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ORCHID COLLECTING FOR SCIENCE AND COMMERCE IN COLOMBIA DURING THE 19th CENTURY Camilo Uribe Botta

On 7th October 1881, Rosa Carnegie-Williams and her husband visited a small “quinta”, country estate in the north of Bogotá that Messrs. Shuttleworth, Carder & Co, of Clapham had bought to grow orchids and other plants, and then send them to England.

A typical Colombian 'Quinta' estate house of the era.

Mrs. Carnegie-Williams was interested in the way orchids where packaged and tied up in small sticks together with sphagnum moss. Those sticks were then nailed to wooden boxes, transported on mule-back to the river port of Honda, and then to England by ship. When she left Bogotá almost one year later, Rosa took one of these boxes with her back to England.

Mules transporting a consignment of Cattleya orchids across Colombia (1910).
A typical resting stop on these routes.

Rosa Carnegie-Williams was a British woman who travelled to Colombia in the late nineteenth century with her husband, who was working with a mining company, in the Tolima region of Colombia. Her experiences were reflected in her diary, published in 1884, and translated to Spanish in 1990. She settled in Bogotá between September 1881 and June 1882. During those 10 months Rosa had time to visit the surrounding area, make some natural expeditions and visit gardens.

Rosa Carnegie-Williams, A Year in the Andes; or, a Lady’s Adventures in Bogotá. (London: Literary Society, 1884, 1884).

In the ample travel writing literature, her diary is one of the very few testimonies written by a woman in Colombia. Her observations of everyday life in Bogotá and the different towns and cities she visited, such as Zipaquira, Honda, Guaduas and Barranquilla, show us a new and fresh perspective on nineteenth century Colombia. She is also one of the very few people to talk about orchids.

Rosa Carnegie-Williams, Un Año En Los Andes, o, Aventuras de Una Lady En Bogotá. (Bogotá: Academia de Historia de Bogotá; Tercer Mundo Editores, 1990).
Oncidium alexandrae (Odontoglossum crispum). Illustration by Lisa Anzellini (2021).

Colombian orchids were famous in Europe, specially in England, where species such as Oncidium alexandrae (Odontoglossum crispum),º| Miltoniopsis vexillaria and different species of cattleya, such as Cattleya mossiae and Cattleya warscewiczii were among the most famous, expensive and desirable.

Miltoniopsis vexillaria. Illustration by Lisa Anzellini (2021).
Cattleya mendelii. Illustration by Lisa Anzellini (2021).

Most of the history of the orchid trade between South America and Europe focuses on fantastic stories about the orchid hunters in the tropical forests, such as Albert Millican , and the fancy collections of wealthy British collectors such as MP Joseph Chamberlain.

Portrait of Joseph Chamberlain by Sir Benjamin Stone, Photographed outside the Houses of Parliament, (1905) Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham.
A postcard showing one of the extensive orchid glasshouses that Joseph Chamberlain maintained at his Birmingham (UK) residence, Highbury.

But how did Colombian orchids became so famous in London that Rosa became interested in visiting the business of Messrs Shuttleworth, Carder & Co in Bogotá? I will follow the journeys of some orchids throughout the nineteenth century, from the Colombian jungles to the British greenhouses. I will identify the different actors involved in this commerce: orchid hunters, fancy collectors, scientists, naturalists, nurserymen or simply travellers, like Rosa. Certainly, they were not the only actors involved in this exchange. In this journey, orchids had different meanings: they were botanical curiosities, scientific objects and fancy commodities. Let’s follow Rosa and her orchids!

A humourous cartoon of the era depicting a consignment of imported flowers also containing some tropical insects.

When Rosa Carnegie Williams arrived in Colombia in 1880, orchids were constantly leaving the country to Europe. The business she visited, Shuttleworth, Carder & Co, was founded by Edward Shuttleworth and John Carder, two orchid hunters who first worked for the British house of William Bull in the 1870’s, and eventually founded their own orchid business. Rosa’s narrative journey across Colombia, from Barranquilla to Bogotá, show us a very clear reality of the late nineteenth century country and also reveals her main interests, noticing the landscape and the plants in their environment, something totally new for her.

Martin Johnson Heade, Orchids and Hummingbirds (1872). The paintings of Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904) often show the combination of nature and habitat.

Orchids were certainly one of her interests as she notices them all the time. Following Rosa’s journey, I will also highlight some characters and locations that at some tame between the late Eighteenth and the Nineteenth century played a key role in this orchid trade.

An image of Anguloa clowesii and two orchids taken by Pastor Restrepo, from the Wills and Restrepo 'carte-de-visite' albums.
Unloading cargo Ceará Brazil (1883) Sir Benjamin Stone, Reproduced with the permission of Library of Birmingham

Her first encounter with orchids was on September the 10th 1880, a few days after she arrived in Barranquilla, when she saw some orchids on the banks of the Magdalena River. This was since the Sixteenth century the way of entrance to the interior of Colombia, to its main cities such as Bogota and Medellin and to the regions where most of the orchids were found.

A couple of days later, the 20th September, Rosa had a really interesting experience when in the she met directly an orchid hunter that she calls “Mister C.”, possibly Joseph Henry Chesterton, a very famous orchid hunter working for Veitch & Sons. Rosa met him when they started climbing the Eastern Andes, in the town of Guaduas, spend a night together in the town of Villeta and travelled together until the town of Facatativa.

When they stopped in the small village of Chimbí, Mr C. bought a small collection of orchids, including Odontoglossum crispum var. chestertonii. Villeta was a important market town and a mandatory stop in the way to Bogota. It was there where, around 1850, the British Minister in Colombia, Edward Mark, painted one of the first artistic representations of Colombian cattleyas possibly Cattleya trianae, Cattleya warsciewisczii or Cattleya quadricolor.

Painted representations of Colombian cattleyas possibly Cattleya trianae, Cattleya warsciewisczii or Cattleya quadricolor, by Edward Mark c.1850.

Mark had been living for a long time in the country with different diplomatic posts in Bogotá and Santa Martha. Beside his diplomatic activities, Mark was an amateur botanist and a great artist.

Once Rosa and her husband arrived in Bogotá, one of the first visits outside the city they made was to visit the country estate where Shuttleworth, Carder & Co organised their business. We don’t know yet if other companies also established similar headquarters in Bogotá, but Rosa’s visit invites us to investigate in the archives the possibility of other companies collecting orchids in a similar way. A few days later, 20th October, she visits again the “places of the orchids” as she call it. Meanwhile, in a visit to the British Cemetery and the Catholic Cemetery in Bogotá she also notices some orchids on the trees.

By the end of October 1881, Rosa managed to rent a house in the north of Bogotá. A typical Colombian house with a central patio. She obtained a good collection of orchids from San Victorino, the main public market square in the city. We can see that she didn’t visited their newly made friend to buy some orchids, but preferred to look for them in the public market. San Victorino, even today, is still a very busy part of the city with a big retail business and in the late nineteen century products from all the regions around Bogotá were sold there, including such decorative plants as orchids. Rosa became very fond of her orchids and, even when she was away staying in a friend’s house, she managed to go back to her home to water the orchids.

One of the most fantastic natural landscapes near Bogotá are the Tequendama Falls, a 132 metres high waterfall that always fascinated travellers and artists. Mutis and and Mark, all of them visited this amazing place and in one way or another recognized how wonderful it was. It is also an amazing place for orchids, growing in the middle of the misty and foggy tropical forest around the waterfall. Rosa also decided to visit the Tequendama falls with a friend called José María, who helped her collect different plants, ferns and orchids. She was fascinated with this beautiful landscape and with its “invaluable orchids” she was finding all along the path.

Odontoglossum crispum var. Chestertonii from John Day's Scrapbooks.(1880)

In another journey around Bogotá, in May 1882 Rosa visited the town of Zipaquira. In her way, she stopped in a chichería, a kind of inn, where some beautiful orchids decorated the garden, a brown Maxillaria and a “pink one from Pacho”, possibly an Odontoglossum crispum.

Image from Frederick Sanders and Co. catalogue. (1880)

Rosa wanted to buy those orchids but found them very expensive, around 16 shillings each (£ 52 in 2017). In Zipaquira, a town known for its gardens and patios, she also saw a “crisped orchid” with pink striped petals, possibly again an Odongotlossum crispum.

Anguloa clowesii. Illustration by Lisa Anzellini (2021).

But the time for Rosa in Bogotá rapidly came to an end, and less than a year since her arrival, she was already going back to Britain. The 15th of June she packed around 12 boxes with her belongings and “some orchids to bring with us”. Certainly, the Colombian orchids amazed Rosa and she was eager to bring back with her some of these plants.

Orquidea. Illustration by Lisa Anzellini (2021).

It was not an easy journey, orchids needed constant care, as she notices again on 27th June when in Barranquilla she wrote that her husband was organizing the boxes that contained the orchids. We don’t know if Rosa’s orchids arrived safely to Britain, but it is possible that some of them (if not many) died in the journey, as was common in that time.

UK Government reports on trade and finance from Colombia (1887).

By the time Rosa left Colombia, orchid business export was at its peak. By 1887 commerce was so significant that it started to appear as a new category in the Diplomatic and Consular Reports on Trade and Finance from Colombia. That year, 86.570 kilos of orchids were exported from Colombia to the UK.

Laelia colombiana. Illustration by Lisa Anzellini (2021).

This commerce came to an abrupt decrease by the end of the century. Frederick Boyle, in his amazing book “The Woodlands Orchids” in 1901, when he explained the ways locals gathered orchids cutting down the trees, as Millican also noticed in his book, says that since the Colombian government made a law forbidding to cut the trees, the output of orchids has been reduced.

Frederick Boyle, The Woodlands Orchids Described and Illustrated. With Stories or Orchid-Collecting... Coloured Plates by J.L. MacFarlane (London: Macmillan & Co, 1901).
Albert Millican, Travels and Adventures of an Orchid Hunter: An Account of Canoe and Camp Life in Colombia, While Collecting Orchids in the Northern Andes. (London: Cassel & Company, Limited, 1891).
'Native Dinner Time'. An image from The Adventures of an Orchid Hunter, Albert Millican (1891).

This law was not made for orchids specifically, but for another natural product: rubber. The Decree 473 from 1899, aware of the destruction of the trees to obtain rubber, forbids this practice, and states that everybody who wanted to exploit the “national forests” of Colombia needed not only a license but also to assure that the trees would not be cut down or destroyed in order to obtain whatever natural product.

The year 1899 was also the year of a terrible civil war in Colombia, the Thousand Days War, that lasted more than three years and almost destroyed the entire country. Maybe those two events marked the decline of the Colombian orchid boom export, but it was certainly not the end of Colombian orchid fascination, that still wonder us today.

Laelia colombiana (detail) Illustration by Lisa Anzellini (2021).

About the author

Camilo Uribe Botta is a second-year PhD student in the History Department at the University of Warwick. He holds as MA in History from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. His doctoral research centres on the commerce of orchids between Colombia and the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century. He analyses how tropical orchids, understood as a botanical curiosity, a scientific object and a commodity, impacted the economic, scientific and cultural relations between Colombia and Britain and the different actors involved in this trade. In his research he is working closely with botanists, botanical illustrators and orchid cultivators to have a more interdisciplinary approach to his historical interests. His working experience has always been involved with artistic and media institutions, mainly as a historical advisor, in such as museums (Colonial Museum in Bogotá and Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham), theatres (Colón Theatre in Bogotá) and TV channels (“Bolívar” tv show for Caracol Televisión and Netflix).

Written for The Silent Orchid Festival and Summer School (2020)

The Silent Orchid Festival and Summer School (2020) was an online school that emerged from artist Matt Westbrook’s art and science participatory research project ‘Mr Chamberlain’s Orchids’ Originally intended to culminate as a campus-wide festival of orchid growing at the University of Birmingham, the online Summer School was developed in response to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Held between May and July 2020, it created an international network of artists, scientists, historians and orchid enthusiasts who took part in weekly creative activities and discussions.

The Silent Orchid Festival and Summer School was funded by Arts Council England, University of Birmingham, The Chamberlain Highbury Trust, Bruntwood and New Art West Midlands.

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