Andrew Smith: Medical Doctor, Zoologist, Explorer, Spy ………

By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

The beautiful cover illustration on the latest issue of the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 72(2), June 2017, reminds us of the power of those who portray zoological specimens that almost take one’s breath away. The Mangrove Kingfisher, Halcyon senegaloides, highlights an exhaustive article by Kees Rookmaaker on the zoological contributions of Andrew Smith (1797-1872), and it was painted by George Henry Ford (1808-1876), a South African artist and illustrator who deserves to be better known.
Rookmaaker’s work will endure as a thorough and detailed analysis of every contribution made by Andrew Smith to southern African zoology. All Smith’s zoological publications are listed, a bibliography is provided, as is a taxonomic assessment, and a long list of references and the names of Smith’s collected and observed specimens. Smith’s interest in zoology was for a time intense, but after 1849 he returned to his medical profession, and his final magnum opus was a four-volume medical history of the Crimea campaign.

Sir Andrew Smith portrait

My purpose here is to encourage readers to refer to Rookmaaker’s article and to provide background information about Smith and his artists. Smith needs to be situated in the intellectual milieu of his time together with his connection to institutions that were later transformed into the Royal Society of South Africa. Among Smith’s lifetime honours were his knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1858, his fellowship of the Royal Society (1857, proposed by Charles Darwin), together with numerous honorary degrees and fellowships from the universities of Edinburgh and Dublin and many medical colleges and faculties in the 1850s.
Unlike many prominent people in the 19th century, Smith was a self-made man from a humble background. His father was a Scottish shepherd, later a market gardener, and young Smith’s early schooling was rudimentary. But the youth was clearly intelligent and his parents arranged for him to train as an apprentice under a doctor in his home town of Hawick. Thereafter he attended the University of Edinburgh, qualified as a doctor, and was then admitted into the army medical department. He studied further and graduated in 1819, with a thesis on a mild form of smallpox.
Life as a medical officer in the British army was peripatetic and Smith was posted to Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Malta before arriving in the Cape Colony in 1821. He was despatched immediately to the eastern Frontier where British and colonial troops were engaged in conflict with the Xhosa. For a time, he was the district surgeon in Grahamstown and in 1825 placed in charge of the local military hospital. Smith met the unpopular Cape governor, Lord Charles Somerset, and apparently Somerset encouraged Smith to establish the South African Museum in Cape Town, to which Smith was transferred. Somerset’s despotic rule was resented by the emerging English-speaking intelligentsia in Cape Town, most of them 1820 Settlers. Among Somerset’s most vociferous critics were John Fairbairn, Thomas Pringle and George Greig, who in 1824 established the South African Literary Society. This – the first ‘scientific’ society on the subcontinent – was quashed almost immediately by Somerset. But there was pressure on Somerset from Britain as well as within the Cape and a Commission of Enquiry investigated the governor’s administration. Emboldened by the Commission, the reformers founded another association in 1825, the South African Literary and Philosophical Society of which Andrew Smith was a strong supporter. Bregman records that Smith was involved in four of the eleven scientific societies in Cape Town between 1824 and 1833. In later years these coalesced into the South African Philosophical Society (1877), the forerunner of the Royal Society of South Africa (1908).
With Governor Somerset recalled ignominiously in 1826, new Governor Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole (from 1829), was a breath of fresh air. He was enthusiastic about stimulating the economy and giving the colonists a political voice, but he also encouraged a library, museum, botanical gardens and observatory as well as the South African College. In all these ventures, Andrew Smith, played a part. He was ambitious, energetic, and curious, determined to use his time at the Cape building up his scientific reputation and advancing his career in the colonial service. Smith was a leader in promoting natural history and other sciences during his sojourn at the Cape (he left in 1837). He led two important expeditions into the interior that contributed to further colonial expansion, as well as to knowledge of the people and the natural environment of the subcontinent. At this time, Smith began the zoological publications that are listed by Rookmaaker.
In the 1830s, the Cape administration recognized that the colonial boundaries were being informally expanded by trekboers who sought freedom beyond British administration, particularly abhorring the emancipation of slaves and the granting of basic rights to Khoikhoi. Eventually, the trekboers coalesced into the Voortrekker movement of the mid-1830s. Appreciating that little was known about the interior into which many colonists were drifting, events were set in train to discover the inland resources and to observe, indeed spy on, the African communities, some of whom fiercely resisted colonial expansion. By 1832 the South African Literary and Scientific Institution had come into existence and it, and others with an interest in science, provided the scientific cover and the funding for exploratory forays headed by Andrew Smith. The first expedition, in 1829, was into Namaqualand, where the Griqua and other bands were grouping together to contest colonial rule. The second, in 1832, was to Zululand/Natal. Smith met the Zulu chief Dingane and the few English settlers in that area. Smith’s favourable report on the verdant and fertile environment enticed some Voortrekker groups to set up their republic of Natalia in 1837. Smith’s most famous expedition, however, was that of 1834 to 1836 into what was referred as the ‘far interior’. The party met Moshoeshoe, the Basuto leader, Mzilikazi, the Ndebele leader, and many Tswana kgosi, traversing what are now the provinces of the Free State, Gauteng and North West as far as the Limpopo River. It was during this last expedition that the richest haul of zoological specimens was collected. The artists who accompanied Smith were George Henry Ford and Charles Davidson Bell.
Ford (1808-1876) was the son of an 1820 Settler and he encountered Smith in the eastern Cape. Young Ford was disabled after a farm accident and was apparently encouraged by Smith to take up painting and drawing. He proved extremely proficient and accompanied Smith to Cape Town where he joined the infant South African Museum and joined the 1834-1836 expedition into the interior. Ford went to England with Smith in 1837 and was employed by the British Museum as an artist. Bell (1813-1882, after whom Bellville is named), on the other hand, was, like Smith, a university-educated Scot. Unlike Smith, however, he was politically well connected: his uncle was secretary to the Cape Government. He was appointed as the expedition artist to the 1834-1836 expedition, and thereafter progressed through the Cape civil service, becoming Surveyor-General in 1848. He designed the famous Cape triangular stamp. His illustrations both during Smith’s expedition and that of James Chapman (1868), are of landscapes and people. He had a strong interest in heraldry – he designed the arms of what is now the University of Cape Town – and his paintings of scenes of the 19th-century Cape, many of which were returned to South Africa in 1978, form an invaluable historical record.
Andrew Smith returned to England in January 1837 and married his housekeeper in 1843. He was promoted to Staff Surgeon, but continued to work on publishing his zoological and other South African records, including the most famous, Illustrations of the Zoology of South Africa, that appeared in 1849. Transferred from Fort Pitt in Kent, to London, he became Director-General of the army medical department in 1853. With the outbreak of the Crimean War this was a difficult task. The army medical department was blamed for the huge loss of life during the campaign, a charge pursued zealously by Florence Nightingale, the renowned founder of the modern nursing profession. She accused Smith and his medical department of unprofessional care, poor hygiene and general neglect of their duties. One consequence was the construction of a prefabricated field hospital that was sent out to the Dardenelles that greatly reduced the death rate. On her return to Britain after the war, Nightingale and others gave evidence to various commissions investigating the conduct of Smith and his department. Eventually, however, he was not only fully exonerated, but received many honours. Smith resigned in 1858 and after his wife’s death in 1864 he lost interest in life, spending his last years as a recluse reading the Bible and devotional works. He died in 1872 with a final great work, an ethnographical survey of the continent of Africa, unfinished.

Bregman, L.D., ‘ “Snug little coteries”: A history of scientific societies in early nineteenth century Cape Town, 1824-1835’. PhD diss., University College London, 2003.
Carruthers, J., ‘Scientists in society: A history of the Royal Society of South Africa’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 63(1), 2008, pp.1-30.
Dictionary of South African Biography.
Kirby, P.R., ed., Andrew Smith and Natal: documents relating to the early history of that province. Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1955.
Kirby, P.R., ed., The Diary of Dr Andrew Smith, Director of the Expedition for Exploring Central Africa, 1834-1836. 2 volumes. Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1939, 1940.
Lye, W.F., ed., Andrew Smith’s journal of his expedition into the interior of South Africa, 1834-1836. Cape Town: Balkema, 1975.
Rookmaaker, K., ‘The zoological contributions of Andrew Smith (1797-1872) with an annotated bibliography and a numerical analysis of newly described animal species’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 72(2), 2017, pp.105-173.
Simons, P.B., The Life and Work of Charles Bell. Cape Town: Fernwood Press, 1998.
Smith, A., Illustrations of the Zoology of South Africa. Vol. 1, Mammals. Fasc. Repr. Johannesburg: Winchester Press, 1977. 1st ed. 1849.
Smith, A., Illustrations of the Zoology of South Africa. Vol. 2, Birds. Fasc. Repr. Johannesburg: Winchester Press, 1977. 1st ed. 1849.
Smith, A., Illustrations of the Zoology of South Africa. Vol. 3, Reptiles, Fish and Invertebrates. Fasc. Repr. Johannesburg: Winchester Press, 1977. 1st ed. 1849.
Summers, R.H.F., A History of the South African Museum, 1825-1975. Cape Town: Balkema, 1975.