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'Jewel Of Cuban Literature' Was Rediscovered, Documenting The Island In 19th Century

Screenshot from Cornell University archives
An illustration of a Scarlet Gordia from the 19th century botany book, "Specimens of the plants and fruits of the island of Cuba, 1826."

Most people don’t know the name Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft. She was a botanist in Cuba in the 19th century and one of the first to document many of the plants native to the island country.

Recently, scientists rediscovered the botany book, "Specimens of the plants and fruits of the island of Cuba, 1826," where Wollstonecraft documented her findings — nearly 200 years after it was written. It describes in beautiful detail drawings and observations of plants native to Cuba during the time. 

"It's like the pages are blooming," said Czerne Reid, a lecturer at the University of Florida and a freelancer for National Geographic, on Sundial. Reid reported on the rediscovery and talked to WLRN's Danny Rivero about the importance of the book in Cuba’s scientific history. 

This has been edited lightly for clarity.

WLRN: For someone who's not that into plants, what makes this particular book so important?

REID: You don't have to be into plants at all to find this book really fascinating. It was described by Cuban botanist Miguel Esquivel as a jewel of Cuban literature. The drawings are exquisite. It is so well preserved after almost 200 years and there are so many details of indigenous uses of the plants that are in the manuscript, of personal observations written by the author and even some poetry. It's really quite interesting for anyone who is interested in science, art and the intersection of those.

Credit Courtesy of Judith Russell
University of Florida Dean of Libraries, Judith Russel, and Cuba historian Emilio Cueto visited Cornell to see the Wollstonecraft manuscript.

Can you describe to us what the drawings actually look like on the page.

It's a vivid color. There are reds, greens, purples and whites. It's really dramatic. It's like the pages are blooming and it's interesting because for something that's 200-years-old you almost wonder how is it so well preserved.

We know that from that time when [Anne Wollstonecraft] was doing this the paper used would have been rag-based paper as opposed to the wood-based paper. We mostly use [wood-paper] now. So that rag-based paper was much more durable than say our newspaper, which starts crumbling after a few days. The inks that she used there was so vibrant. She used also very high quality inks to help preserve all of that.

What did you learn about her and this story?

This is a story about women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). She was largely self-taught. She mentions that she didn't consult with any botanists and she didn't get any help. So for someone with that background sort of at the intersection of art and science I think this is an important from that perspective. It's a story about women in a field where they were underrepresented.