Born in Leicester, England in 1825, the humble grandson and son of sock makers, Henry Walter Bates had an insatiable curiosity for the natural world and an unstoppable passion for collecting, especially beetles.
He was a multi-talented, creative, warm and fun-loving person who played the guitar, was often singing or humming and with his restless and inquiring mind often mumbling to himself or to his pet monkeys with an endless array of new thoughts and ideas (it can get lonely in the jungle). Bates was an exquisite watercolour illustrator who taught himself Greek, French, Portuguese and German, was an entertaining storyteller and gifted writer and really enjoyed sharing his knowledge and passion. He was loved by all and when he died, the testimonials, from a wide range of people, were overwhelming in their praise and respect for Bates as a professional and as an extraordinary human being.
11 Years in the Amazon —From 1848-1859 Bates explored the rivers and rainforests of the lower and upper Amazon region.
8,000 Species New to Science —Bates collected over 14,500 different species in the Amazon and 8,000 new to science.
2 Ground breaking Discovery —Darwin himself said that Bates' work solved one of the most perplexing science problems of their day
He left home and journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean at 23 to explore the wilds of the Amazon rainforest—a perilous adventure that would change his life forever. After having secured initial funding from Samuel Stevens, a natural history agent in London who bought and sold exotic specimens, Bates and his likeminded friend Alfred Wallace immediately started collecting specimens with the goal of discovering evidence that animals change, contrary to Victorian belief.
Without the assistance of natives, Bates would never have been able to explore and survive in the remote and uninhabited areas of the vast Amazon rainforest and make his incredible discoveries. He learned many different native languages, customs, hunting methods and they shared a common respect and understanding of nature, which he wrote about in his adventure book. He won Brazil's highest honour for his many achievements there.
Although unknown to the general public, Henry Bates made crucial contributions to evolutionary biology by discovering the phenomenon of mimicry, now known as Batesian mimicry, whereby a non-toxic animal imitates a toxic one, and putting forward the first case for speciation—the changing of a new species from another, and collecting over 8,000 species new to science.
Charles Darwin said that Bates’ mimicry discoveries, “solved one of the most perplexing problems which could be given to solve” and were “the beautiful proof” for Darwin’s theory on natural selection—considered the greatest scientific explanation for the development of life on earth. Bates recounted his adventures and findings in his best selling book, The Naturalist on the River Amazons, 1863.
Bates was awarded Brazil’s highest honour–The Order of the Rose–and was elected to the Royal Society with the world’s most eminent scientists.
Bates, Darwin and Wallace remained friends for life, with Bates even naming one of his sons “Charles” and another “Darwin”.
Click on the dates to learn about Bates’ life and his 11 year journey along the Amazon River. Immerse yourself in a world of scientific discovery and adventure!
Leicester, EnglandHenry Walter Bates is the eldest of four sons born to “Honest Henry” Bates, a dryer of hosiery, and Sarah Gill, a woman of a sweet and unselfish nature. Although they live modestly they’re a close knit and happy family.
Leicester, EnglandThe Leicester Mechanics’ Institute has an extensive library and it’s here that Bates teaches himself the complicated classification system of Linnaeus, which is used to identify different organisms. He continues his self-edification even after he’s apprenticed to a master in a hosiery factory.
EnglandBates’ first publication, Coleopterous Insects Frequenting Damp Places, is published in the monthly scientific magazine The Zoologist. This short work describes beetles found in Leicester and showcases the early signs of his flair for eloquent writing, “Many a long day, in sunshine and in shower, has seen me wading in those miry paradises, in the praiseworthy endeavour to effect my little towards the advancement of our favourite science.”
Leicester, EnglandBates meets Alfred Wallace at the Collegiate Institute in Leicester where Wallace is an instructor in drawing and illustration. He immediately notes how talented and uniquely gifted Bates is. Bates teaches Wallace how to skillfully hunt for beetles and the art of taxonomy, as Wallace previously only collected plants. Before they leave for the Amazon, both are experts in the required italics writing for taxonomy and a lifelong bond of friendship is formed.
England Wallace writes to Bates about his interest in the study of the origin of species in one family, “By that means I am strongly of [the] opinion that some definite results might be arrived at. One family of moderate extent would be quite sufficient.” Wallace suggested they go to the Amazon to gather data “towards solving the problem of the origin of species.”
London, England Stevens, the owner of a Natural History Agency, sold the specimens Bates and Wallace collected in the Amazon to museums and private collectors. In his shop he also sold equipment and supplies for explorers, and oddities for customers. Darwin often wrote to individuals like Stevens requesting specific specimens from naturalists such as Bates and Wallace, who were collecting out in the field.
Liverpool, England Wallace and Bates depart from Liverpool for Pará, Brazil on a month-long voyage aboard a small merchant ship called The Mischief. The lengthy voyage is rough and often dangerous, Wallace is tremendously seasick throughout the journey.
Pará, Brazil Bates and Wallace arrive in Pará, Brazil, which is known today as Belém. In 1616, the Portuguese founded Pará when they first reached the mouth of the Amazon River. It eventually became the home and base for several hundred settlers. Bates and Wallace are astonished by the sheer size of the Pará River, which can be up to 36 miles in breadth.
Tocantins RiverBates and Wallace take their first and only trip together in the Amazon from Pará up the Tocantins River, and pass through Cametá. They travel with a Canadian named Charles Leavens, trained in the rough school of Canadian lumbering. He manages a complex of saw and rice mills at Magoary, located some miles from Pará.
Wallace and Bates separate and make individual arrangements with Samuel Stevens for the sale of their specimens.
In a letter to Stevens, Bates talks about his relationships with the natives, "I get on well with the Indians, being far more at home and friendly with them than with the Brazilian and European residents.” In another letter a year later he writes that his success depended on the native populations, "the only way to attain the objects for which I had come to this country was to accustom myself to the ways of life of the humbler classes of the inhabitants.”
ParáBefore travelling to Barra de Rio Negro (today known as Manaus), Bates spends two months exploring areas around Pará where he observes the butterflies Heliconius melpomene, Heliconius thelxiope and their intermediate varieties that prove species do change. These butterflies will be used in his 1862 mimicry paper as the main example of what today is known as Batesian mimicry and in the first edition of his book The Naturalist on the River Amazons in 1863 to put forward the first-ever physical proof of speciation in nature.
Pará Bates is bitten by a very poisonous snake, “I trod on the tail of a young serpent belonging to a very poisonous kind, the Jararaca. It turned round and bit my trousers; and a young Indian lad, who was behind me, dexterously cut it through with his knife before it had time to free itself.”
Pará Bates loves to sing with the crew and learns popular Brazilian songs, "It is at such times as these that Amazon travelling is enjoyable, and one no longer wonders at the love which many, both natives and strangers, have for this wandering life.” The boatmen had a vast repertoire of songs and choruses. Many of these traditional melodies, wild and sad, Bates found appropriate to the setting.
Between Manaus & Ega Bates becomes ill with yellow fever while sailing between Manaus and Ega. As doctors were scarce and the number of patients high, Bates has to become his own doctor, making medicinal tea out of native herbs. He believed that limited movement, adequate rest and sleep were important. His herbal concoctions help him recover in a short period of time; his fever disappears in 48 hours and his health fully returns after only 8 days.
Ega Bates writes to Stevens after being unable, for the last year, to send or receive letters because his servant robbed him of everything, "Towards the end of this time my clothes had worn to rags; I was barefoot, a great inconvenience in tropical forests, not withstanding statements to the contrary that have been published by travellers.”
Ega Bates experiments with an electric eel in an area of muddy creek beds, “I amused [my companions] very much by showing how the electric shock from the eels could pass from one person to another. We joined hands in a line while I touched the biggest and freshest of the animals on the head with the point of my hunting-knife. We found that this experiment did not succeed more than three times with the same eel when out of the water.”
Ega Bates boards a schooner sailing to Pará, 1,400 miles downstream from Ega. Before he leaves, his friend gives him a monkey, which he keeps as a pet. The monkey lived in the hollows of trees and slept during the day.
Pará Bates arrives in Pará and discovers another outbreak of yellow fever. Bates finds Herbert Wallace, who had been previously collecting with his older brother Alfred, returned to Pará and has become very ill with yellow fever. Although Bates gets the disease as well, he works to try and save Herbert. Unfortunately Herbert dies, which is unknown to his brother, Alfred, for months.
Pará On arrival to Pará, Bates learns from Stevens that his collections are selling well and William Hewitson, a British collector and naturalist, had named the new butterfly Bates had discovered after Bates. The species is called Callithea batesii, today known as Asterope batesii.
Pará To make these extended trips along the river, Bates rents a two-masted cuberta. His cabin was not only where he slept, but also where he worked, with chests full of store-boxes and trays of specimens. He would have loved to take a thermometer and other surveying instruments, but these were “quite beyond the means of a poor man like myself.” In the bow was an arched covering where the crew slept; it also held Bates’ salt, food, and trade goods. “When all was done, our canoe looked like a little floating workshop.”
Tapajós River While travelling up the Tapajós River, Bates visits a Mundurukú village and shows the chief, his wives and a rapidly growing crowd of women and children illustrations from The Pictorial Museum of Animated Nature by Charles Knight. Bates writes, “It was no light task to go through the whole of the illustrations, but they would not allow me to miss a page, making me turn back when I tried to skip. The pictures of the elephant, camels, orangutans, and tigers, seemed most to astonish them; but they were interested in almost everything, down even to the shells and insects.”
Tapajós River While travelling down the river Tapajós to Aveyros one evening, a little parrot fell from a great height into the water near Bates' boat, having dropped from a flock which seemed to have been fighting in the air. Surprisingly, the bird is uninjured. Bates keeps the bird as a pet for the next two years. It learned to talk "pretty well", and accompanied Bates and his companions on their rambles, with one of the lads carrying it on his head.
Atlantic Ocean Wallace's ship to England sinks, along with his precious collection of unique Amazonian specimens. Fortunately, ten days later, Wallace is rescued at sea and returns to England in relatively good health.
Steamers are introduced on the Amazon in a few areas and bring about huge change in how long it takes to travel from one place to another. Bates uses them to send back specimens to Stevens and to more quickly travel along the Amazon River.
While travelling in a canoe, Bates is swarmed by the Motuca, a fly much larger than a mosquito, that would make his blood "trickle forth in little streams" when he was bitten.
Ega One day, Bates encounters a jaguar drinking at a water hole. Beside the jaguar are the remains of a caiman, a Jacaretinga, which Bates’ concludes the jaguar had likely fed on.
Ega In a letter to his brother Frederick, Bates describes his day-to-day activities writing that between nine and ten in the morning he prepares for the woods. Over his shoulder he slings a double barrelled shotgun and brings his net, a leathern bag with two pockets for his insect boxes and on his right side hangs his “game bag”. To his shirt is pinned a pin cushion with six different sized pins. He adds, “A few minutes after entering the edge of the forest I arrive in the heart of the wilderness – before me nothing but forest for hundreds of miles.”
São Paulo Bates comments that the species from the family Heliconidae were very susceptible to change "This family Heliconidae I look upon as mostly a modern creation, the species unfixed, very susceptible of change, in conjunction with the least modification of local circumstance.”
São Paulo Bates writes about what is now known as Batesian Mimicry. He describes for the first time how Leptalis butterflies that mimic Ithomia butterflies are geographically unique. If there aren’t any Ithomia in an area, then there aren’t any Leptalis. Bates also found it hard to distinguish between them, “always on capturing what I took for an Ithomia, and found when in the net to be a Leptalis mimicking it, I could scarcely restrain an exclamation of surprise… These analogies to me appear one of the most beautiful phenomena in Nature."
São Paulo Bates becomes ill with malaria and blames it on the long years of working in the Amazon along with the foul conditions of São Paulo where he has been living for the last five months. Despite his fever attacks, he still shoulders his gun and takes his usual walks in the forest.
Ega Bates departs Ega to begin his journey back to England. He has thousands of species but is ill, quite broke and wondering about his future. Upon returning to England in late September/October, Bates joins his father and two brothers in the growing hosiery business, but is overwhelmed with a depression in his health and spirit.
London, England Darwin wrote to Bates that he had read every word of Bates’ papers with extreme interest. “They seem to me to be far richer in facts on variation, & especially on the distribution of varieties & subspecies, than anything which I have read… I hope in my future work to profit by them…” Bates was thrilled by this warm response and praise from the great scientist and replied immediately how gratified he was “to find that my paper is likely to be useful to you.”
London, England Bates' paper on mimicry, Contributions to An Insect Fauna of the Amazon Valley. Lepidoptera: Heliconidae is published. This paper is based on the theories he came up with and was working on while in the Amazon. In 1863, Darwin writes a review of the article, and doesn’t hesitate to claim the explanation carried the "touch of genius".
England Sometime between April 10th and 12th, Bates' book The Naturalist on the River Amazons, is published in two volumes. The book is written for a serious-minded public keenly interested in natural history and science, and gives Bates' personal experiences of travel and very real danger, and description of how men lived on the Amazon rivers. It becomes a bestseller, selling out within a few months and quickly attains classic status in the field of literary scientific travel.
England Bates is appointed as Assistant Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), which Darwin recommends him for, rather than Wallace. Wallace claims he is not surprised, as Bates is more qualified for the position. Bates works at the RGS for 28 years until his death. During this time, Bates met and dealt with the needs of almost every explorer of note during the mid-Victorian age including names like Burton, Livingstone, and Stanley.
England Bates’ position with the RGS meant he would have had a hand in deciding which excursions to fund. One such excursion was that of Sir Richard Burton who traveled through Asia and Africa and, in 1857, set off to find the source of the Nile.
England Having lived for 11 years on one of the largest fresh water sources in the world, the Amazon River, it makes sense that Bates would have supported explorers, like David Livingstone, looking for other water sources. Livingston, a medical missionary, moved to Africa in 1841 and crossed the continent from east to west where he discovered many previously uncharted bodies of water.
England Sir Henry Morton Stanley, another adventurer Bates helped during his time at the RGS, was also drawn to Africa. Stanley rescued Livingstone from certain death by bringing him much needed supplies. He was also one of the forefathers intent on developing the Congo basin.
England Bates is awarded The Order of the Rose, Brazil’s highest honour, by Dom Pedro II of Brazil, the ruler at the time. Continually humble, he hides the award from his brothers, to ensure they won’t feel inferior to his astounding accomplishments and contributions to science.
England Bates is elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London, the top honour for a scientist at the time. The Royal Society recognizes, promotes, and support excellence in science and encourages its development and use. The society still exists today and members have included Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
London, England Bates dies in his London home from bronchitis (emphysema in modern terms) following a severe case of influenza. Two of his collections contained over 30,000 specimens. The remaining assets of Bates’ collections were distributed by dealers or purchased by private collectors. However, a majority of Bates’ collection was eventually donated to or purchased by the British Museum in London.