Short introduction

Who was Mary Elizabeth Barber? You may ask yourself. This is a very legitimate question, as  she is not well known. She was a British-born, South Africa-based naturalist who as a two-year-old arrived near Grahamstown, on the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony with the 1820 settlers. Reading Irish botanist William Henry Harvey‘s Genera of South African Plants (1838, second edition 1868), she became interested in plants. She corresponded with Harvey and provided him with more than thousand specimens at the Trinity College Dublin Herbarium. This made the curator and later professor acknowledge her in his Flora Capensis (3 vols co-authored with German botanist Otto Wilhelm Sonder, 1859-1865) and his accompanying Thesaurus Capensis (1859-1863). When Harvey’s health deteriorated, she established contact with Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911), director at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, London, who named Brachystelma barberae after her in 1867, corresponded with her and supported the publication of some of her articles and forwarded some of her information to Charles Darwin. At the same time, she described and depicted birds for Edgar Leopold Layard, curator of the South African Museum in Cape Town who was working on The Birds of South Africa (1867, new edition 1875-84). She was the only woman he quoted, the first British South African ornithologist and certainly one of only few women at the time working on birds to such an extend. At the same time, Barber was in close contact with entomologist Roland Trimen, curator of the South African Museum. He made her a member of the South African Philosophical Society in 1878 and published her articles in the society’s transactions. Her correspondence became part of Trimen’s and her brother James Henry Bowker’s South-African Butterflies (1887-1889). She was also contributing to archaeology and geology. Her ca. 100 watercolours, sketches and illustrations testify her artistic talent and observational skills and her ca. 50 published poems in The Erythrina Tree and Other Verses (1898, example) show her interest in literature and her versatility. She grew up near Port Alfred, later lived on various farms in the Eastern Cape with her husband, their two sons and daughter. They spent the 1870s in Kimberley witnessing the diamond rush. She returned to the area of Grahamstown, helped her sons ostrich farming and accompanied them to Witwatersrand for the gold rush in 1886. After more than a decade separated from her husband, who was in England, the family joined him and travelled in England and on the Continent, before returning in 1891. Her husband Frederick William Barber died shortly afterwards in Grahamstown (1892). She alternately lived at her sons’ and at her brother James Henry’s in Malvern near Durban and died at her daughter’s in Pietermaritzburg on 4 September 1899. Just to give you a very brief introduction.