Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bowdich, Thomas Edward

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BOWDICH, THOMAS EDWARD (1791–1824), African traveller, was born at Bristol 20 June 1791. His father, Thomas Bowdich, was a hat manufacturer and merchant there, and his mother was one of the Vaughans of Payne's Castle, Wales. He was educated at the Bristol grammar school, and when nine years old removed to a well-known school at Corsham, Wiltshire, where, being fond of classics, he soon became head boy, but what he knew of mathematics he was ‘flogged through.’ In his youth he was noted for his clever jeux-d'esprit in magazines, and his skill as a rider. Originally intended for the bar, it was much against his wishes that his father put him to his own trade, and for one year, 1813, he was partner in the firm of Bowdich, Son, & Luce. The same year he married a lady (Sarah, daughter of Mr. John Eglington Wallis, of Colchester) nearly of his own age, and entered himself at Oxford, but never matriculated. His uncle, Mr. Hope Smith, governor-in-chief of the settlements belonging to the African Company, obtained for him a writership in the service, and he proceeded to Cape Coast Castle in 1814; his wife, whose name is thenceforward so closely linked with his, following him, but on her arrival she found he had returned to England for a time. In 1815 the African Company planned a mission to Ashantee, and appointed Bowdich the conductor. On reaching Cape Coast Castle the second time, the council, considering him too young, appointed Mr. James (governor of Fort Accra) principal. Events at Coomassie, however, soon compelled Bowdich to supersede his chief (a bold step afterwards sanctioned by the authorities), and by diplomatic skill and intrepidity, when the fate of himself and comrades hung on a thread, he succeeded in a most difficult negotiation, and formed a treaty with the king of Ashantee, which promised peace to the British settlements on the Gold Coast. He was therefore the first whose labours accomplished the object of penetrating to the interior of Africa. In 1818 he returned home with impaired health, and in 1819 published the interesting and valuable details of his expedition, ‘A Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee,’ &c., London, 4to. This work, the most important after Bruce's, excited great interest, as an almost incredible story (recalling ‘The Arabian Nights’) of a land and people of warlike and barbaric splendour hitherto unknown. Bowdich presented to the British Museum his African collection of works of art and manufacture, and specimens of reptiles and insects. The independent spirit of the young traveller soon came into collision with the African Company. His writings and letters continually speak of unmerited disappointment; the net reward for his great mission amounted to only 200l., and it cost him a moiety of this to return home; while another gentleman, Mr. Dupuis, was appointed consul at Coomassie with 600l. a year. In the same year he published ‘The African Committee, by T. E. Bowdich, conductor of the Mission to Ashantee,’ in which he attacked the African Company, and made such an exposure of the management of their possessions that the government was compelled to take them into its own hands. Feeling deficient in several of the requisites of a scientific traveller, he proceeded to Paris to perfect himself in mathematics, physical science, and natural history, and such was his progress that he soon after gained the Cambridge prize of 1,000l. for a discovery which was dependent on mathematics. Humboldt, Cuvier, Denon, Biot, and other savants, gave the famous traveller a generous reception in Paris, and a public éloge was pronounced upon him at the Institute. Not only was ‘the brilliant society of the Hôtel Cuvier’ open to him and his accomplished wife, but for three years the extensive library and splendid collections of that great scholar were to them as their own. The French government made him an advantageous offer of an appointment, which an honourable feeling towards his own country compelled him to decline. Early in 1820 he wrote ‘A Reply to the Quarterly Review,’ Paris, 8vo, in which he successfully answered the article on his Ashantee mission. His next work, published anonymously, was a translation of a French book, ‘Taxidermy, &c.,’ with plates, London, 1820, 12mo, followed by a translation of ‘Travels in the Interior of Africa to the Sources of the Senegal and Gambia, by G. Mollien,’ with full page illustrations, London, 1820, 4to, and an appendix (separately issued) ‘British and Foreign Expeditions to Teembo, with remarks on Civilization,’ &c., London, 1820. In 1821 appeared an ‘Essay on the Geography of North-Western Africa,’ accompanied by a large lithographed map, compiled from his own discoveries, and an ‘Essay on the Superstitions, Customs, and Arts common to the Ancient Egyptians, Abyssinians, and Ashantees,’ with plates, Paris, 4to. His next publications were three works, in 8vo, illustrated by numerous lithographed figures done by his wife, ‘Mammalia,’ &c., Paris, 1821; ‘Ornithology,’ &c., Paris, 1821; ‘Conchology, &c., including the Fossil Genera,’ Paris, 1822. About this time he issued in lithograph ‘The Contradictions in Park's Last Journal explained.’ He was also the author of ‘A Mathematical Investigation with Original Formulæ for ascertaining the Longitude of the Sea by Eclipses of the Moon.’ The funds realised by their joint labours enabled Bowdich and his wife to start upon a second African expedition, and in August 1822 they sailed from Havre to Lisbon. Here, from various manuscripts, he collected a complete history of all the Portuguese discoveries in South Africa, afterwards published as ‘An Account of the Discoveries of the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique,’ London, 1824, 8vo. Proceeding to Madeira, where they were detained for some months, he wrote a geological description of the island of Porto Santo, the trigonometrical measurement of the peaks, a flora, &c., which was published in 1825, after his death. They next reached the Cape de Verde Islands and the mouth of the Gambia, and, while waiting at Bathurst for a means of transit to Sierra Leone, he began a trigonometrical survey of the river. Unfortunately, while taking astronomical observations at night, he caught cold, which was followed by fever, to which, after several partial recoveries, he succumbed at the early age of thirty-three, on 10 Jan. 1824. The last chapter of his life's story was published by Mrs. Bowdich, in a work entitled ‘A Description of the Island of Madeira, by the late Thomas Edward Bowdich … A Narrative of his last Voyage to Africa … Remarks on the Cape de Verde Islands, and a Description of the English Settlements in the River Gambia,’ with plates coloured and plain, London, 1825, 4to. Under dates from 1819 to 1825 there are also five scientific papers by Bowdich in ‘Tilloch's Philosophical Magazine,’ ‘Edinburgh Philosophical Journal,’ and the ‘Zoological Journal.’

In figure Bowdich was slightly but well formed, and he possessed great activity of body and mind. He was an excellent linguist, a most pleasing and graphic writer, and his conversational powers made him a very agreeable companion. His enthusiastic devotion to science cost him his life. He left a widow and three children, one of them named after the two companions of his Ashantee mission. Mrs. Tedlie Hutchison Hale (wife of Dr. Douglas Hale) republished her father's early work, with an introductory preface, ‘The Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, &c.,’ London, 1873, 8vo, inscribing the volume to her father's old friend, Mr. David R. Morier.

Mrs. Bowdich afterwards married Mr. R. Lee, and under the name of ‘Mrs. R. Lee’ became a popular writer and illustrator of scientific works for the young up to her death in 1865.

[Bowdich's Works; Mrs. Bowdich's Works; Mrs. Hale's Mission, 1873; Dupuis's Ashantee, 1824; Bristol Directory, 1812–15; Lit. Gazette, 1824; Gent. Mag. 1824, pt. i. 279–80; Royal Society's Cat. of Scientific Papers; Quarterly Rev. xxii.]

J. W.-G.