Describing First Impressions
Clarke Abel was the Chief Medical Officer of the Amherst’s embassy to China, and the first naturalist from the West to write about Hong Kong’s nature.
In 1816, Abel was drawn to the waterfalls of Hong Kong Island the moment the Amherst fleet entered Hong Kong waters. He observed Lamma Island from the ship, then spent a day and a half on Hong Kong Island and another small island (presumably Magazine Island) collecting rock and plant specimens, where he saw Rose Myrtle and Twelve-stamened Melastoma in bloom. However, he made the following conclusion on the landscape of Hong Kong Island: “Every part of Hong Kong that I was able to visit is remarkably barren, although in the distance it appears fertile.”
Abel was introduced to the embassy by Joseph Banks, a leading British botanist at the time, and was sent a professional gardener from Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) to help him collect and make specimens. However, he lost all his collections due to shipwreck and piracy on his return.
Despite the challenges, he eventually finished writing his book, Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China, and of a Voyage to and from that Country, in the Years 1816-1817. The book contains not only descriptions of Hong Kong’s nature but also a colourful illustration of a waterfall in Aberdeen, which is one of the earliest Western paintings depicting Hong Kong.
In the preface, Abel writes, "It is not for me to judge how far I may have correctly estimated the value of my matter…I have endeavoured to describe things as I saw them.”