image L&P_7_188_2
Image number: RS.8497
Credit: © The Royal Society
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Unknown man posing beside termite colony

Date

ca. 1781

Creator

Henry Smeathman (1742-1786, British), Naturalist

Object type

Archive reference number

Material

Dimensions

height (painting): 202mm
width (painting): 363mm

Subject

Content object

nature
   > animal
      > insect

Description

Landscape view of one intact and one sectioned termite [isoptera] hill in Sierra Leone, showing turrets, nurseries and a royal chamber; together with a man, holding a pick axe and pointing to the termite colony on their left.

European settlers are visible behind, climbing a termite hill and using it as a viewpoint. A herd of cattle appears to the right [as viewed] with a bull standing sentinel on a termite mound. Behind are west African palm trees. Above the main hills and attached to a tree branch is a termite arborium, reached by covered passageways extending up the trunk of the tree. The arborium is shown in section on the upper right of the painting.

Plate 7 from the paper Henry Smeathman’s “Some account of the termites, which are found in Africa and other hot climates”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society vol.71 part 1 1781 pp.139-192.

Henry Smeathman (1742–1786) English naturalist, known for his work in entomology and colonial settlement in Sierra Leone.

In 1771 John Fothergill (1712-1780), along with two other members of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and Marmaduke Tunstall (1743-1790), sponsored Smeathman to spend four years in and around the Sierra Leone peninsula studying its natural history, specifically its insects. His research relied heavily on individuals involved in slave-trading networks for support and assistance.

The man holding the pickaxe and pointing to the termite hill was likely of the Sherbro people. The Sherbro were Sierra Leone’s first inhabitants, traditionally living in the coastal Bonthe district. 'Some account of termites [...]' indicates that members of their community acted as guides through unknown territory and shared what they knew about various species of termites.

Associated place

<The World>
   > Africa
<The World>
   > Africa
      > Sierra Leone