Down the rabbit (Lepus curpaeums) hole: Edward A. Chapin

Last week, with the arrival of many more of the field books to the Biodiversity Heritage Library web portal, I had the chance to dive deeply into the field books of Edward Chapin, entomologist and Curator of Insects at the Smithsonian Institution from 1934 to 1954. I spent the most time in his field book covering a set of travels to Cuba and Jamaica, though mostly Jamaica, in 1937 and 1941. It was a fascinating adventure “down the rabbit hole” into another era of history!

The beetles, bad weather, and endless driving

Several things struck me almost as soon as I began reading, the first of which was how closely Chapin’s descriptions of the insect life of the islands were wrapped with his observations of the weather, travel conditions, car problems, dinner menus, host families and housing arrangements, and even clothing purchases. A set of observations on insect collecting might be as short as a sentence or as long as a page, depending on what caught his attention that day. The second item that struck me was how frustrating these kinds of expeditions could be! Not only Chapin deal with the usual traveler’s woes of lost luggage and poor weather, but he also faced challenges unique to the scientist – the difficulty in finding many types of insects, or one insect in many life stages, or in finding relevant insects at all. It seemed that Chapin sometimes spent days driving from one end of the island to the other, looking for abandoned homes, downed trees, fence posts and post holes, and such beetle- and termite-friendly places to explore, and often finding nothing. However, on other days he was so overwhelmed with his findings that the problem became locating additional jars to hold them all!

Sugar factories, banana plantations, and Panama Disease

I also went further down the field book “rabbit hole” with items that Chapin mentioned seemingly offhand. For instance, in one of his entries, he described his visit to a sugar factory and detailed the process by which cane became sucrose and molasses, which I found fascinating. He followed that entry with one describing the tour of the banana plantations on the island, and how the banana carriers (those who took bunches from the rows of plants to spots along the road where they would be loaded into trucks) received only “three shillings a hundred bunches. The work is hard as it means tramping through mud six or eight inches deep for fifty yards or so with about 150 lbs balanced on the head.” I immediately looked online for a recording of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” and began to read about its history as a Jamaican folk song – the song seems so lighthearted, compared to the work it describes. I can hardly imagine the kind of daily labor that the banana carriers endured.

Chapin even made a brief mention of Panama Disease affecting the banana plants on the island – I did a bit of research and discovered that another strain of Panama Disease is the current cause of problems with the Cavendish banana that we all enjoy at our local grocery stores. “Race 1” of the disease was the cause of the epidemic in the 1950’s that wiped out the previously farmed Gros Michel banana. Chapin’s 1941 journal was recording the disease almost 10 years before it became a widespread problem!

New Seville and Christopher Columbus

I fell into more research when Chapin mentioned a visit to Seville, which was

“now a large coconut walk but originally the site of the first Roman Catholic cathedral (1505). The foundations have been cleared and in the center of the floor there is a hole about six feet across and ten feet deep, carefully walled with brick, from which a passage leads away to the west. In this passage we found a dozen pieces of very beautifully carved stone, probably the remains of the altar. One piece has the coat-of-arms of the Bishop of Seville, the others are mostly angels and cherubims.”

I did a quick search for “Seville, Jamaica” and found a UNESCO world heritage website for “New Seville,” which hosted Christopher Columbus in the late 1490s and did indeed feature a Roman Catholic church of “Peter Martyr, the first abbot of Jamaica, having begun in 1525.” Someone’s dates are off…I’m inclined to think that Chapin was misled in thinking the church was from 1505, but who knows? At least I learned more about the history of Columbus’ voyages in the new world, and just in time for Columbus Day (October 13th).

WWII Internment Camps

One more historical mention led me to another fifteen minutes or so of research – Chapin’s off-hand mention that the husband in one of the families he met on the island was “at present serving at the internment camp as a guard.” The history I knew of U.S. internment camps during WWII only covered the Japanese-American internment camps in the West. I had no idea that there were internment camps in Jamaica. Who did they hold? A quick search revealed that not only were there internment camps on the islands, but that they held both plantation owners who were of German descent and thus “possibly” sympathizers, as well as the German POW’s from U-boats taken in the Atlantic (see also the one-sentence mention of the German POW barracks in Up Park Camp on this page).

The mongoose and the dolphins

And finally, there were two mentions of animals that I found fascinating. The first was a mention of the mongoose, an invasive species introduced to the islands to prey on the rats that destroyed large amounts of sugar cane. As in many other places, the non-native species proved far more destructive than imagined and became more of a problem than the rats themselves even in 1941. The mongoose lives on the islands to this day, and has contributed to the possible extinction of at least four native species. And second, a mention by Chapin of his journey home, where he was off the coast of Cape Hatteras and recorded being

“in the midst of the herd of bottlenosed dolphins headed north on their annual migration. As far as one can see, in every direction, there are thousands of dolphins moving steadily northward. On either side of the bow, our boat is convoyed by groups of from three to ten animals…we first sighted them at four in the afternoon and they were still with us at dark.”

Today herds of dolphins are recorded as numbering only in the hundreds during their winter migration – nevertheless, what a lovely image with which to conclude my research adventures in the field notebooks of Edward A. Chapin, entomologist, traveler, and recorder of both scientific and humanist history.

For more information

For more information about Edward Chapin, and to see the full records for his field books held at the Smithsonian Institution, please see his records in the Smithsonian Collections Search Center.

As of this blog post, three field books by Edward Chapin have been fully digitized and are available on the Biodiversity Heritage Library site.

Each of the three field books in BHL has been fully transcribed by volunteers with the Smithsonian Transcription Center. You can find them at the following three links: Cuba and Jamaica, Colombia, Chile.

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Julia Blase served as the Project Manager for the Smithsonian Field Book Project at Smithsonian Libraries from 2014-2015.