Philip Henry Gosse (1810 - 1888) - The National Library of Jamaica

Philip Henry Gosse (1810 - 1888)

Philip Henry Gosse was born April 6, 1810 in Worcester, England. The second son of Thomas Gosse, a painter of miniatures who had fallen into a life of severe poverty. His mother, Hannah Best, had little education. At the tender age of two (2) years Gosse’s family moved to Poole in Dorset, which was then a busy seaport with a thriving Newfoundland trade. Gosse had a reasonable education and as a young man showed remarkable interest in Natural History. In 1827, at age 17, Gosse began working as a clerk in the office of a trading firm at Carbonear, a position he held for five (5) years. Gosse lost interest in his job and he “suddenly and conscientiously became a Naturalist and Christian” and this dual course defined the rest of his life.

He found life in Newfoundland contentious and even dangerous; so Gosse went to Canada with some English friends, hoping to form a farm colony of like-minded people who were prepared to labour, worship and study in what he hoped would become a new Elysium. In 1835 Gosse bought an abandoned farm in Canada and in 1836 wrote “The Entomology of Newfoundland”, which was never published. In 1838 after only three (3) years in operation Gosse sold his share of the farm in Canada as it was unsuccessful and went to Philadelphia. Later he went to Dallas, Alabama where he worked as a school teacher. In 1939 being almost penniless on board the ship to England, he completed the manuscript of his book The Canadian Naturalist.

Gosse tried several things in order to earn a living, and  down to his last shilling, sent his manuscript to Mr. Van Voorst to be published, Voorst published the book and that was the beginning of their fifty year friendship. With the publication of Canadian Naturalist, Gosse’s luck had turned and he began contributing papers to the Royal Society and wrote books on popular scientific subjects.

On October 20, 1844, Gosse set sail on the Cardine for Jamaica to collect insects. His fellow passengers, Mr. and Mrs. Plessing, Moravian missionaries, put him in touch with some of their colleagues in Westmoreland namely, “ Bros. Deleon and Forrest of Savanna-la-Mar; Coleman of Bluefields, and Grimley of Content. Mr. Nunes ‘a West Indian gentleman’ accompanied by his two sons and a niece helped him to make contact with Honourable Richard Hill of Spanish Town. Gosse’s sojourn in Jamaica was a happy and memorable one. He published within eight months after returning to England The Birds of Jamaica. Gosse’s other books about Jamaica are: Illustration of the Birds Jamaica, 1849; A Naturalist Sojourn in Jamaica, 1851. In 1948 Gosse married Emily Bowes and a year later their son Edmund Miller was born. Emily Gosse died of breast cancer in 1857 and in great distress, Gosse turned to the conflict between new biology and traditional religious beliefs and wrote: Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot. It was unsuccessful as it was described as honest but a misguided effort to reconcile geology with Genesis.

Gosse retreated to Devonshire Village where he became the leader of a group of simple believers and continued his popular writings and he remarried to Eliza Brightwen in 1860. In 1856 his work on Retifers earned him to the fellowship of the Royal Society. In 1879 he became member of the Entomological Society and 1866 Gosse teamed up with a young colleague C.T. Hudson and published a definitive two volume work about Retifers. Philip Henry Gosse died August 23, 1888.

Gosse described Jamaica as giving him an interlude of tranquility in an otherwise troubled life and Jamaican biology remains enormously indebted to the work of this obsessed and uncompromising but perceptive and versatile man.