The Nondescript of Charles Waterton
An image of the Nondescript that appeared on the frontispiece of Waterton's Wanderings in South America
When Charles Waterton, a famous English eccentric and naturalist, returned to England in 1821 from an expedition to Guiana, he had 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 decided 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 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 that he had encountered and killed this man-like creature in the jungles of Guiana.
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, grown skeptical, argue that the specimen is actually a face molded out of the hind quarters of a howler monkey, and they suggest that the Nondescript does not exist outside of Waterton's imagination. Adding a touch of intrigue to this belief, 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.
These rumors and speculations about the Nondescript may or may not be correct. In the meantime, naturalists in South America are on the lookout in case this elusive creature should ever again make an appearance.