has stirred your interest in Francis Masson and you want to know more then I highly recommend Mike and Liz Fraser’s The Smallest Kingdom: Plants and Plant Collectors at the Cape of Good Hope. [Kew, 2011].
Other books and articles include F. R. Bradlow, Francis Masson’s account of three journeys at the Cape of Good Hope, 1772–1775 (1994) · M. Gunn and L. E. Codd, Botanical exploration of southern Africa (1981) and there is also a more deatiled account of his Canadian work and a fuller bibliography at the end of his entry in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography which you can find at: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/masson_francis_5E.html