Research is never really far from my mind, even when strolling along the seaside promenade or sipping mojitos as I did last week in Tenerife.
An idle thought crossed my mind as I basked in the sun, alongside the funky Tenerifan lizards and bright-red British tourists: are there any letters about the Canary Islands in the Sloane Correspondence?
Given the importance of the Canaries as an early modern stopping point for ships heading to Africa, or indeed the New World, I would have guessed that there would be several. At present, however, there are only two letters on Sloane’s correspondence that mention the Canary Islands. Both letters were written by the botanist and entomologist William Vernon. In 1699, Vernon was granted £20 by the Royal Society to visit the Canary Islands. He had recently returned from a successful visit to Maryland, where he had collected several specimens. With an eagerness to travel and an eye for collecting, Vernon would have been a good choice to make the trip.
But he missed the boat.
In February 1699, Vernon was waiting to hear of any ship bound for the Canary Islands. With the spring being later there, he hoped that he still might acquire spring plants—and, fortunately, the autumn would last until mid-November, allowing ample opportunity to collect summer and autumn specimens, too. In the meantime, Vernon remained busy trying to find more specimens of sea plants around Margate. This was tricky, since this time of year was the “barrenest” for sea plants.
By May, it was clear that Vernon would not be going to the Canaries after all. He reported that he had been unable to find a ship bound for the Canaries since he’d seen Sloane and thought it was now too late to make the funded voyage. Instead, he would travel around the countryside. He promised Sloane at least four or five curiosities that would be of interest to the Royal Society.
The English countryside: not really the same as the Canaries! But interesting all the same. And, as all funding bodies (and academics) know, good research plans often change along the way. Vernon never did take a trip to the Canaries, although he remained in regular contact with both Sloane and the Royal Society.
What I’m intrigued by, though, is why Vernon had such trouble finding a ship bound for the Canaries. Readers: any ideas?