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Charles Waterton’s Nondescript, 1824

The Nondescript of Charles Waterton
Charles Waterton was a famous English eccentric and naturalist. In 1821, he returned to England from an expedition to Guiana, bringing with him hundreds of specimens of South American wildlife, carefully stuffed and preserved. His boat docked in Liverpool, and a customs inspectors named Mr. Lushington boarded. Lushington took one look at the exotic specimens that Waterton had piled up in crates and ordered that a hefty fee should be paid for their importation. Waterton protested. After all, the specimens were of greater scientific value than they were of commercial value. Nevertheless, Lushington would not bend. He insisted that Waterton pay the highest import tax possible.

Three years later Waterton travelled again to Guiana. Upon his return to England he bore with him this time the head of a fabulous specimen which he described as the 'Nondescript.' It looked very much like the head of a person, though the exposed face was surrounded by a thick coat of fur. Waterton claimed he had encountered and killed this man-like creature in the jungles of Guiana.


Charles Waterton
Waterton later wrote a book about his travels through Guiana, titled Wanderings in South America. In this book he included a dramatic description of how he had hunted down the Nondescript. Accompanying this description was an illustration of its head.

Generations of readers enjoyed Waterton's colorful book, but no one has ever again encountered a Nondescript in the wild. The actual taxidermically preserved specimen that Waterton brought home with him provides the strongest argument in favor of its existence. But naturalists who have examined the specimen have suggested that the face is molded out of the hind quarters of a howler monkey.

Adding a touch of humor to this mystery, is the rumor that the Nondescript bears a startling resemblance to Mr. Lushington, the overzealous customs inspector who had caused him so much grief back in 1821. The suspicion is that Waterton, in his own peculiar way, was literally trying to 'make a monkey' out of the tax collector.

Links and References
  • Blackburn, Julia. (1989). Charles Waterton: Traveller and Conservationist. The Bodley Head: 91-97.
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All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.