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Portrait of Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche (1796-1854)

Henry Thomas De la Beche   

Portrait in oils of Henry Thomas De la Beche, by Henry William Pickersgill, 1847. (GSL/POR/5)

Provenance: Presented to the Society by Thomas George Bonney, 1885.

Henry De la Beche was intended for a career in the military like his father, but after being accused of encouraging ‘a dangerous spirit of Jacobinism’ amongst the other cadets, he was thrown out of the Royal Military College at Marlow in 1811. By 1812 he had moved to Lyme Regis where he met others who encouraged his interest in geology. Amongst his acquaintances were Mary Anning and her family who were just establishing their business selling fossils to tourists in the fashionable seaside resort.

As well as his important early ichthyosaur studies, De la Beche is probably best known today as being the first Director of the Geological Survey (now British Geological Survey). He was, however, a gifted artist, frequently providing the illustrations for his own publications, as well as creating caricatures and cartoons for his and other's amusement.

Duria Antiquior minus frame
Duria Antiquior (1830). (LDGSL/646)
His lithographic print Duria Antiquior, is one of the most important and influential geological images ever produced. It is the very first reconstruction of ancient life, from which all others that have followed can be traced - right through to the Jurassic Park movies. The image reconstructs Dorset during the Jurassic Period populated with the ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, ammonites, belemnites and other creatures and plants which Mary Anning discovered. Even coprolites (fossil faeces) make an appearance, with many of the creatures, who all seem to be attacking each other in some way or other, excreting freely into the sea.

The print was created in 1830 to be sold in aid of Anning as the income from her fossil finds had begun to dry up.

De la Beche was elected a Member of the Geological Society on 6 June 1817 (no.426) and served on its Council between 1826-1828 and 1830-1852. He served as President of the Society, 1847-1849 and was awarded the Wollaston Medal in 1855.

Another portrait image of De la Beche can be found in our painting The British Association at Newcastle.

Slavery connections
Slavery was abolished in Britain in 1807, the same year that the Geological Society was founded. This significant milestone is largely credited to the vociferous campaign led by the Quakers. Three of the founders of the Geological Society were Quakers - the brothers William Phillips (1773-1828) and Richard Phillips (1778-1851) whose father James helped establish the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787, and the chemist William Allen (1770-1843) who devoted much of his later life attempting to abolish slavery worldwide.

Yet slavery was only outlawed on British soil. It continued elsewhere in the Empire notably in the colonial outpost of the British West Indies. One of the most prominent early members with holdings there was De la Beche who had inherited slave (sugar) plantations in Clarendon, Jamaica from his father when he reached his majority in 1817. Falling revenue due to the frequent slave revolts in the region led him to travel there between 1823-1824. It was during this trip that he undertook the research for the first geological map of Jamaica.

Map of Jamaica
Geological of Map of Jamaica by Henry De la Beche, 1827, published in the paper “Remarks on the Geology of Jamaica”, 'Transactions of the Geological Society of London', series 2, vol 2 (1827), pp143-192.
In 1825 he published a pamphlet ‘Notes on the Present Condition of the Negroes’, which was issued as part of the pro/anti abolitionist literature and debates that were circulating during this time. Despite being a slave owner, De la Beche held anti-slavery views, but his income was entirely reliant on his Jamaican estate. The publication is essentially an account of his [uncomfortable to modern eyes] attempt at a compromise, that is to institute a more ‘humane’ approach to the treatment of the slaves on his plantations.

The almost pastoral view of the conditions of the enslaved populace of Jamaica depicted in De la Beche’s publication was clearly at odds with the reality. The unrest continued culminating in the 'Great Jamaican Slave Revolt’ or ‘Baptist War’ of 1831-1832. This major rebellion and its brutal fall out accelerated the British Government’s decision to abolish slavery in the British West Indies in 1833. The British Government paid compensation, not to the slaves but to the plantation owners, but by this time De la Beche had mortgaged his properties to the Hibbert family who received the money instead.