The earliest scientific record of Clivia nobilis, first described in 1828, is a specimen collected by Burchell near the mouth of the Great Fish River in September 1815. The plant, however, was in fact one (of several?) collected by James Bowie, probably in 1822, and described as growing “on shaded spots, near Quagga flats, and more common in the Albany tracts, near the great Fish River”.
Bowie was born in London around 1790, the son of a seed merchant. He joined the staff of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1810, where he was trained in horticulture and plant collecting under William Aiton , the Superintendent. Four years later he was sent to Brazil to collect seeds and plants for Kew. He arrived at the Cape from Brazil in November 1816, still only about 26 years old, as a professional plant collector.
For the next 6 years Bowie sent many bulbous plants, succulents and seeds back to Kew, collected on his expeditions to the southern and eastern Cape Province, and also northwards to the Orange River.
In 1822 the government grant for Kew was drastically reduced and the following year Bowie was recalled to London. “Every friend of Science must regret that this indefatigable Naturalist, after sending the greatest treasures both of living and dried plants to the Royal Gardens has, by a needless stretch of parsimony, been recalled”, wrote W.J. Hooker (who was later to become Director of Kew), in the Botanical Magazine, of which he was Editor. It should also be said that it is stated elsewhere that Bowie “lacked application”.
Bowie found it hard to settle down in London, and spent much of his time “among the free and easy companions of the bar parlours, recounting apocryphal stories of his Brazilian and Cape travels, largely illustrated with big snake and wilde-beeste (sic) adventures”, as recorded in the Journal of Botany (27) 1889. He began drinking too much.
In fact, poor James’ problems may have begun earlier, back in South Africa, where it is possible “that he may have needed to supplement his salary by surreptitiously selling horticultural curiosities from the Eastern Cape such as cycads, strelitzias and crinums to the worthy burghers of Cape Town”.
Bowie returned independently to the Cape in 1827 (the year before C. nobilis was described) and, after collecting plants on his own, he began work as Garden Superintendent and plant collector for Baron von Ludwig, a prominent and wealthy Capetonian. By 1842, by then in his early fifties, Bowie was working on his own again, but still collecting mainly for von Ludwig.
Sadly, “his habits were such as to interfere with his prospects”. Towards the end of his life, constantly short of money and in poor health, Bowie was employed by H.M. Arderne, most probably in today’s Arderne Gardens in Claremont. He died in Wynberg in 1869, when he must have been close to 80. He never married.
In his younger days Bowie had contributed articles, mainly on aloes, to the “South African Quarterly Journal”. His name is commemorated in the genus Bowiea .
James Bowie might have ranked among the great botanical collectors of the Cape. However, it is said that his habit of giving wrong localities on the labels accompanying his plants has made his collections of little use to botanists. Maybe he was just trying to put rival collectors off the scent! Certainly competition among collectors could have been fierce – Bowie complained there was even “an officer of the army who has sometimes 40 soldiers at a time told off to collect for him”.
Poor old Bowie. At least we can now remember him, and give him the recognition, which is his due, for collecting what was to become the type specimen of Clivia nobilis.
John van der Linde
(from Clivia Society Newsletter Volume 11 number 3, 2002)