Naturalists in Paradise

When they arrived at the mouth of the Amazon River in the late 1840s, Russel Wallace, Henry Walter Bates and Richard Spruce were not experts in science. They had little experience outside of their provincial English towns, only basic education and all three were of humble means (they planned to support their adventures through the sale of specimens). Wallace and Bates were in their 20s and Spruce only 32, yet these three adventurers were destined to become famous naturalists. Their discoveries in the Amazon, where they would spend the prime of their lives, would have an influence that outlasted even their highest hopes as they began their journeys in, as Wallace put it, “a fever-heat of expectation.”

While together they would introduce thousands of plants and insects to science, each of the three explorers is best known for a particular feat. Alongside Charles Darwin, Wallace was a co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection. Bates is credited with discovering insects’ defensive ability to imitate the traits of harmful species, today known as Batesian mimicry. Spruce saved countless lives from malaria when he transported the cinchona tree, a medicinal plant that produces quinine, to India.

With his new book Naturalists in Paradise, John Hemming is the first to weave the stories of these naturalists' discoveries in the Amazon into a full-fledged narrative, and he is well-qualified for the task. Former Director of the Royal Geographic Society and an internationally recognized authority on the Amazon, Brazilian Indians, the Incas and Peruvian archaeology, Hemming has traveled extensively in the steps of his subjects and has written several books of vital interest to the traveler to South and Central America, including some of our favorites, Tree of Rivers and Conquest of the Incas.

A natural storyteller, Hemming follows the men into their separate adventures in an engaging and informed narrative. He quotes liberally from their journals, and his text is supplemented with images and drawings of the native peoples, insects, flora and fauna they encountered, bringing their experiences vividly to life and allowing the reader to immediately sense the young naturalists’ wide-eyed wonderment and joy of discovery in, as Spruce wrote, “a region which may fittingly be called a Naturalist’s Paradise.”