National Insect Week blog by Louise Berridge
Most of the Museum’s digitisers have encountered the entomologist Alfred Edwin Eaton (1844-1929) through his specimen labels. We are transcribing the labels of three groups of freshwater insects that Eaton often collected, the Museum’s Ephemeroptera, Trichoptera, and Plectoptera collections. Eaton’s handwriting can be challenging to decipher (see examples below). We often need to share pictures in our Team’s online chat to try to work out difficult labels together. We reached a point where a new tricky Eaton label was an exciting event and finally cracking his handwriting was a relief… until the next label!. We were all imagining what sort of a person Eaton might have been.
When we heard a story that Eaton had been arrested on 22 June 1896 in Algeria while collecting insects, I wanted to know more…
Eaton travelled to Algeria in 1892 as no European entomologist had yet documented Algerian Trichoptera. He found the country such an interesting place of study that he remained there for several years, with only occasional return visits to England.
At noon on 22nd June 1896 Eaton was searching for Neuroptera (net-winged flies including lacewings, mantidflies and antlions) at Forêt d’ElOubeïra, close to the Algerian border with Tunisia, when some farm workers noticed his dishevelled appearance and unusual insect-collecting equipment. The workers thought Eaton should be questioned by their local Sheikh in case he was a spy or ‘suspicious character’. There was a language barrier – at this time Algeria was under colonial rule by France: Eaton could speak French, but the Algerians he met that day were speaking Arabic, which Eaton did not know. Eaton shared his lunch with the men and then followed them at their suggestion, wandering off on the longest possible route to their village so that he could explore the area’s swamp and collect more insects. Clearly the arrest was not as terrifying as it might have been.
When they reached the village, which Eaton names as Aine Kriar, Eaton met the Sheikh who decided that he should be questioned by the nearest French Administrator, 12 miles away at El Kala (French: La Calle), where there was a jail. Eaton does not name him, but a contemporary French Almanach National lists the Administrator of El Kala as a man named Moreau. Eaton protested so loudly at being asked to share a horse with the Sheikh’s man who was supposed to accompany him to see Moreau, that eventually the Sheikh gave up and let Eaton ride a separate horse.
Eaton and his companion did not need to travel the full 12 miles to El Kala– they met with Moreau out travelling on their route. Eaton bolted his horse ahead to meet Moreau in order to reach ‘safety.’ Eaton showed the French official a jar of dragonflies to illustrate what he had been doing. Moreau was not very impressed, explaining that there had been a lot of robberies in the area recently and that was why the locals were wary of strangers, but he asked Eaton if he had been treated badly. Moreau wondered why Eaton had not got any personal identification papers or travel permits, to which Eaton responded that he hadn’t known he needed any. Moreau let him go. Reading between the lines of Eaton’s account, it sounds like the men who arrested him treated him with a lot of patience. Eaton’s conclusion was that it all worked out fine and he managed to get back to where he was staying at Le Tarf in time for dinner.
Thanks to detective work by Dan Hall in the Museum’s small orders collection, we know that some dragonflies which Eaton showed Administrator Moreau on his arrest day are at the NHM, courtesy of his friend Robert McLachlan’s collection. These examples are Sympetrum sanguineum (Müller, 1764), also known as ruddy darters, a cosmopolitan species which is found all over Europe and the Mediterranean. When alive, the males are tomato-red and the females are an ochre colour (see image below). Eaton’s specimens have faded in colour – which would have happened a day or two after he collected them – but they are still in good condition.
Knowing the story of how these specimens were once used as a ‘get out of jail free card’ by an eccentric entomologist certainly add another dimension to digitising them. Eaton’s story will also help us to georeference his specimens from Algeria as we have learned more about his travels.
It would not be recommended or possible today to travel and collect overseas without id and travel documents; today you would usually need specimen collecting permits and an environmental impact assessment might be necessary too. Eaton may not have even been travelling with a passport, as this was not always strictly enforced before the First World War.
Eaton was at least not freewheeling with his collections data, and formally recorded occurrence information for quite a lot of insect species in Algeria for the first time. Eaton sent Algerian Hydroptilids (a family of Trichoptera) he had collected to the Scottish entomologist Kenneth J Morton who found they were significant not because they were new species, but because most of the same species had been found across Europe, and so he learned that they had a wider distribution than previously known. Eaton’s labels still form a baseline of information which help us to monitor how insects are affected by environmental changes over a long period of time, which is why it is worth transcribing them, even if it can be difficult sometimes.
With thanks to Rosemary Pearson and the Royal Entomological Society for permission to use Eaton’s portrait, Dan Hall for tracking down Eaton’s dragonflies in the small orders collection and Krisztina Lohonya for help with transcription and georeferencing.
Find out more from our digitisers and the stories they unravel while digitising 80 million specimens by following us on Instagram and Twitter. If you want to read more about Eaton’s tale you can access his own account of his arrest on the Biodiversity Heritage Library.