Did you know that the biggest, most impressive book ever written from Barbados was published 251 years ago?
And did you know that the author, the mysterious, enigmatic priest, the Reverend Griffith Hughes, simply disappeared one day and was never seen or heard of again?
Reverend Griffith Hughes, a Welshman, wrote and published the most amazing book, The Natural History of Barbados, in 1750. His story is as remarkable as his book. He was born of humble background in the small Welsh town of Towyn, and entered the rarefied atmosphere of St. John’s College, Oxford, at 22 possibly sponsored by some wealthy patron. He never graduated, yet he was later ordained an Anglican clergyman. He was sent around 1733 by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to minister to a Welsh community in rural Pennsylvania.
He spent much time on horseback ministering to far-flung parishioners but when he broke his kneecap, in 1735, he took a ship to Barbados to recuperate. Life here agreed with him so much that he took over the vacant post of curate of St. Lucy’s Parish Church. By 1736 he returned to Pennsylvania but resigned and came back to the cure of St. Lucy, where he found time to indulge his immense curiosity as a naturalist.
In 1743 he went to England with various plant and animal specimens and made contact with Sir Hans Sloane of the Royal Society. By then he had formulated plans to publish a natural history, and he secured the services of the famous botanical illustrator George Ehret. He returned to Barbados, did more work on his manuscript and returned to London in 1748.
He seems to have received no formal training in natural sciences but he clearly made an impression on influential people in London. In June 1748, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and, fast on the heels of this, his old college at Oxford conferred the degrees of BA and MA, 16 years after he left without graduating. His book The Natural History of Barbados was published in 1750.
It was once suggested that Hughes’ meteoric rise may have been accomplished more by charm than scientific acumen. This seems a little harsh. His scientific descriptions and classification may appear unimpressive by today’s standards but they’re typical of his day. His collection of common names as irreverent as “Piss-a-bed” or “Hen’s-turd” have a ring of authenticity, and many are still used today. The book is invaluable from this standpoint, for the many folk uses and observations, and much else.
It’s entitled a “Natural History” and in that it succeeds admirably, with magnificent illustrations, and many dedicated to members of Britain’s nobility but there’s much more. His chapter on diseases is remarkably current for his day, and I suspect he picked the brains of local physicians, and especially the brilliant Dr. William Hillary. He gives an excellent description of the “dry belly ache” due to lead poisoning from liberal quaffing of rum, which was distilled through lead pipes.
The book itself was a masterpiece, in large folio format, with a larger version with colour plates and an only slightly smaller version with black and white illustrations… the ancient equivalent of a cheaper version, like a paper back, but still beautifully bound. A treasure and a pleasure to hold and read – unlike a Kindle!
It’s not clear what happened to Griffith Hughes. He may have died in 1758. The last word on this mysterious man relies on Bajan oral tradition. It was said he left the island without warning; his horse was found one morning tied to a tree on the shore. It’s claimed he took the church registers with him since those for that period have never been found, and hence the uncertainty of his time back in Barbados. He was clearly brilliant and probably charming, but his life was mysterious from youth, through middle age and even in death!