Bringing the Ocean Home

Is it fanciful to discern a faint shadow of these glories in a poor Polype?

Bernd Brunner on the English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse and how his 1854 book The Aquarium, complete with spectacular illustrations and a dizzy dose of religious zeal, sparked a craze for the “ocean garden” that gripped Victorian Britain.

he popularization of observing the interaction between marine animals and aquatic plants in glass tanks can be attributed to the Englishman Philip Henry Gosse, who was the first person to resolutely use the word “aquarium” for such objects. In his 1853 book A Naturalist’s Rambles on the Devonshire Coast, the term “vivarium” was used interchangeably with “marine aquarium”, but one year later the die was cast for the latter variant in his book The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea. As Gosse stated in its pages, the word should be “neat, easily pronounced and easily remembered”. The term “vivarium” was designated for tanks containing mainly snakes and amphibians; “aqua vivarium” was a step in the right direction, but the term was not yet perfect. Gosse understood “aquarium” as the neutral form of “aquarius”. He must also have known that to the ancient Romans an aquarium signified only a reservoir of water and that botanists had already been using this term for plant tanks for quite some time. For him this was not contradictory, but a justifiable linguistic expansion. He affirmed ceremoniously:

Gosse was born in 1810 in Poole in the south of England, the son of an impoverished travelling miniature painter. As a young man Gosse made his way across the Atlantic to Newfoundland, where he dealt with seal and cod fleets in the Carbonear harbour. In his early twenties he bought a copy of the book Essays on the Microscope at an auction and thenceforth devoted himself wholeheartedly to collecting insects. For two years he documented every insect he could get hold of. Along with some of his friends, he decided to move to mainland Canada in hopes of establishing a rural commune and opening a museum of stuffed birds. After both ventures failed, Gosse returned to England, where he found work as a teacher in Hackney until he received an invitation from the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge to write An Introduction to Zoology. His research for the book inspired him to write another, The Ocean, published in 1844, on the findings of the explorer Sir James Clark Ross, who since 1818 had travelled throughout the Pacific and Arctic discovering a wide variety of marine flora and fauna. The book was an unexpected success and Gosse’s newfound notoriety led to an invitation to Jamaica later that year — a trip financed by an avid seashell collector in return for specimens to add to his collection. Gosse’s time in the Caribbean gave birth to three further books, all successes, and the author established himself as an important voice among the publishing naturalists of the period.

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