Dombey, Joseph

, an eminent French botanist and traveller, was born at Macon, Feb. 22, 1742. He was brought up to the study of medicine, and took the degree of doctor of physic in the university of Montpellier. He there imbibed, under the celebrated professor Gouan, a taste for natural history, more especially for botany. To this taste he sacrificed his profession, and all prospect of emolument from that source, and cultivated no studies but such as favoured his darling propensity. Whatever time was not devoted to that, was given to the pleasures and dissipation incident to his time of life, his gay and agreeable character, and the society with which he was surrounded. To this dissipation he perhaps sacrificed more than prudence could justify; and it was fortunate for his moral character and worldly interest, probably also for his scientific success, that he removed to Paris in 1772, to improve his botanical knowledge. In 1775, while returning from a visit to Haller at Berne, he was informed that M. Turgot, the French minister, had chosen him to go to Peru, in search of plants that might be naturalized in Europe. On this he immediately returned to Paris, was presented to the minister, and received his appointment, with a salary of 3000 livres. Part of this was obliged to be mortgaged to pay his debts, and he was detained until the Spanish court had consented to the undertaking, which was not until next year. On arriving at Madrid, in November 1776, he found that the Spanish court had encumbered his expedition with futile instructions, and had added four companions, who, although of very little use, had each a salary of 10,000 livres. He accomplished his voyage, however, in six months, arriving at Lima April 8, 1778, where he obtained a favourable reception from the viceroy of Peru, Don Emanuel de Guirrior, and from M. de Bordenave, one of the canons of Lima.

His first botanical expedition towards Quito was not without danger, from hordes of run-away negroes, but it afforded him an abundant harvest of specimens of plants, as well as of antiquities from the sepulchres of the ancient Peruvians. These, with thirty-eight pounds of platina, and a collection of seeds, he sent immediately to Europe. He was also employed by the viceroy to analyse some mineral waters in that neighbourhood. He afterwards settled for a time in the mountainous province of Tarma, beyond the Cordilleras, and in May 1780, visited Huanuco, the extremity of the Spanish settlements in that direction. | To investigate the vast and almost impervious forests beyond, swarming with insects, and filled with stagnant pestiferous vapours, proved a labour of no less danger than difficulty; not only from these natural impediments, but from the savages, 200 of whom were advancing by night to plunder them, had they not escaped by a precipitate and perilous retreat to Huanuco. From thence Dombey returned alone to Lima, where, although he was much discouraged by the ignorance and bigotry of the Spanish priests, he met with some enlightened and disinterested characters, who could appreciate his merit, and rendered him, from time to time, the most essential services.

Having sent off his second collection to Europe, Dombey returned to Huanuco, in the end of December 1780, where he had shortly after the mortification of hearing that his first collection had been taken by the English, and redeemed at Lisbon, by the Spanish government, consequently that the antiquities were now detained in Spain, and that duplicates only of the. dried plants and seeds had been forwarded to Paris. Dombey in the mean while, leaving his more recent acquisitions in safety at Lima, undertook a journey to Chili, and although his journey was necessarily attended with vast expence, his character was now so well known, that he readily met with assistance. He arrived at La Conception in the beginning of 1782, where, the town being afflicted with a pestilential fever, he devoted himself to the exercise of his medical skill, assisting the poor with advice, food, and medicine. This example having the effect to restore the public courage, the grateful people wished to retain him, with a handsome stipend, as their physician; and the bishop of La Conception endeavoured to promote his union with a young lady of great beauty and riches, on whom his merit had made impressions as honourable to herself as to him; but neither of these temptations prevailed. Having added greatly to his collection of drawings, shells, and minerals, as welt as of plants, and having discovered a new and most valuable mine of quicksilver, and another of gold, he revisited Lima, to take his passage for Europe. A journey of 100 leagues among the Cordilleras, made at his own expence, had much impaired his finances and his health, but he refused the repayment which the country offered him, saying, that “though he was devoted to the service of Spain, it was for his own sovereign, who had sent him, to pay his expences.” In Chili he discovered the majestic | tree, of the tribe of Pines, 150 feet high, now named after him, Dombeya, of which the Norfolk-island pine is another species. While he still remained at Lima, the labours of arranging and packing his collections of natural history, added to the fatigues he had already undergone, and the petty jealousies and contradictions he experienced from some of the Spaniards in power, preyed upon his health and spirits; and under the idea that he might possibly never reach Europe, he wrote to his friend Thouin, to take the necessary precautions for the safety of his treasures on their arrival in a Spanish port. He survived, however, to undergo far greater distresses than he had yet known. After narrowly escaping shipwreck at Cape Horn, and being obliged to wait at the Brasils till his ship could be refitted, which last circumstance indeed was favourable to his scientific pursuits and acquisitions, he reached Cadiz on the 22d of February, 1785; but, instead of the reception he expected and deserved, he was not only tormented with the most pettifogging and dishonest behaviour concerning the property of his collections, but those collections were exposed, without discrimination or precaution, to the rude and useless scrutiny of the barbarians at the custom-house, so as to be rendered useless, in a great measure, even to those who meant to plunder them. The whole were thrown afterwards into damp warehouses, where their true owner was forbidden to enter. Here they lay for the plants to rot, and the inestimable collections of seeds to lose their powers of vegetation, till certain forms were gone through, which forms, as it afterwards appeared, tended chiefly to the rendering their plunder useless to others, rather than valuable to their own nation. In the first place, as much of these treasures had suffered by this ill-treatment, Dombey was required to repair the injury from his own allotment, or from that of his master, the king of France. With this he could not of himself comply; but an order was, for some political reason, procured from the French court, and he was obliged to submit. He could never, however, obtain that the seeds should be committed to the earth so as to be of use; and hence the gardens of Europe have been enriched with scarcely half a score of his botanical discoveries, among which are the magnificent Datura arborea, the beautiful Salvia formosa, and the fragrant Verbena triphylla, or, as it ought to have been called, citrea. This last will be a | monumentum sere perennins” with those who shall ever know his history. What had been given him for his own use hy the vice-roy of the Brasils, underwent the same treatment as the rest. Finally, he was required to fix a price upon the sad remains of his collections, which, as a great part was French national property, it was obvious he could not do. He remained at Cadiz, without money and without friends. His only hope was that he might hereafter publish his discoveries, so as to secure some benefit to the world and some honour to himself. But this last consolation was denied him. Anxious to revisit his native land, he would have compounded for his liberty with the loss of all but his manuscripts; but he was not allowed to depart until his persecutors had copied all those manuscripts, and bound him by a written promise never to publish any thing till the return of his travelling companions. In the mean while, those very companions were detained by authority in Peru; and in after-times the original botanical descriptions of Dombey have, many of them, appeared verbatim, without acknowledgment, in the pompous Flora of Peru and Chili, which thence derives a great part of its value. Thus chagrined and oppressed, the unhappy Dombey sunk into despair, till, no longer useful or formidable to his oppressors, he was allowed to return, with such parts of his collections as they condescended to leave him, to Paris.

There our countryman Dr. Smith knew him in 1786; no longer the handsome lively votary of pleasure, nor even the ardent enthusiastic cultivator of science, but presenting the sallow, silent, melancholy aspect of depression and disappointment. He chiefly associated with his faithful friends, Le Monnier and Thouin, and in their society botanical converse still retained its charms. To the contents of his own collection, which, however injured and diminished, was still a very interesting one, he paid little attention. Bound by his promise, his high sense of honour would not let him make the proper use of it, but at length he was induced to part with it to M. de Buffon, who nobly exerted himself so as to procure from government a pension of 6000 livres for Dombey, and 60,000 livres to pay his debts. The herbarium was confided to M. L’Heritier, with orders to publish its contents. This was no sooner known at Madrid, than interest was made by that court to defeat the measure, and the court of Versailles was not | in a condition to dispute even so unjust and politically unimportant a requisition from that quarter. Buffon had orders to withdraw the herharium, but L’Heritier on the first alarm had taken it over to London, and Dr. Smith with his lamented friend Broussonet, and his draughtsman Redoute", were alone entrusted with the secret. Happy and safe in a land of liberty and science, L‘Heritier remained about fifteen months devoted to the prosecution of his object, chiefly under the hospitable roof of ’.is friend sir Joseph Banks.

After his return, he had determined to retire to a peaceful retreat at the foot of Mount Jura, where he had a friend devoted to the love and cultivation of plants. His pecuniary circumstances were now easy, and he resigned his fatal celebrity without regret. He broke oft' all scientific communication, except with M. Pavon, one of his fellowlabourers in Peru, and who had all along been innocent of the execrable machinations against his honour and his peace. He refused a place in the French academy of sciences, as well as a large pecuniary offer from the empress of Russia for the duplicates of his collection, saying, “he was not in want of money, and he had most pleasure in distributing his specimens amongst his friends.” Residing at Lyons for some time, in his way towards Switzerland, he had the misfortune to be present during the siege of that town; but sickening at the sight of public miseries on every side, he procured a commission to visit North America, in order to purchase corn from the United States, and to fulfil some other objects of public importance, especially relating to science and commerce. A tempest obliged him to take shelter at Guadaloupe, but that island being, like the mother country, in a state of revolution, he narrowly escaped with his life, and after much barbarous treatment, was ordered to quit the colony in the American vessel in which he came. That vessel was no sooner out of the harbour, than it was attacked by two privateers, and taken. Dombey, disguised as a Spanish sailor, was thrown into a prison in the island of Montserrat, where ill-treat, ment, mortification, and disease, put a period to his life on the 19th of February, 1796. 1


Rees’s Cyclopædia,