By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
We’ve all been part of painful road trips, whether because of travel companions, inclement weather, or just bad luck. As hassles or problems mount, a count usually occurs. It may be the number of times a travel companion says the same thing or times the car breaks down. While working on the field journals of N. C. Cockburn, I found a new way to measure a bad trip – dead camels, 52 to be exact.
N. C. Cockburn is one of the more unusual collectors whose field books have been documented in the Field Book Registry. He was a big game hunter. His eight journals are part of the Russell E. Train Africana Collection, at the Smithsonian Institution's Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History in the National Museum of Natural History. We have included 22 field books from the collection, including a field book by Sir John Kirk which we discussed in a blog post in May 2012.
Cockburn’s journals are a fascinating read. His journals cover his collecting in Rhodesia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and India during 1900-1914, a time when westerners often thought of Africa in terms of colonial empires, big-game hunters, and safaris. He also recorded diverse kinds of information that give a captivating picture of the time – all alongside specimen entries.
Cockburn had a very neat and consistent style of recording. Examples are seen below. He would record daily entries on the right hand pages and any additional information on the verso of the previous page. An amazing range can be found on the verso, including postcards, images lists and details about birds of specific regions, sketches of collecting sites, specimen details, and (of course) counts of dead camels (not pictured).
The pages above show the wide range of information found in the eight volumes; Cockburn’s journal entries and notes cover economic and geographical data, specimens collected, wildlife observations (including fish and birds), weather, barometric readings, campsites, method of hunting, travel, personal impressions, travel challenges, interactions with staff and fellow travelers and local inhabitants, and use of local languages. Sometimes there are lists of notes on survival rate of beasts of burden, supplies, distances, and other aspects of the trips. All this followed by subject indexes.
The 52 camels were recorded during a particularly arduous collecting trip in Cockburn’s journal for 1909 while he was in Abyssinia. Cockburn would update the total of dead camels on the left hand page of the journal every few days. Like someone watching a horror movie, I lingered, unsure if I wanted to turn the page and find another tally.
Many of the materials that are part of the Train collection were the product of individuals or colonial empires surveying and collecting in regions of Africa they controlled. They were created by big game hunters, military, or government officials. The specimens in many cases were collected for personal interest and not originally destined for educational institutions, though many ended up in museums. These collectors’ motivations often differ from those of collectors who were affiliated with the Smithsonian and whose collecting was primarily for scientific study. In terms of the specimens, though, these field books serve the same purpose: they document the collecting event. For me, it offers another example of the range of content and context one can expect to find in a “field book.”