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A Forgotten Manuscript of Caribbean Botany


Among the pages of a vibrant 19th-century volume is recorded the flora of colonial Cuba.

Few things seem to embody nature at its most ebullient than a tropical flower. This fact was known to a woman named Nancy Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft, of whom though little else is known. Upon the death of her husband Charles in 1817, she left the United States to live in the exuberant Matanzas province, in Cuba. There, she dedicated her life to studying the island’s flora and, in the mid-1820, she gathered her observations into a volume titled Specimens of the Plants and Fruits of the Island of Cuba.

The manuscript for many years remained the only illustrated record of Cuban plant life. Therefore, and despite its having been in oblivion for decades, it’s one of the oldest. Whether Wollstonecraft received a formal education or was entirely self-taught is also unknown, but her remarkable aesthetic sensibility gives his book its unique charm. It reflects not only her artistic temperament, but also her great love for the natural world. The work emits a sensual innocence with which, perhaps even within the context of science, we should always approach nature.

Wollstonecraft’s watercolor illustrations include analyses of plants and their biology, and according to specialist Emilio Cueto, who presented this manuscript in 2018, only 145 illustrations of any Cuban plants had been made until that time. At least 124 of those had been the work of Wollstonecraft, and some others were the product of European expeditions to the island, including those of the Alexander von Humboldt.

Wollstonecraft died at the age of 46 shortly after having sent her manuscript to an editor in New York. She never saw the book published, much less imagined that it would be studied even to this day. But prior to her death she had published some texts under the pseudonym D’Anville. These included chronicles of letters that narrated other explorations in Cuba and notes on the flora seen there.

This volume, from the collection of rare manuscripts at Cornell University, was digitized recently for the digital library of the Hathi Trust and it’s now available for anyone to download. It’s one of those rare pieces in the public domain that any lover of flowers should know.

Images: Hathi Trust

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