Frank Buckland wanted to save—and eat—as many animals as possible.
This is the first entry in Edward White’s The Lives of Others, a monthly series about unusual, largely forgotten figures from history. He has previously written for the Daily on Carl Van Vechten and rugby.
Every now and then, even Charles Darwin was dumbfounded by the mysteries of the natural world. On those occasions, he reached out for enlightenment to a repertory cast of scientific correspondents, one of whom was Francis Trevelyan Buckland, a raffish, tousle-haired star of the natural-history craze that befell Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. The two made for unlikely pen pals: if Darwin was the dour, sincere prophet who transformed humanity’s appreciation of its place in the universe, Buckland was a professional eccentric, as much showman as scientist. Although he did groundbreaking work in pisciculture (the breeding of fish), Buckland was perhaps best known as a lecturer, beguiling huge audiences with his left-field takes on botany, zoology, and human anatomy. As a general rule, the weirder the subject, the more likely Buckland was to have something to say about it: the fighting behavior of newts, the cannibalistic propensities of rats, the best method for killing a boa constrictor, gigantism, walking fish, flea circuses, conjoined twins (he was a good friend of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins), the uses of human hair as manure, and pagan burial rites. Tellingly, it was Buckland to whom Darwin turned to verify a claim that a dog and a lion had successfully bred in rural Russia.
Disheveled, jovial, and bursting with the chuckling bonhomie of a real-life Mr. Fezziwig, Francis Buckland gained fame for his accessible take on scientific marginalia—and notoriety for his faintly bohemian lifestyle, especially the vast, unruly menagerie of exotic animals that he kept at his London town house. He was exactly the sort of celebrity scientist that usually raised Darwin’s dander. The great man said as much in his autobiography when he passed comment on Francis’s father, William Buckland, a theologian who doubled, somehow, as a trailblazing geologist. “He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science,” Darwin wrote of Buckland Sr.: “though very good-humoured and good natured [he] seemed to me a vulgar and almost coarse man.”
From his father, Francis learned everything that was to make him famous, vulgarity and coarseness included. William Buckland was the patriarch of a large and loving family—seemingly a far kinder man than his brother John, a sadist who ran the school at which the Buckland children were educated and who disfigured the nine-year-old Francis’s right hand during a ferocious beating. In an emphatically British way, William wrote firmly but politely to his brother to stress the importance of not causing any more permanent damage to his children, outlining the areas of the body where a good thrashing may or may not reasonably be given: “let boys be flogged or caned on the back and shoulders as much as may be needful but let them not be maimed with an inflexible ruler.”
In the Buckland household, oddness was next to godliness. Drawing room tables were decorated with lizard feces and clumps of lava from Mount Etna; instead of hobbyhorses, the children had the corpses of dead crocodiles to ride around on; they learned to distinguish between types of animal urine by taste alone. Francis took his father’s gleeful, childlike curiosity about the wondrous variety of life on earth and magnified it into a philosophy for living, and the core of a defiantly strange personality. At his boarding school, he shared his room with rats, an owl, a buzzard, a magpie, and a racoon, and he became popular for providing feasts for the other boys with grilled trout and field mice poached from the land of a neighboring farmer. As a student at Oxford, his menagerie took a turn for the exotic: an eagle, a jackal, a pariah dog, marmots, guinea pigs, snakes, a chameleon, a monkey, and a bear came under his care, some sharing his rooms. The bear and the monkey, in particular, were prone to roaming, and on several occasions Francis had to charge across plush college quadrangles in pursuit of them. It earned him local celebrity, but somehow avoided irking the dons.
Buckland’s interest in wildlife was obviously sincere, but his brood also helped him to deflect scrutiny and cover deficiencies. His father, after all, had achieved great academic success, and there was pressure on Francis to follow in the old man’s shoes. But he struggled constantly in his studies: his time at Oxford was four years of stress, failed exams, and running to stand still. What he lacked in academic sharpness he made up for with zeal and an outsize personality. He became the jolly fellow with the uncombed hair and the untucked shirt, haring across the town with a white rat scurrying up and down the sleeves of his coat, explaining to his tutors how his marmoset ate his homework. Even after he’d left university and entered the army as a surgeon, his reputation was marked more by his love of practical jokes—he dressed his capuchin monkey in a miniature version of the regimental uniform—than by any professional accomplishments.
But this was all training for Buckland. He was to become a new figure in British science: the popularizer and entertainer, engaging the public at a time when the notion that science could be used to ameliorate the inconveniences of daily life was first taking root. In 1851, the Great Exhibition had captivated millions with unprecedented displays of the world’s most cutting-edge technologies: giant industrial looms, steam hammers, industrial printing presses, revolutionary adding machines—“every conceivable invention,” as Queen Victoria put it—all showing the new era of mass production within the Crystal Palace, a vast glass-plated exhibition space that was itself a wonder of the age. In 1859, Darwin published his Origin of Species, which, combined with the slow but steady spread of literacy throughout Great Britain, created a vast audience of enthusiastic armchair scientists. Between those bookends, in 1854, Buckland stepped away from the army to write humorous, trivia-laden essays about the oddities of the natural world. His writing drew no barriers between “them” and “us,” between the expert author and the inquisitive reader; he took his audience beyond run-of-the-mill experience, inspecting creatures they could scarcely believe existed, and introducing them to all the peculiar people who populated his life, a cast that was, by then, as varied and confusing as his collection of pets: French soldiers, African merchants, Jewish animal dealers, Chinese sailors, Oxbridge dons, Scottish anglers, lords, ladies, and bishops.
From a writer’s perspective, he’d realized a certain dream: being paid to simply live one’s life and commit it to paper. Still, many of Buckland’s peers accused him of being nothing more than a ringmaster with a classical education. One critic asked whether a man who devotes time and effort to relating his observations of flea circuses could really be treated as an ally of science. And, in a way, those charges seem even more pertinent now than they did back in the 1800s. Take, for example, an essay about his beloved monkeys Jacko and Jenny, which appeared in the first installment of his hugely successful Curiosities of Natural History series in 1857. The tone rests somewhere between Gerald Durrell and David Sedaris, all affectionate exasperation at the domestic chaos that rules his life. Yet in the twenty-first century, passages that were originally intended to get laughs now read like confessions of grotesque animal cruelty, the kind of which would have Minnesotan dentists hounded off Twitter before you could say mass hysteria. Jacko and Jenny were given beer daily, except on Sundays, when they drank port. Once, when Jenny escaped into some nearby trees, Buckland resolved the situation by repeatedly shooting at her with a shotgun. “At length, after repeated firings,” he reported breezily, complimenting himself on his quick thinking, “she became so frightened and subdued that she seemed to have lost all presence of mind, and allowed a man to get on the tree and catch her.”
Jacko proved harder to discipline, but much of what Buckland took for his mischief—tearing jars off shelves and defecating on the floor when locked in a kitchen cupboard for several hours; attempting to break loose when chained to the fireplace; pulling at the hair of visiting ladies—were surely the symptoms of a highly disturbed animal. Buckland finally got one over on Jacko by tying him up in a canvas bag and hanging it from a peg for three hours while the animal writhed around inside. Two years later, when Jacko died, Buckland ensured that he remained a part of daily family life by having him skinned and turned into a tablecloth.
Even so, Buckland was in many ways a pioneer of animal rights: he campaigned against animal traps and inhumane slaughter, and was involved in the foundation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Some Victorians actually thought him stupidly soppy in his attitude toward his pets. His connection to nature was neither sentimental as some of his contemporaries thought nor as unthinking as his writing about Jacko might strike us, but acutely spiritual. His father had always defended his obsession with geology to his fellow clergymen by saying that the fossils he studied strengthened rather than lessened his faith in the literal truth of the Bible: they proved that the Flood had deluged thousands of species into the earth and out of existence. In a similar vein, Francis maintained that the endless heterogeneity of flora and fauna that scientists were in the business of recording were a testament of God’s love of Man. All these creatures, he thought, had been brought to life for the enjoyment and nourishment, literal and metaphorical, of mankind. This meant he was never able to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution: “I was brought up in the principles of Church and State, and I will never admit it.” To him, nature’s myriad peculiarities were spellbinding because they gave expression to the glorious moment of creation when all life was created in perfection and permanence.
That religious belief led Buckland to a line of scientific inquiry both grander and more absurd than his usual interests. In 1860, he became a founding member of the Acclimatization Society, devoted to broadening the varieties of animal species native to the British Isles. The Society wanted rare deer from Virginia and Iran, yaks and bison, reindeer, eland, wapiti, and kangaroos, all roaming through Britain’s parks, woodlands, and the grounds of its stately homes. And this was not simply to beautify the countryside but to tackle Malthusian fears of an imminent food crisis—Britain’s population boomed during the Industrial Revolution. Of course, British dinner plates never were piled high with marsupials and cracid birds; the most exotic species the Society managed to introduce was the North American gray squirrel. Neither did Buckland’s other great hope for the Acclimatization Society take off: zoöphagy, the study of animals through eating them. Each year the Society held a lavish zoöphagical banquet at which guests would sample animal meats from far-flung regions of the world. The menu for a typical banquet might include Chinese sheep, wild boar from Germany, kangaroo, Syrian pig, curassow, long-eared rabbit, pintail duck, and salted mullet eggs from the bay of Naples.
On one level, zoöphagy was typical of the hale, hearty, and slightly mad Francis Buckland that the public had grown to love, a Ripping Yarns bit of upper-class English industriousness, like test match cricket or taking a seat in the House of Lords, all rambling projects of no discernible practical merit, but done with boundless enthusiasm and complete seriousness. Yet his passion for zoöphagy and the Acclimatization Society reveals an essential truth about how Britons of Victoria’s reign saw the world and their place in it. To the British of the mid-nineteenth century—a people who believed they had been handed the divine burden of civilizing every benighted corner of the globe—to tame and possess all the flora and fauna that God had created for the sole use of mankind was considered a sacred duty. Queen Victoria took this to be a self-evident truth, and her insatiable desire for the cuisine of her dominions—in particular those of India—reflects a wider trend in British culinary tradition in which foods from the furthest reaches of the planet are embraced as being somehow quintessentially British. There is, after all, nothing inherently British about tea from China, curry from India, or chocolate from South America, all of which are pillars of the traditional British diet. Even fish-and-chips are believed to have been the invention of Jewish refugees from Portugal. In the minds of well-born gentlemen of Francis Buckland’s generation, there was nothing that could not be owned and devoured and made—that most liminal of identities—British. It’s an attitude that expresses the best and worst of the nation’s image of itself in relation to the rest of the planet. Ultimately, when Buckland wrote of Japanese sea slugs, Ugandan gorillas, Madagascan monkeys, or any other wondrous creations mysterious to his readers, he was attempting to tame nature, to make the unknown known, and allow his compatriots to see themselves and their nation in communion with God himself.
Buckland died relatively young, two days after his fifty-fourth birthday, in 1880. The likely cause of death was a severe respiratory problem brought on by pipes, cigars, and a predilection for exposing himself to the wind, the rain, and the snow. “I like to get wet through,” he said of sitting on open-topped London omnibuses, “and the harder it rains or blows the more I enjoy my ride.” It was that cheery perversity, an ability to find wonderment even in life’s bland irritations, that those who knew Buckland most loved about him. His passing elicited dozens of letters of condolences to his wife and children; despite his house being chockablock with shrieking, violent animals and pickled corpses in jars, Buckland had countless friends and a blissfully happy home life. In their ardor for anything furred or feathered animal lovers, then and now, are often suspected of practicing a sort of coded misanthropy. Nobody could have ever accused Francis Buckland of such a thing. In the years after his death, certain friends publicly recalled times when Buckland performed acts of spectacular kindness, providing meals, clothing, and train tickets for strangers in distress, and constantly buying gifts and performing unsolicited favors for friends and acquaintances. As one obituarist put it, “no man ever lived with a kinder heart.” It was the secret of Buckland’s peculiar success—although poor old Jacko might not have agreed.
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. White studied European and American history at Mansfield College, Oxford, and Goldsmiths College, London. Since 2005, he has worked in the British television industry, including two years at the BBC, devising programs in its arts and history departments. He is a contributor to The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in London.