Monday 24th July 2017

An extraordinary and unpleasant experience had by my great grandfather G C Champion and his great entomologist friend T A Chapman in northern Spain in 1906

My blog has been quiet of late, but a recent visit to Spain, during which I saw the butterfly Chapman’s Blue, Polyommatus thersites, inspired me to write a piece about a visit made by my great grandfather G C Champion and his great friend Dr. T A Chapman to northern Spain in 1906. During that journey, while hunting for insects in a remote part of northwestern Spain, the two of them had an unpleasant experience based on a delusion. Chapman’s Blue, named after T A Chapman, is similar to the Common Blue, Polyommatus icarus, except for the fact that it is lacking two small black spots near the base of the forewing.

Chapman’s Blue, showing the lack of a black spot near the base of the forewing that distinguishes it from the Common Blue

The Common Blue has a black spot near the base of the forewing, separating it from the similar Chapman’s Blue

At El Barco we had an experience that was quite new to us in Spain, one which though not altogether pleasant, was of considerable interest entomologically, anthropologically and probably in several other directions. We made a short excursion on the afternoon of our arrival and on the next day tried a rather longer one to the river at the top of a side valley, with very similar country to that which we afterwards more fully examined some 20 miles off (as the crow flies) at Casayo. We thought several of the people we met were less civil and friendly than had been our universal experience previously, and at our evening meal one of the other guests asked us pointedly as to how we found the people disposed towards us. This seemed a very curious and unusual question, but that evening and the following day we had no difficulty in ascertaining from our landlord and from visitors at the inn what was alluded to, a remarkable delusion of a great majority of the inhabitants, a delusion of whose existence we had abundant evidence in the virulent abuse one lady bestowed on Mr. Champion on our excursion the next morning, which we purposely made a short one, and which was elucidated and explained to us in detail by Mr. Edward Jones, an English gentleman long settled in El Barco, of whose kindness to us we have the most genial recollections, as well as by his brother, Mr. H Jones, whom we remember with pleasure. It appears that 25 to 30 years ago, the Phylloxera reached El Barco and caused widespread damage among the vine-growers, more or less the whole population. Incidentally, it may be noted that Mr. E Jones was one of the largest of these and that he made further sacrifices as a pioneer in ascertaining what remedies were available, and introducing American vine stocks and otherwise restoring the vine culture of the district to prosperity. The natives, it appears, were convinced that the Phylloxera had been willfully introduced by some Frenchmen with a view to their ruin, and to destroy Spanish competition in the wine trade. No doubt we did not hear all the history of this delusion, and what we did hear was too long to repeat here. The delusion was, however, very firmly established, and persists strongly to the present time. About 10 years ago, some Italian workmen in search of employment passed through the district, and were taken by the natives to be Frenchmen [all foreigners are supposed to be Frenchmen] with a similar sinister exploit in view, and several of them were beaten and one or two seriously injured. Our position in their view was that we also were Frenchmen come to El Barco with an identical purpose, an idea possibly suggested, certainly confirmed, by our manipulation of nets, satchels, pill-boxes, etc. As vineyards were everywhere, except on the high ground, it seemed self-evident that we took out of our satchels Phylloxera spawn and by means of our nets scattered it broadcast over the country.

It must be remembered that our real objects are wholly incomprehensible to the country people, and even when, as we have always before found them, most friendly and polite, it was always clear that they regarded our accounts of our proceedings as being obviously insincere. Their usual belief was that we were gathering materials for some potent and valuable medicine, at other times they seemed to think that we were mining engineers unwilling to avow our explorations.

Unfortunately, at El Barco, another explanation fell in at once with their prejudices, and there was no doubt much sincerity in the threats of what would happen to us, that we heard of a man going so far as to say he would certainly use a gun if he found us near his vines. Our informants, being more educated, regarded these popular views as nonsense, but had no doubt they were strongly held, and would be acted on by the small cultivators. Others of the peasant class with whom we talked clearly held the popular view, and found their innate politeness under an extreme strain when desiring to show their belief in our honesty. A very curious point was, that within 36 hours of our arrival not only were these opinions of us adopted, but everybody apparently for miles around was aware of our presence, and knew, and I fear usually accepted, this extraordinary view of the object of our visit. We could no doubt have claimed official protection and got some persons to go with us as guards, but as the immediate locality was not attractive, and the friendly bearing towards us of the inhabitants was always an indisputable item in our enjoyment of our excursions in Spain, we decided to move on at once, proceeding to Casayo.

T A Chapman, my great grandfather’s entomologist friend and travel companion


Sunday 5th February 2017

An extraordinary reunion, 138 years on

Today, Saturday 4th February 2017, has seen one of the most extraordinary reunions of families that it has ever been my privilege to have experienced.

Many of you will remember that I carried out an epic journey in Guatemala and Panama in 2011, in the footsteps of my entomologist great grandfather, George Charles Champion, who had spent four long years between 1879 and 1883 travelling by mule through the wilds of Central America, collecting insects for his employers Godman and Salvin, who were conducting a monumental study of the flora and fauna of Mexico and Central America.

George’s first landfall in Guatemala was at the steamy Pacific port of Puerto San José, where he landed off the Pacific Steamship Company ship SS Granada at 04.45 am on Saturday 15th March 1879, in the company of Her Britannic Majesty’s Honorary Vice-Consul Mr John Magee.

SS Granada, photographed in Otago, NZ, in 1876. Source National Library of New Zealand

George lodged with John Magee for several days in the port before departing for Guatemala City by diligence, and they met several times in the ensuing two years, John Magee receiving George’s letters and keeping them for him while George was travelling through the wilds of the Guatemalan countryside on his quests for insects.

John Magee, HBM’s Honorary Vice-Consul in Guatemala. Source: Didier Kuhn

Well, today I had the extraordinary experience of meeting two of John Magee’s great grandchildren, Isabelle and Benoît Kuhn, 138 years after our respective great grandfathers had made each other’s acquaintance on board the SS Granada in 1879.

Self with Benoît Kuhn and his wife Marie-Pierre, Isabelle Kuhn and a friend, Marianne, at the Alignements de Carnac, in Brittany

John Magee was a colourful character indeed, but one whose life had been very nearly cut short prematurely in 1874, when he fell foul of the then President of Guatemala, Rufino Barrios. The best account I have found of the incident that almost ended John Magee’s life appeared in the Panama Star and Herald, May 2nd, 1874:


San José de Guatemala, April 25th, 1874. I have before me the painful task of recording one of the moat unprovoked acts of brutality it has ever been my misfortune to chronicle, and as the circumstances are of such revolting nature, I shall be as brief as possible in the recital. Soon after the arrival of the steamship Arizona at San José de Guatemala on April 24th, news reached us that Mr Moncrieffe, Agent of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, and Mr John Magee, HBM’s Vice-Consul, had been arrested by order of the Comandante, Colonel Gonzales, and that Mr Magee had been sentenced to receive “400 palos” (lashes) at 4pm. As it was known that Mr Magee represented the British Government, the statement was scarcely credited; but about two hours later Mr Moncrieff was released, and came on board. He confirmed the report, and gave us the following details respecting the arrest: The only known cause, aside from a strong personal dislike, for the arrest of Magee, was a failure to appear on the Muella (pier) before the Comandante when summoned, on the grounds that an injured foot made walking extremely painful. An armed guard was then sent to bring him, “Dead or alive”. He was placed on a cart, being unable to walk, and brought to the Muella. On arriving there, the Comandante attempted to shoot him, but was prevented by the intercession of friends. He, however, struck him in the face with the butt of his pistol, also several times with his fists, using the vilest epithets known to the Spanish tongue —a language, by the bye, prolific in expletives— a rather safe operation when surrounded by a brutal soldiery ready and glad to obey any command.

He then ordered his confinement, and preparation to be made for administering 400 palos or lashes. As illustrative of the character of Colonel Gonzales, I mention here the circumstance that having brought before the judicial authority of the port a case in which he was financially interested, the presiding Judge dared to render a decision adverse to Colonel Gonzales, the Comandante. The decision of the Court was not only disregarded, but the offending Judge was seized by order of the Comandante, and compelled, half naked, to sweep the streets for two consecutive days. Mr Magee, as HBM’s Consul, invoked the protection of his flag; but without effect. Mr James, the Consular Agent of the United States, then prepared a protest in the name of his Government and under the Consular seal, protesting against the proceedings, and at 4 o’clock, just as Mr Magee was about to receive the lashes, he formally presented it; but the Comandante refused to receive it, and announced that he would not only flog Mr Magee, but would shoot him at 8am the following day, and that he would then serve the representative of the United States and every foreigner in like manner. At this point the Surgeon of the Port begged that the Comandante would reconsider the matter; 400 stripes were more than any mortal could bear, and would certainly kill Mr Magee. His reply, coupled with a vile epithet, was “let him die then,” and ordered the soldiers to commence. Mr Magee was then partially stripped and laid on the floor, three men being seated on his head and shoulders, and four upon his feet, while two held each arm, and the flogging commenced. It was continued by four soldiers, relieving each other at every 50 lashes — the Comandante keeping the tally himself. By the time that 200 were administered, Mr Magee became insensible. The Comandante’s order was then given to place him on a bed in an adjoining room, and let him revive, so that the other 200 might be administered in the morning before shooting him. During the night he was visited repeatedly by the Comandante, who placed the cold muzzle of his revolver, ready to discharge, at his temples, during each visit, accompanying the act with such remarks as, “Don’t you think you have lived long enough?”; “Wouldn’t you thank me to put you out of your misery?”; “I have ruined myself, and I’ll put you under the sand before 1 am”, &c., &c. Prior to administering the flogging, the Comandante, fearing that assistance might be brought from the Capital through the friends of Mr Magee, seized upon the telegraph, confined the operator, and placed a guard over the office.

During the night, aided by his soldiers, he broke into the business house of Mr Magee and removed all the moneys from the safe, and other valuables. A visit was then paid to the Agency of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, with the intention of seizing upon Mr Moncrieffe; but that gentleman, being forewarned, escaped with his valuables to the woods. The night, that is such portions of it as were not devoted to threatening Mr Magee, was spent in pillage and a drunken orgy among his soldiers. Mr Moncrieffe, after effecting his escape, proceeded toward the Capital, with the hope of intercepting and hastening relief — a private courier was despatched early in the day. At near morning, he met General Solano, with about one hundred men, six miles from San José — the courier having reached a telegraph station and despatched his message. All possible haste was made to the port before the Comandante could carry out his designs. At eight o’clock Mr Magee was again prepared to receive the other two hundred stripes, and just as the order was given to commence, a soldier on the balcony saw the approaching force of General Solano, and notified the Comandante. Mr Magee, seeing a gleam of hope, begged the Comandante to desist, and to escape on board the Arizona, promising him letters of introduction that would ensure his safety in Salvador. The United States Consular Agent, Mr James, echoed Mr Magee’s advice, promising to place him on board. The proposition was accepted, the letter written by Mr Magee, and handed to the Comandante, who, as soon as he received it, ordered his soldiers to fire upon Mr Magee, but his soldiers knowing his downfall to be certain, refused to obey the order. He then made all haste to reach the Arizona, and as he left the Muella in a small boat, accompanied by the United States Consular Agent, General Solano entered the town. On arriving alongside the Arizona, Mr James came on board; he was followed by the Comandante, who only reached about the middle of the gangway ladder when he was shot by some unseen hand, the ball taking effect in the abdomen, producing a mortal wound. He, however, managed to reach his boat and escape toward the shore. Two other shots were fired by parties unknown, one of which took effect in his shoulder. One or two shots were returned from the boat, but fortunately without effect. Though we cannot approve of the manner in which the world has been rid of an inhuman monster, nevertheless the fact is patent to us that the world is benefited by the removal of such a brute.

I have now only to add that Mr Magee will doubtless fully recover from his physical injuries, but his nervous system has received a shock that will require many years to efface.

The imagination fails when it attempts to picture a “night of terrors” worse than that endured by Mr Magee.

My first link with the Magees/Kuhns had come on 20th April 2014, when I received the following message from a cousin of Isabelle’s, Didier Kuhn:

Dear Mister Champion, Congratulations on your work and website, which is very interesting, even if I’m not an entomologist!
But something is really amazing to me: I was doing some research on the web about my great grandfather John Magee, and I found your page 32! Even if I knew the story because my father told it to us, I never read the New York Times article!
So, I am the seventh child of René Kuhn, son of Pierre Kuhn and Jeanne born Magee, daughter of John Magee and Benonie born Duteil.
John and Bénonie had three children: Willy who died young from being kicked in the belly, Lizzie who was a nun in France and who I knew, and Jane, my grandmother.
Pierre and Jeanne had four children: René my father, François, Philippe et Geneviève. They are all dead now.
I have cousins in Guatemala, named Estrada-Duteil, also descendants of the Duteil family; they have interesting pictures and paintings of the family.
Well, I’m hoping this little story will hold some interest for you. If it does, I will be happy to continue this conversation with you, and for example send you a photograph of my great grandfather, who knew yours well, as it seems!
Best regards.
Didier KUHN

The article referred to appeared in The New York Times, on January 16th, 1900:


San Francisco, Jan. 15th.

There died in this city to-day John Magee, who is credited with having caused the guns of two British men-of-war to turn on the city of Guatemala twenty-five years ago, compelling the Guatemalan government to pay $50,000 to Mr. Magee, who at that time was acting as the British Consul in that country.

Magee incurred the hatred of Rufino Barrios (then President of Guatemala), who, it is reported, hired some thugs to thrash the Consul. Magee was waylaid and beaten. The British Government, through the Consul, demanded $50,000 and kept the guns of the British warships trained on the city until it was paid. Magee invested the money in paying property and died a millionnaire.

Mr. Magee arrived in this city from Paris, en route to Guatemala, on Jan 6th, and was taken ill with liver complaint. His family is in Paris.

The Magees together: John and Bénonie with their three children: Willy, who died young from being kicked in the belly, Lizzie (right) who became a nun in France, and Jane, who later married Pierre Kuhn. Source: Didier Kuhn

Isabelle told me that after the death of John Magee’s son, the two girls were left effectively as orphans in Paris. As they had British nationality, they were shipped off to the UK, where their money was mismanaged or misappropriated, leaving them no longer wealthy. One became a nun, and the other, Jane, married Pierre Kuhn, from Alsace, allowing the family to continue. One can never believe that an apparently prosperous and stable family can be brought to its knees so quickly, until it happens. Luckily the Kuhns are now thriving again, and the historical legacy of John Magee lives on.

I have not yet had the chance to meet Didier, but my extraordinary meeting with these two other descendants of John Magee came about due to the fact that Isabelle had also come across my own online diary entry for 24th September 2011, in which I described my visit to the rusty, defunct pier at Puerto San José in the company of my wonderful guide in Guatemala, Luisa Zea, and three other friends.

The rusty pier at San José photographed by Luisa Zea in 2011

Isabelle sent me the following mail on 24th April 2016:

Hello James Champion,
Who are you and where are you?
John Magee was my great grandfather! My grandmother was his daughter, Jane Magee…

I responded to this, and received the following reply:

Hello James,

I discovered your answer only a few days ago…So, it seems that your
great grandfather and mine (John Magee) were friends? Or at least knew each other quite well! It was very surprising for me to discover his story related in your blog as I was looking around to find if ever his
name and existence would appear on the internet! How strange. Of course I am part of those generations who never had the chance to have known their great grandfathers and grandmothers, who died rather young; so the story of John Magee, that we perfectly know in our family, as it has been recounted to us by our fathers and grandmother, seemed to be far away in time; to discover it on the internet makes it much nearer and real!

The story of John is rather adventurous and I have not the time to tell
all of it today (suspense…!). But, for the moment, and to present
myself, I’ll just tell that he had three children: Jane, my grandmother,
Lizzie, and William. Only Jane married (with Pierre Kuhn) and had
children: one daughter, who never married, and three sons: François, my father, René and Philippe, all French. And those three sons have given birth to 24 children, of whom I am one…

The rest of the story later on…
Best regards


And so it was that a member of the Champion family and the Magees (Kuhns) were reunited, 138 years after their great grandfathers had first met, and the most extraordinary little extra detail, which somehow symbolized our respective far off family links with the distant Central American republic of Guatemala, was that the seat covers in the restaurant in which we had lunch together in the Breton town of Carnac were made from reused sacks of coffee from….Guatemala. The story had come full circle.

The seat covers were made of coffee sacks from Guatemala

Isabelle and myself among the stones of the Alignements de Carnac


Thursday 18th August 2016

A brief butterfly feast in the Dutch desert

Although this summer has been generally bleak for me in terms of butterflies, guiding in mostly rain-sodden Scotland, I did recently make a brief trip to the Netherlands, where I was mostly engaged in admin-related activities, but I did manage to squeeze in two highly enjoyable butterfly excursions.

The first was in search of a rare and highly specialised species, one that I could not always guarantee to see as its flight season was frequently over by the time I would return to the Netherlands from my summer holidays at the start of the autumn semester, the Silver-spotted Skipper, Hesperia comma.

My early experiences with this diminutive butterfly were on the beautiful, and beautifully named, Spread-eagle Hill, near Melbury Abbas, in Dorset.  In the UK, the Silver-spotted Skipper is restricted to south-facing slopes, with short grass and anthills, which catch the sun’s warmth and allow the butterflies to bask and reach the temperature they require in order to start moving…and move they do, darting off when disturbed; they are hard to follow as they zoom away with an almost fly-like flight. The butterfly almost died out in the UK after myxomatosis hit, because there were no rabbits to keep the grass short.  Since then, however, sympathetic management with phased grazing by sheep has allowed them to recover somewhat (although last time I visited Spread-eagle Hill, it looked over-grazed to me).

The only other locality where I have seen Silver-spotted Skippers in the UK was on the North Downs, between Box Hill and Dorking, where they were to be found in some old quarries along the south-facing slopes, which formed sun-traps for this warmth-loving little butterfly.

In the Netherlands, their habitat is quite different.  Here the butterflies seem to like heathland with dry patches of bare ground between the heather clumps, where they bask with their wings held in that characteristic skipper way, the forewings half open and the hindwings splayed wide.

The locality where I managed to connect this time with the Silver-spotted Skipper, or Kommavlinder as it is called in Dutch, is an example of wonderful conservation planning, a former Royal Dutch Airforce base that was abandoned by the military in the 1990s, and was then in grave danger of being converted into housing or an industrial area.  Luckily, it was designated instead as an area dedicated to nature, and one can now enjoy the open patches between the runways, with butterflies and other insects thriving on the heathery swards.

A male Silver-spotted Skipper perching on a bramble

As I had not expected to have a chance to do any butterfly photography during this visit, I did not have my Canon SX530, whose 50X zoom would have been most welcome, and I was forced to resort to my tiny Canon A2200, which has only a 4X optical zoom, meaning that I had to approach the butterflies to almost point blank range in order to obtain reasonable shots of them, and Silver-spotted Skippers are notoriously wary and zoom off at the slightest sudden movement.  However, I did manage to obtain a few reasonable images, showing that one does not need highly sophisticated cameras in order to photograph butterflies successfully.

The silver spots on the underside of the Silver-spotted Skipper are very distinctive

A female Silver-spotted Skipper in the characteristic pose of the orange skippers, with the forewings held apart from the hindwings

The Dutch name, Kommavlinder, refers to the comma-shaped silver mark near the base of the hindwing

The other excursion I managed to fit in was to an extraordinary area of inland sand dunes, a place to which I always made an annual pilgrimage in late August while I was living in the Netherlands, the Kootwijkerzand.  My first visit to this magical place, with its drifting sand (or stuifzand, as it is known in Dutch) was in 1999, and on that occasion I was able to observe one of the very last breeding pairs of Tawny Pipits, which have since died out completely as breeding birds in the Netherlands, disturbed too much by dog-walkers and kite-flyers, who seem to love this place as much as I do.

The Kootwijkerzand is an inland dune system

My reason for visiting this place every year in late summer was to search for an extraordinarily rare butterfly, the Tree Grayling, Hipparchia statilinus. This species now only occurs in the Netherlands on this one area of drifting sand and short, dry grass, its next nearest colonies being in southern France and in eastern Germany. Unlike its close relative the Grayling, Hipparchia semele, which is quite numerous here and can be found in large numbers in the isolated patches of heather, the Tree Grayling is extremely rare. The males emerge before the females, and establish territories near isolated patches of pines that grow on elevated hummocks surrounded by dry expanses of sand.

The sandy areas near the isolated stands of pines are the favourite haunt of the Tree Grayling

In my experience, there cannot be many more than ten individual adults in any given year, the maximum I have ever seen at any one time being three. That the species manages to hold on is astonishing, given all the obstacles it faces. The main threat seems to be that the sandy areas that it requires are becoming overgrown with an alien species of blackish moss (heath star moss, Campylopus introflexus), meaning that there is less open sand.  The most recent research seems to indicate that this moss holds water in the winter, when the young larvae are hibernating, causing them to go moldy and die.  How complex environmental matters can be, when a butterfly is pushed to the brink of extinction by an alien species of moss.

This year I only found one Tree Grayling, a lone male

Would it matter if the Tree Grayling disappeared from the Netherlands? To me, it would.  Not only do I lament the fact that we humans are constantly interfering with nature, causing the complex jigsaw puzzle of life to start losing pieces (the Tawny Pipit has already been lost), but I have a strong feeling that the Dutch Tree Graylings may be a distinct species, or at the very least an endemic subspecies. The transverse band that Tree Graylings elsewhere have across the underside of their hindwings is much less pronounced or even absent here, so they are unique, and for that reason alone, they should be given the maximum of assistance in their struggle to survive.  This time I only found one individual, a lone male.  I can only hope that he will find a female and that next year, if I manage to make my annual pilgrimage to the Kootwijkerzand, the Tree Grayling will still grace this wonderful place.

I was astonished when a female Tree Grayling landed on my binoculars in 2004