Horatio Morpurgo

Arthur Moss and The Experimental Light Station


‘I sometimes find myself in danger of going a-mothing at the expense of my scattered flock’s spiritual welfare. Most regrettable,’ and he gave a little chirrup and bounced on the soles of his feet. – From Gerontius (1989) James Hamilton-Paterson.

In the corridor outside, phone-toting visitors snap one another against snakes or a Komodo dragon or chameleons in their display cases. Behind its door, the library of the Natural History Museum is carpeted and quiet. A seated Charles Darwin in effigy, the Ultimate Invigilator, watches over the reading area. Half a dozen blue boxes on a two-tier grey trolley are expecting me.

The largest of them contains an album in worn hard covers, its red binding ragged after about a century. Across its pages, in brilliant water colours, crawl mainly the caterpillars of South American moths and butterflies. Down the left-hand side of one page appear the five ‘instars’ of ‘Rhea. haplodamia’ arranged in a column. Instars are the developmental phases through which caterpillars pass, their appearance often altering so much they could easily belong to different species. Only minute observation can clear such questions up.

Image taken by the author, used by courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

In another blue box is a typescript headed Hints to Collectors: ‘Make your bathroom serve a double purpose,’ it exhorts. Make it, in fact, a ‘zoo for rearing larvae and pupae.’ On shelves fitted to the walls at a height of four feet ‘place your boxes and cages containing living pupae and, as required, old bottles and pots of fresh water to hold sprays of food plant.’

How anyone is expected to wash in this bathroom is left to the reader’s imagination. You would be correct to infer from these lines that neither they nor the arrangement they describe are the work of a man who ever had to worry about six-year-olds. The Rev. Arthur Miles Moss may have been a minister of the faith, but his life was largely arranged around a consuming passion for the study of moths and butterflies.

In Belém, north-eastern Brazil, shortly before the First World War, he had helped to build his church in the unused part of the town’s English cemetery. In what remained of the cemetery he grew ‘food plant’ for the caterpillars collected on his long-distance pastoral rounds. From 1912-45, Moss was vicar of the largest Anglican parish in the world, comprising most of the Amazon basin and sixty thousand miles of navigable waterway. The journey to its westernmost regions took seven weeks.

The appointment was a perfect fit. He had published a first article aged sixteen, on the pepper moths of Windermere. Matriculating in Mathematics at Trinity Cambridge in 1891, Charles Villiers Stanford taught him music there as did Arthur Mann, who later, as choir master at King’s, originated the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. Moss became a gifted organist and composed music throughout his life. In Brazil, moved by the rainforest’s night-time clamour of frogs and tree-crickets, he attempted to transcribe it into musical notation, ‘admitting that it did not fit any recognised scale’.

At first glance it looks like the life of a Victorian parson-naturalist, translated to the Tropics. The builder of Santa Maria Belém corresponded with Alfred Wallace and collected for Walter Rothschild. He built an ‘experimental light station’ outside town, a 40ft towerfrom which lamps totalling 6,000 candle-power (33,600 watts) blazed at night into the surrounding countryside. A weather cock and thermometer enabled him to ‘take the wind & temperature on every occasion… Brief notes made at the time give records in relation to the hour of night, the amount of rain, the degree of light from moon or stars, together with the conditions of the day previous… the attempt is afterwards made to correlate all these facts and figures…’ He collected and recorded over 3,000 insects in this way, among them species of hawkmoth then unknown to science. Two varieties now bear his name and his collections are shared by the Kendal Butterfly Museum and the Natural History Museum.

James Hamilton-Paterson’s Gerontius (1989), quoted at the start of this essay, imagines an encounter between Moss and Edward Elgar during the latter’s mysterious visit to Brazil in 1923. Moss appears here as ‘witty, eccentric, charming… one of those gifted professional amateurs the English seemed to produce in such numbers.’ In the novel, Moss emerges as a sympathetic figure keenly aware of the land-grabbing and other barbarities perpetrated by the so-called ‘rubber barons’ and by ‘the white man’s greed and power’ generally. From a recent biography, Vicar of the Amazon (2022), by fellow-lepidopterist Philip Howse, a more troubling, contradictory figure emerges. Though its text is marred by misprints, the magnificent artwork reproduced alongside it guides us to the book’s central question and it is one more in need than ever of being asked. What is it that teaches people to see, or to see more comprehensively?

Moss quotes an 80-year-old woman who, having never left the vicinity of Kendal, was encouraged to widen her horizons by taking an eight mile train journey. She replied indignantly that ‘There’s nowt to see but ‘ills and trees and watter.’ As he journeyed by boat around the Amazon basin, Moss encountered many tourists who had been willing enough to leave their home towns but to whom the ‘‘ills and trees and watter’ they were encountering seemed to mean very little. Nothing is more apparent in his artwork than a desire to pay closer attention.

Image taken by the author, used by courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Most of the caterpillar of one saturniid silk-moth, for example, has evolved to be almost invisible against its staple food-plants. Along its back and around its head, though, a profusion of bizarre spiky fronds has sprouted. The exact function of this flamboyant head-dress is unknown, although spider mimicry is one possible explanation – a predator’s momentary confusion being all the opportunity for escape they need.

Moss was unable in his lifetime to find a publisher for his paintings of these strange caterpillars. Photography has since confirmed that their improbable appearance is exactly as he recorded it – has credited, in other words, what was only a century ago deemed incredible. He saw the astonishing ‘leaf-fish’, too, resembling dead leaves right down to the way they drift in a current. He saw caterpillars that sit up when startled to take on the appearance of miniature iguanas. There are moths that mimic wasps so well he was able to amuse himself terrifying fellow-passengers on those steamers with his live specimens. The biography abounds in examples of what Moss taught himself to see and tried to show others.

Surprisingly, it is George Orwell who comes to mind: ‘To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle’, he would soon write. The rhetorical point, as so often with him, is still sharp. But Moss thought it was the scale of everything that defeated visitors. The rainforest was ‘so overwhelmingly big, so intricate, so impossible to grasp or comprehend.’ His insight offers a valuable corrective because what Orwell overlooks surely is just how much there is ‘in front of one’s nose’ every second of every day. To select and organise our perceptions requires at least as much thinking as it requires simply more and more ‘looking’.

Moss could widen the focus, too, admire the sheer abundance of wildlife in the continent which gradually became his true home. He gloried in the butterflies ‘as large as your hat and as blue as heaven’, or ‘as big as a bat’, or ‘as large as a thrush’. A chaplain in Lima before being sent to Brazil and a visitor to the country later, he wrote of the ‘real Peru of the naturalist’s dream’, to distinguish it perhaps from that dream of a gold- mine which European companies have so often pursued in these parts and still do.

To illustrate: his collection of British butterflies, in Kendal, comprises a total of 70 species. Peru is home to 200 species of hawkmoth alone, compared to 25 for the whole of Europe. Of the family to which wasp- moths belong, 497 varieties are found just in the state around Belém, being roughly twenty times the number found in the whole of Europe. He could see the threat to this as well: he noticed the declining numbers of insects and saw in this evidence of a ‘commercial deadness’ overtaking ‘the entire Amazon region’. The blank expressions of European visitors, then, had something else as their corollary.

To ‘see’ this much was as far as the parson-naturalist could get, but we can hardly allow the matter to rest there. Have Europeans despoiled Latin America in part because they could not see it, because its scale and strangeness were too much for them? In the American Grain (1925), by the poet William Carlos Williams, long ago argued that something like this lay behind the behaviour of European settlers in North America, particularly Protestants: ‘The Puritan, finding one thing like another in a world destined for blossom only in ‘Eternity’… was precluded from SEEING the Indian. They never realised the Indian in the least save as an unformed PURITAN.’ In order to cope with ‘the mass of the wilderness’, they ‘closed all the world out… dared not think. If frightened by Indians or the supernatural they shook and committed horrid atrocities in the name of their creed…’

Which particular creed mattered less than Williams imagined. Most of the Catholic Church’s wealth in Cuzco was already in the sixteenth century derived not from gold and silver but from the tax it levied on coca, chewed by the indigenous miners then as now to kill hunger. Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America (1971) tells how placer gold was no sooner discovered around Bluefields in Nicaragua than indigenous peoples were made to disappear from the region. Well might European visitors experience unease and fatigue as they toured this continent.

Or European residents for that matter. Moss himself achieved, at best, partial-sightedness. At the top of his archived paper on indigenous people he wrote ‘to be included with the nature notes on the Amazon’. When he concluded with the remark that they are ‘a noble race of brother human beings well worth the saving’, it is surely unformed Anglicans that he is seeing. He admires the seven hundred and sixty indigenous languages of the Americas north and south, the ornaments, architecture and diet of those he met in Peru. He recalls as ‘scrupulously honest’, ‘very pleasant people’ and ‘attractive children of nature’ those he met on the six occasions that he stayed on the Peruvian Corporation’s coffee estates. He was the guest there of a British Consular representative who, in ‘preserving discipline’, showed towards them ‘the kindness of a father’.

There were more than paternal kindnesses afoot at this time. The year his church was completed in Belém, 1912, was also the year that Brazil’s Madeira-Mamoré railway was completed. Galeano investigates the process by which Latin America’s railway network was designed to serve foreign interests. This one was built for access to Bolivian rubber products and an estimated 7,000 people died working on its construction. 1912 saw publication also of Roger Casement’s second report into atrocities committed against indigenous people by a rubber company in Putumayo, a contested region on Brazil’s border with Colombia.

The report was published, and the resulting inquiry held, in London because the‘Peruvian Amazon Company’ responsible had British directors and was mainly backed by British money. Latin America had no sooner liberated itself from Spanish and Portuguese rule at the start of the nineteenth century than it found itself ruled, in effect, from the City of London. What Moss might deplore on occasion as ‘commercial deadness’ stood squarely behind his own charmed existence.

His passage from England in 1912 and all his subsequent transport costs around Brazil were paid for by British shipping companies, mainly the Booth Line. The same company contributed building costs for his church, supplied the organ which he played there and provided introductions to other British companies which might also (and did) help with further funding. He baptised the children of consular officials on board Booth Line steamers and gave his address on letters as ‘c/o Booth’. His tower in the countryside was powered with electricity drawn off a tram-line run by the (British-owned) Pará Electric, Railway and Lighting Company, which owned the land on which the tower was built and paid for its construction.

‘It is clear,’ Howse writes, ‘that the Booth Line, the British Diplomatic Service and the Anglican Church were somewhat enmeshed.’ To call this an understatement would be coy. A more recent incumbent, Bishop Saulo Mauricio de Barros, having read about and interviewed anyone he could find who still remembered Moss, ‘found little information about Moss as a person.’ His ‘reports to the church were always formal and reveal nothing of his personality or religious convictions.’ He was remembered by one acquaintance as a ‘conversationalist… generally esteemed as a very pleasant companion.’

Image taken by the author, used by courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

That is not in itself a bad way to be remembered. Still, a clubbable sort rather than a turbulent priest. An oiler of imperial wheels, even. Howse’s approach comes too close at times to an apologia when there is no call for it. Moss was long remembered as the man in a white dinner jacket of expensive imported linen. He never once publicly mentioned the Putumayo Atrocities. He saw silk-moths with astonishing clarity, more clearly perhaps than anyone of his generation, and painted them superbly. This was a fine achievement. Was it perhaps their beauty that blinded him? Either way, he chose not to see anything which might threaten the status quo making his agreeable way of life possible.

Blindness to power structures is not exactly the same as, but is often hard to distinguish from, collusion in them. The biographer builds an overly intellectualised case to explain what Moss chose to see and what not to. He relates it to early reading of William Whewell on Natural Theology. The views of Moss’ successor to the diocese ring truer to me and Howse seems aware of this possibility. On the evidence available, it is simpler to infer that Moss was appointed to the post because his interest in wildlife would occupy energies which, employed otherwise, might have obstructed British business.


The relaxation of environmental protection under Bolsonaro saw dozens of new gold mines open along a river Moss knew well, exploring it by canoe. The Tapajos is over a thousand miles long and was once known as ‘the blue river’. Home to 300 species of fish, 65 of them endemic, it is now threatened by the construction of a huge dam. Its waters, muddied by gold-workings, are also being poisoned by the mercuric salts used in gold refining.

Whether Lula’s administration has the power to reverse such developments remains to be seen. In early August he convened a summit in the city at which a ‘Belém Declaration’ was issued by eight Amazon nations. It pledged, among other things, to co-ordinate Police forces as they take on miners, loggers and drug traffickers. The rate of rainforest destruction has already fallen sharply since Lula came to office. A parallel gathering of Indigenous activists pushed for a pledge to protect 80% of the Amazon by 2025. This is not, in any case, a question before which anyone today can choose blindness. The Belém Moss knew, the lanes which he described as ‘the streets of a larger city in the making, but… still covered with grass and weeds’, has vanished. Where his tower once stood, there now stands a suburb.

To be awake to, to ‘see’ the world as it is now, is to know what unregulated commerce will do to any landscape. Vicar of the Amazon reminds us that the search for profit once felt constrained to cover its tracks by putting in place people like Arthur Moss. Any temptation to indulge nostalgia should be resisted. This was also the world described in Casement’s report.

Natural historical knowledge alone – even when attended, as with Moss, by many talents, considerable charm and social savvy – never did and never will stop the despoilers, be they rubber barons, dam-builders or gold-miners. It may be the lesson of this story that scientific curiosity and the social graces are more easily conscripted than they realise, and then put to work precisely to divert attention while the gold-mining continues.

Images reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.


Horatio Morpurgo helped to campaign for the Marine Protected Area in Lyme Bay and The Paradoxal Compass (2017) ends with an account of the sea bed’s recovery there since. He organised the campaign to commemorate Stefan Zweig’s residence in London and Afterwardsness appeared in 2022, emulating Zweig’s Europeanism. He has recently written a sequence of essays about his home town of Bridport, where he first heard about Arthur Moss from a talk given in the parish church.

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