Swainson, William John

At a Glance:

Naturalist, Soldier



Bird names: 6

Regions studied:

Mediterranean, New Zealand, Australia

William Swainson [link]

Content note: this profile contains discussion of SETTLER COLONIALISM.

The Birds:

Swainson’s Francolin / Swainson’s Spurfowl (Francolinus swainsonii)

Swainson’s Sparrow (Passer swainsonii)

Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)

Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus)

Swainson’s Flycatcher (Myiarchus swainsoni)

Swainson’s Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii)

subspecies: Swainson’s Toucan ( Pamphastros ambiguus swainsonii)

The species formerly known as Swainson’s Antcatcher and Swainson’s Fire-eye are now usually known as White-bellied Antbird and Fringe-backed Fire-eye respectively.

Swainson’s Hawk [link]
Swainson’s Sparrow [link]
Swainson’s Warbler [link]
Swainson’s Thrush [link]
Swainson’s Francolin [link]
Swainson’s Flycatcher [link]

The Name:

Among the most accomplished naturalists of his day, William John Swainson (1789-1855) would have an highly applauded youth, but personal catastrophes in later life would push him to the sidelines of the scientific field he loved. The last few years of his life he would spend in New Zealand, often in conflict with his Maori neighbours.

Having a passion for nature from a young age, his father would find him a junior role in the Supply Corps of the British Army at age 17, which allowed him to travel. The duties were light, and this allowed him to develop his collections of Mediterranean plants and animals, as well as developing his skills as an artist. By the age of 19 he had already written, illustrated and published his first book on natural history.

However, his career in the military would be cut short by poor health, and he would return to Britain in 1815. But his passion for collecting and the skills he had developed would prove in demand, and accompanied an expedition to Brazil – among the first British naturalists to do so.

On his return he continued to publish his work – notably as an early proponent of lithography as a printing method, and also by releasing his work via a subscription service. His work would develop further when he was introduced to techniques of colour lithography by Audobon.

Drawing of Molcuccan King Parrot (Alisterus amboinensis) from William J. Swainson’s Zoological Illustrations Volume 1, circa 1820. [link]

He would however fail to make the inroads into natural history that he hoped for – he lacked any formal qualifications and despite references from some of the most acclaimed naturalists of the day, he was passed over for a job at the British Museum that he was certain he would get.

Fate would strike another blow to him, indirectly due to the travels of another travelling naturalist who would go on to recieve eponyms. Alexander von Humboldt had been travelling through central America and his reports of the potential of silver mines in Mexico entranced prospective investors. An geologist by training, he compiled a detailed report of the conditions and geological basis of the then Spanish-owned silver mines of Mexico. At the time, Mexico was experiencing a silver boom that accounted for up to 70% of its exports, but Humboldt noted that the mines were rich, even if the working conditions were poor, and with the right improvements it could prove incredibly valuable. After the Mexican War of Independence, the newly formed nation found it’s mining infrastructure in ruins, and looked for foreign investment. It was into this that Swainson invested his money, much to his regret; with the crumbling mining infrastructure left in the wake of the civil war, Swainson and other investors like him lost huge sums of money on the venture.

He would also become a major proponent of the bizarre quinary classification system – a system which insisted that every taxa contained exactly five subgroups at every level. He thoroughly tying himself to this system and refusing to abandon it even in the light of new evidence that disproved it.

Even as his fortune wane with the mine investment collapse, he was struck a more personal blow; the death of his wife Mary. It’s under these circumstances, combined with increasing disillusionment at the British scientific establishment, that he decided to move to New Zealand. What would follow were several bizarre choices; to get around immigration laws relating to his children’s nanny, he chose to marry her, despite his children’s objections. He would then, en route, leave his youngest son Edwin to be raised by the governer of Gibraltar while he took the remaining four children on to New Zealand.

It proved a harsher transition for him than expected – many of his possessions including books, illustration proofs, lithographic plates and remaining collections were lost or damaged at sea. The money he had paid to the ships captain for land didn’t provide him with the title e expected and the fruit trees he bought with him didn’t survive the journey through the tropics. To make ends he was forced to have the collections and illustrations he had left behind in England sold.

He would also come into conflict with the local Maori leader Te Kaeaea who claimed ownership of the land Swainson was occupying. It would come to the point where Swainson and his neighbours wouldn’t leave their properties for fear of the Maori, who had driven Swainson’s labourers away. Martial law was invoked, but the matter was eventually dealt with by providing Te Kaeaea with other lands in the area in recompense.

He generally seems to have become increasingly bitter over the remainder of his life, with many of correspondences connecting to frustrations regarding money and the slights he percieved others as making against him. His own correspondences implied a contempt for New Zealand, stating “We all know that Animal Life is as little developed on New Zealand Islands as are honest men.”

The last few years of his life were beset with further pain – his daughter Mary would die of scarlet fever while the Wairarapa earthquake of 1855 would destroy his Hawkshead estate. Within the year, he himself would pass away of bronchitis.

In many ways, it is easy to sympathise with Swainson; he had disaster after disaster hit him throughout his life, and he always moved on. Yet often it was his own stubborn and uncompromising nature that defined his life – his choices paint a picture of a man who was unable to heed the words of others. This undendinly antagonistic nature cost him friends, honours and ultimately put him into the dark role of colonialist.

Alex Holt


  • The Decline and Fall of William Swainson (New Zealand National Geographic) [link]
  • Encylopaedia of New Zealand (1966): William Swainson [link]
  • The Mexican Mining Bubble that Burst [link]
  • William John Swainson: Google pays tribute to nature’s illustrator (The Guardian, 2013) [link]
  • Travels and Science in Brazil [link]