James Sowerby included meteorites in his publications of British and exotic natural history and so raised interest in their nature and origins at a time of much debate and involving the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks. The celebrations over the defeat of France in 1814 prompted Sowerby to make a sword from the Cape of Good Hope iron meteorite to present to the Russian Emperor, Alexander I, at the time of his state visit to London in June 1814 and in recognition of his achievements in bringing peace to Europe. The story of its attempted presentation, its final reception and the following response, including publications, all helped to increase interest in meteorites and their properties. The rediscovery of the sword after a lengthy disappearance probably brings an unusual saga to a fitting close.
The artist and natural historian James Sowerby (1757–1822) had an early and important influence on the study of meteorites. He was initially very active in the publication of botanical works but probably held an interest in minerals well before he published his books on them. His own private museum, open free to the public at the back of his house in Lambeth, south London, was planned to contain his collection with the objective of representing all parts of British natural history, which would feature minerals, rocks and meteorites quite significantly (figure 1).
It was fortunate for the study of meteorites that Sowerby was a passionate communicator. His accessible and scholarly books (singly and co-authored) were mostly very successful and promoted greater interest and research. In 1804 he started his British Mineralogy, which continued until 1817.1 It was complemented by his Exotic Mineralogy from 1811 to 1817.2 Both publications contain entries about meteorites. The first, in December 1804, was of some stone meteorites, including the famous Wold Cottage specimen, which had been seen to fall on 13 December 1795 at Wold Cottage near Bridlington in Yorkshire, England, and aroused much curiosity there and in London.3 Sowerby entitled his entry Ferrum nativum. Meteoric Iron but was somewhat diffident about including it in his British Mineralogy, as shown by his introduction:
To introduce a substance, however curious, as having fallen like a meteor from the skies, or as Phaëton from the heavens, might seem absurd in a work on British Mineralogy. But, whatever may be the extent of this term mineralogy, it is pretty universally understood to include a knowledge of stones and metals; among the latter of which we place this production, and feel much gratified in adding so great a rarity to the British Catalogue.
His account also reflected some lingering uncertainties of meteorite origin despite previous publications on evidence of falls and of meteorite composition, especially one by Edward Howard read to the Royal Society in 1802, showing that they contained the distinguishing feature of nickeliferrous iron.4 However, the publicity over Wold Cottage and the veracity of the eyewitness accounts of its fall and retrieval undoubtedly contributed to the developing realization that meteorites came from beyond the Earth's atmosphere.5
Wold Cottage was purchased by Sowerby and placed in his museum, where it continued to attract many visitors, including scientists and collectors. Sowerby was busy in making exchanges of specimens with his contacts in Britain and abroad, a task in which he was often successful because of his established reputation as a collector and author. His later account was of iron meteorites. It appeared in Exotic Mineralogy in 1820 with due recognition given to their origin and to the clear distinction between stone and iron meteorites.6 Several specimens of irons from different parts of the world, and available to Sowerby, were illustrated on the accompanying plate. They included one with a fine metallic lustre—the Cape of Good Hope. This was the meteorite from which Sowerby chose, in May 1814, to make his sword for the Emperor of Russia at the end of the Napoleonic wars and which was to have its own unexpected future. This saga demonstrates Sowerby's desire to communicate to people of all ranks, and sometimes in novel ways, the wonders of the natural world.
The Cape of Good Hope meteorite—specimens and analysis
The Cape of Good Hope iron is an interesting meteorite with an unusual history. Its discovery and nature are reviewed by Buchwald in his major synthesis of iron meteorites (1975).7 It is a nickel-rich ataxite containing 16.32% nickel and is a typical group IVB meteorite. Besides iron and nickel it contains only minor or trace amounts of other metals and phosphorus. Particularly noteworthy for this study is that it has a fine-grained structure with few inclusions. The mineral schreibersite (an iron nickel phosphate) occurs as microscopic grains, and troilite (an iron sulphide) as visible nodules (0.1–3 mm across) occurring about one per 25 cm2.
It was found in the eighteenth century in the Dutch Cape Colony on a plain east of the Great Fish River in southern Africa. In 1801 Barrow, reporting8 on his travels in the region, wrote:
The mass was entirely amorphous; exhibited no appearance of having been in a mine; no matrix of any kind was adhering to it; nor in the cavities of its surface were any pebbles or marks of chrystallization. It was exceedingly tough, and the fracture more like that of lead than of iron. The weight of the mass might be about three hundred pounds.
The mass in question exhibited evident marks of force having been used to flatten and to draw it out. It had probably been the thick part of a ship's anchor, carried from coast to the place where it was found by the Kaffars, and attempted by them to be reduced into smaller pieces.
Before Barrow's travels it had already been transported to Cape Town.
Barrow also reported that a specimen had ‘some time ago’ been taken to England by Colonel Prehn.9 This specimen of 84 kg was acquired on behalf of the Dutch government; it arrived in Haarlem in 1803 and was described as meteoritic by Marum in 1804.10
Papers in the Natural History Museum, London, indicate that another piece arrived in Britain in 1802.11 A handwritten list by Dr Charles De Schreber of ‘Aerolithes’ desired for the Imperial Museum at Vienna starts with three British stones.12 It also includes the Cape of Good Hope iron and states that besides Colonel Prehn having delivered a specimen so did ‘Mr. Fichtel bring one of about 12 pounds which he delivered 1802 to you. Mr Sowerby shall have received it from you.’ This list seems to have been sent to Mr Francillon who then passed it, perhaps with the Cape specimen, to Sowerby, who was recognized as having a key role in the acquisition and exchange of meteorite specimens.13
A draft paper, unsigned but in Sowerby's hand, includes a section on the Cape specimen that must have been in Sowerby's collection:14
Our piece was given by Mr Barrow to Mr Fichtel who gave it to Mr Francillon from whom it came into my hands about Apr or May 1806. Considering it a great curiosity and that it possibly might relate to the meteoric iron, commonly so called, we examined it to see if it contained any Nickel, one of the characteristics of such Irons, and presuming it did, we thought it would be doing well to get it examined by some experienced chymist. We therefore took it to Sr Jos Banks, thro whose hands most of these substances have passed and as Mr Howard had analysed former subjects of this kind Sr Jos Banks got him to examine this. When Mr H. confirmed our opinion of its contg Nickel and he ascertained it to be 15 parts in 100. Sr JsB wishing to have a more thorough investigation of the subject and desirous to know the nature of the steel it would make requested me to allow him a portion for that purpose and Mr Tennant was so good as to undertake to get a piece sawn off to analyse it and get a knife blade formed for Sr Jos.15
This is an interesting paper because it mentions the analysis by the chemist Edward Charles Howard (1774–1816), a recipient of the Royal Society's Copley Medal. He had earlier (in 1802) published a major paper in collaboration with the French mineralogist Jacques-Louis Compte de Bournon, on the nature and chemical compositions of several meteorites.16 This work had been instigated by the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, in an attempt to help resolve the disparate debates about meteorite origin. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary it has been suggested that Howard was not involved in analysing the Cape of Good Hope meteorite, despite his obvious skills and earlier activity, because of his developing occupation in industrial chemistry and the trade in sugar.17 Howard did not formally report on this additional analysis; it may have been only a preliminary one such that Banks felt the need to ask the chemist and Fellow of the Royal Society Smithson Tennant (1761–1815) to complete another.18 This was published as a very brief note a short time after Sowerby received the Cape specimen.19 Tennant found 10% nickel, whereas Howard had found 15%, which is much closer to the accepted value of about 16.3%. Later, Sowerby reported that besides Tennant's analysis ‘some other experiments were made with it, but the results have unfortunately not been published.’20 This may refer to the analysis by Howard, although it has also been suggested it could refer to the determination of other properties, such as relative density, by Tennant.21 The subsequent history of the meteoritic knife blade mentioned in the Sowerby MS is not known. There is no record of its being in the collections of the Royal Society.22
Sowerby's meteoritic sword and its attempted presentation to the Emperor in 1814
The stimulus for Sowerby to use the Cape of Good Hope meteorite in such an innovative way was the state visit of the Allied Sovereigns, including the Emperor of Russia, Alexander I, and distinguished military personnel to England to celebrate the peace following the defeat of France and the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte. This was the end of the war of the Sixth Coalition, marked by the Treaty of Paris (30 May 1814). The distinguished guests arrived in London on the afternoon of 7 June 1814, having travelled along Westminster Bridge Road past Sowerby's house, on the front of which he had planned to display a large Union Flag.23
Various ceremonies, entertainments and parades were undertaken, including one on 9 June at Carlton House, where the Emperor was admitted as a Knight of the Order of the Garter. Others were a visit to Oxford (where Alexander and the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, were awarded doctorates in civil law), a City of London banquet, attendance at the Ascot Races, and a naval review at Portsmouth (22 June). Souvenir medals were struck24 and people flocked to Hyde Park to see military parades, gun salutes and the distinguished visitors; one enthusiastic observer wrote: ‘As the white plumes of the Emperor's guard danced among the trees, the people all ran first to one side and then to the other.’25
Sowerby, who normally expressed little about current affairs and politics in his correspondence, was delighted at the onset of peace and was clearly much impressed by the role of the Emperor in bringing it about. (He was also aware that Alexander's museum contained specimens of much interest to him.) He wished to demonstrate his appreciation and to do it in a way that showed something of the wonders of natural history—his lifelong mission. What better way than to use one of the extraordinary items of his own collection transformed into a symbol of war and peace? Thus his idea of a ceremonial sword made of meteoritic iron and with suitable inscriptions was born. But the method of its manufacture and the short time available were tricky and unfamiliar challenges that he had to face.
He must first have arranged the cutting of a slice from his Cape specimen and then its being shaped into a piece suitable for a blade. These tasks were almost certainly done at the renowned ‘Patent Press Steam Engine and Machine Manufactory’ of Henry Maudslay and Co at Cheltenham Place, Lambeth, just a short distance from Sowerby's house at Mead Place. On 4 May 1814, just one month before the arrival of the distinguished and victorious visitors, he was charged 4s.6d.: ‘To Man's Time cutting & polishing a Piece of Iron.’26 Some preliminary tests seem to have been made—the Natural History Museum, London, contains some thin hammered strips of the Cape iron.27
The final shaping, sharpening and mounting onto a steel handle and the making of the scabbard were tasks performed by John Prosser, ‘Manufacturer of Arms and Accoutrements to the King and their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales, Dukes of York, Kent and Cumberland, No 9 Charing Cross’. Prosser also supplied a specially made mahogany sword case for 2 guineas.28 Finally the sword was engraved, most probably by Prosser, with appropriate decoration and information.
Sowerby's own account of the manufacture proudly declares how quickly the whole job was done:29
Blade hammered at red heat out of a single piece of an inch thick, ground and polished; its spring was given it by hammering it when cold; the haft was lengthened by welding on a small piece of steel; it was found to work very pleasantly, the whole operation taking about 10 hours; the mounting & engraving occupied the following two days; thus no sword was ever completed from the crude material in so short a space of time. Sowerby.
The speed was essential if Sowerby's plan was to succeed. His next task was to seek permission for the presentation. This he did through a letter on 18 June, four days after the arrival of the Emperor and only three days before his possible departure, to the Chamberlain to His Majesty the Emperor of Russia, the Earl of Yarmouth, seeking approval to make a celebratory gift to His Majesty, whom he referred to as ‘the Hero of Mercy’, and which was from an individual ‘who admires the Magnanimous Giver of Blessings’.30 Sowerby could be quite fawning in his writing style when he wished for a particular outcome. It is likely, however, that the idea of the presentation had already been mooted before this letter. The Duke of Cambridge had been shown the sword on 17 June and expressed his pleasure, and the sword had been displayed at a meeting (of unknown date) at the Linnean Society.
Permission was duly granted, and Sowerby received a letter on 21 June telling him that it was the last day of the Emperor's stay in London and making the recommendation that Sowerby take the sword to the Pulteney Hotel in Piccadilly, where the Emperor and probably the Ambassador were staying.31 He did not succeed, even if he attempted, to hand over the gift on that day and the sword was subsequently displayed at a reception for the distinguished visitors and others at Sir Joseph Banks's house. One guest, Mrs Edward Stanley, wrote on 23 June to her sister-in-law about events including this reception, where
… the most interesting object of the evening was a sword come down from heaven on purpose for the Emperor! Let the Prince Regent and his garters and his orders, and the merchants and the aldermen and everybody hide their diminished heads! What are they and their gifts to the Philosophers?
This is literally a sword made by Sowerby from the iron from some meteoric stones lately fallen of course in honour of the Emperor. There is an inscription on it something to this effect, but not so neat as the subject demanded, and it is to be presented to Alexander—who does not deserve it, by the by, for having entirely neglected Sir Joseph amongst all the great sights and great men, which has rather mortified the poor old man.32
The sword clearly impressed some people, but it is unlikely that the Emperor had seen it because he had left London the day before and by the evening of 22 June was in Portsmouth.33
A few draft notes and incomplete letters suggest that Sowerby continued to have problems in finding a way to give the Emperor his sword. Finally, on 4 July 1814 Major-General Petr Andreevich Kikin (a state secretary to Alexander) took a package containing the sword to Russia. This comprised the sword and its scabbard packed in a proper lined mahogany case, covered with an oilcloth, a handwritten document by Sowerby, ‘Observations to accompany the sword’, which described its manufacture and source material, a letter to the Emperor asking him to receive the sword, and also a coloured print by Sowerby depicting some British meteorites, including the renowned Wold Cottage stone.34 It is possible that a piece of the Cape of Good Hope iron was also included.
Sowerby, in his diplomatic letter, gave reference to another iron meteorite that had fallen in Siberia and to the analysis by Smithson Tennant of the Cape of Good Hope iron:
To His imperial Majesty, Alexander, Emperor of all the Russias
May it please your Imperial Majesty
Part of a mass of Iron, of the same nature and celestial origin as that so celebrated which Proffessor Pallas discovered some years ago in Siberia and which is now placed in your Majestys Museum, being in my possession, I have presumed it would be agreeable to your Majesty to accept a Sword made from it, as a mark from an individual of that gratitude every Englishman is so anxious to express and respect for the familiar way in which your Majesty has been pleased to visit my Country.
May it please your Imperial Majesty
The Meteoric Iron of which the Blade has been hammered was found about 200 miles within the Cape of Good Hope by Captain Barrow. It has been examined by my Countryman Smithson Tennant who established its nature by discovering about 10 per Cent of Nickel in it. It is the only Sword ever made of that rare extraordinary material. That your Majesty may be graciously pleased to honour an humble individual by receiving it is the ambitious hope of Your Majesty's most obedient and ever grateful Servant.
3 July 1814
Then all seems to have gone quiet. If Sowerby was expecting to receive at least an acknowledgement he was to be disappointed. A letter in September from Joseph Hamel (a Russian medic with links to the Ministry of Internal Affairs) staying in London, told Sowerby that the Minister received the things he (Hamel) had sent him and wondered if Sowerby had heard anything.35 Sowerby clearly had not; his thoughts must have turned to what might have happened and the possibility that his unusual gift had been lost or put aside unnoticed. One pencilled draft note written in Sowerby's hand says that ‘Mr S fears it may have got rust in laying by’ and continues that he would be happy to have it returned to him!36 Sowerby, however, had his contacts in Russia through his network of collectors. One was Dr Alexander Crichton in St Petersburg, who was ‘Physician Extraordinary to the Emperor of all the Russias’ as well as a renowned mineral collector and someone interested in Sowerby's publications. Sowerby wrote to him about his meteorite specimens, saying that he wished to do some specimen exchange and that he had the Cape of Good Hope iron. He explained that he had had a sword made that was sent with General Kikin for passing to the Minister of the Interior to present to the Emperor. In a discreet way he asked Crichton to help him: ‘I hope it will soon be in his hands and when I find it is I shall be glad to know from you what is said about it.’37
Nothing much seems to have happened until a letter in November 1818, more than four years after the Emperor's visit to England, arrived from Dr Crichton that showed that Sowerby had not ceased in his pursuit of information about his precious sword.38 Crichton explained that during his time in Moscow (he was then in St Petersburg) he had had no time to make enquiries about the sword other than to ask the Emperor himself, and that when he did so he learned that the Emperor had no recollection of it at all. So he had again contacted the Minister of the Interior, Osip Petrovich Kozodavlev, who said he had indeed delivered it and that the Emperor must have forgotten, and that it would be best if Sowerby inquired again of Kozodavlev so that he, in turn, had an excuse to remind the Emperor of the circumstances. In this same letter Crichton told Sowerby of some of the Siberian minerals he had in his collection and of the hefty prices he had had to pay for them.
This letter and Sowerby's undoubted reaction led to success. Six months after Crichton's letter, Sowerby received one from the Minister of the Interior, Kozodavlev, with the good news that not only had the Emperor received the sword and was delighted with it but also that he had given a diamond ring to Sowerby as a mark of his satisfaction:39
Dr Hamel, a Russian, who in the years 1814 and 1815 was in England, and had been in frequent correspondence with me about manufactures and agriculture, has forwarded to me at that time your letter, directed to His Imperial Majesty, my most gracious Sovereign. In that letter, expressing the high regard you have for His sacred person, you beg Him to accept of a sword, which you have made of the Meteoric iron, found within the boundaries of the Cape of Good Hope, and which you assure to be the only sword ever made of this rare and extraordinary material. Some time after the reception of the letter I received likewise this same sword.
Several circumstances have hindered for some time the presentation of your letter and sword to the Emperor.
Now I have the honour to inform you Sir, that His imperial Majesty has been pleased to read your letter and to accept your sword with particular benevolence, and, as a mark of His satisfaction, to make you a present of a ring adorned with diamonds and a large green precious stone set in the middle of them.
As Dr. Creighton, Physician to His imperial Majesty, is going now to England, and is so good as to take upon him the delivery of this my letter and of the said ring to you, I send it herewith by him. I feel at this moment a double satisfaction both for your zeal towards my gracious Sovereign, and for the reward you have so worthily merited by it.
You will oblige me by informing me of your reception of the ring. I have the honour to be with particular respect.
Your most humble servant
May the 16/28 1819
If it had been a lengthy task getting Sowerby's sword into the Emperor's hands, so it was in getting the Emperor's ring onto Sowerby's finger. A letter from Dr Crichton soon followed that from Kozodavlev with the encouraging news that he would be leaving Russia for England in two to three weeks' time but, less encouragingly, would only be in London in the autumn as he had first to visit some relatives in Scotland.40 Some money was included with the letter, most probably for a copy of Exotic Mineralogy that Sowerby had sent.
Joseph Hamel joined in the letter writing, this time from Francfurt am Main, confirming that it was indeed he who had originally forwarded the sword to the Minister and that he was pleased about the ring, which Dr Crichton would deliver, but not saying when.41 A short article, probably written by Hamel, under a section ‘Reports from St Petersburgh 4 June’, in Journal de Francfort, told of the Emperor's gift.42 Sowerby's ring was obviously a worthy news item and everyone seemed to want to claim some credit. It was also reported—but not confirmed—that the Minister, M de Kosodavlev, had been ill for several weeks and that he had possibly quit the ministry. Sowerby must have managed to complete the business just in time; any earlier change of Minister would probably have caused interminable delays.
The ring had been getting tantalizingly close. In November, about six months after the initial news, Dr Crichton finally declared that he had been in London for a week but had been too busy seeing several relations and friends to deliver the ring, but he was now anxious to do so and gave an early date for Sowerby to collect it.43 Sowerby now had his ring and he invited Crichton to Bedford Street, Covent Garden, on 3 December, when the Geological Society would be holding its meeting, so that he could be introduced to the President, George Greenough, and to the Society.44 Crichton did not, however, accept the invitation.
Photographs of the ring show a fine faceted rectangular emerald surrounded by diamonds on a mount decorated with diamonds set in an arrangement of stylized fleur-de-lis.45 Its current location is not known but it is assumed to be still in the hands of one of Sowerby's descendants, as it was in 1952.46
The successful outcome stimulated Sowerby to tell his friends and family of his initiative, to publish a short account in Philosophical Magazine of the sword and its presentation,47 and to include a coloured plate and description of several iron meteorites, under the heading ‘Ferrum Niccoliferum. Nickoline, or Meteoric Iron’ in his Exotic Mineralogy.48 In the last one he was able to make a clear distinction between stone and iron meteorites and to be confident of their ‘meteoric origin’, something he had not been able to do some 15 years earlier in his account of the Wold Cottage specimen. This encouraged E. D. Clarke, Professor of Mineralogy at Cambridge University, to persuade Sowerby to loan him the Cape iron for a lecture to more than 200 gentlemen.49 He also asked whether he could buy a meteorite knife, because his students had reported that Sowerby made these. Sowerby obliged by sending two specimens, one of the Cape iron and one of another iron meteorite, Elbogen, with a piece flattened, polished and treated with nitric acid to reveal the Widmanstätten pattern of lamellae of troilite and kamacite—a structure not shown in the Cape iron.50 (He explained that no meteoritic knives had been made for sale.) The science of meteorites had come a long way in the intervening years. Sowerby had a good collection of them in his museum; he was active in collecting and exchanging specimens and he had a network of correspondents in several countries. Indeed, people saw him as one of the most important collectors. An apothecary in Hanover told Sowerby that he expected to obtain some of a meteorite that had fallen in a village near Göttingen and said: ‘if I do, no other person shall have it but you.’51
The sword lost and found
The apparent loss of the sword for nearly five years between its departure from London in 1814 and its final arrival in the hands of the Emperor in 1819 was followed by another long period of presumed loss or destruction. There was little reason for people to consider it any further, although its story had raised more interest in meteorites, especially iron ones. Sowerby died just three years later in 1822, probably content in the knowledge that he had achieved his mission. Alexander I died in 1825.
Nothing more was heard of the sword. An unsuccessful search for it was made in Russia in 1937.52 Buchwald and other authors cite this circumstance, as did Grossman in 2007 when asking: ‘And what of “the Sword from Heaven”, the magnificent sword that fascinated … guests of Sir Joseph Banks on an evening in June 1814. … Its fate is unknown to this day.’53
In March 2011 I initiated a new search and achieved early success. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, reported that the sword was in the Arms and Armour Collection of their Arsenal Department.54 In March 2013 I visited the museum and undertook a simple observational examination of the sword and its scabbard. Unbeknown to the author at that time (and to some meteorite scientists as well as other authors, for example Grossman in 2007), a very short account of the Cape of Good Hope meteorite and the sword, together with a statement that the sword had been located in the Hermitage Museum, was given by Buchwald in 2005 in his work on iron and steel in ancient times.55
Sowerby's own description of the sword is reasonably accurate (figures 2 and 3). It has a curved blade of meteoritic iron, attached to a hilt of steel, with a steel rain guard and cross guard. Measurements made in March 2013 are given in table 1. The blade is in very good condition with a good lustre and is generally free of corrosion or rust. There are parts, especially towards the tip and in the area of the main inscription, which contain some shallow, narrow, irregular cracks or depressions (see figures 2 and 3). Some run parallel or sub-parallel to the length of the blade. Whether these originated during or after manufacture is not clear, although the choice of position for the inscription seems rather poor if the defects were present at the time. Examination with a hand lens revealed few other defects or inclusions. One small, possibly sulphide, inclusion was noted. Some pitting that occurs towards the tip occasionally shows signs of rust. There are a few surface scratches or abrasions, possibly from polishing. The grip consists of fish skin and bands of silver (see figure 2). The rain guard and cross guard are of steel. As Sowerby reported, the meteoritic blade was welded to a small piece of steel for the handle.
Using measurements given in table 1, the volume of meteoritic material is approximately 64 cm3. Assuming a reasonable relative density of 8 g cm−3 for this sort of nickel–iron, the mass is approximately 500 g. Sowerby gave the dimensions of the piece of Cape of Good Hope meteorite used to make the blade as 2¾ inches long, 2 inches wide and nearly ¾ inch thick.56 Assuming this piece to have been regular, its volume was about 70 cm3, which is consistent with the volume of the blade. Thus approximately 10% of the original specimen that came into Sowerby's hands was used by him to make the sword.
Sowerby chose the words for the engravings on the blade with some care. He made sure that its meteoritic origins would not be forgotten by the inscription PURE METEORIC IRON found near the Cape of Good Hope on one side, and he gave fulsome praise to the Emperor on the other (figure 3) with:
This Iron, having fallen from the heavens was, upon his visit to England, presented to His Majesty ALEXANDER, EMPEROR of all the RUSSIAS, who has successfully joined in Battle, to spread the Blessings of PEACE throughout EUROPE.
By James Sowerby F.L.S. G.S. Honorary Member of the Physical Society of Göttingen &c,
Above the inscription is engraved the Imperial Crown and a wreath of laurel and palm enclosing the word ‘MERCY’, under which is the two-headed eagle of the Russian Empire.
The scabbard is made of animal skin (most probably pigskin) with steel fittings. The sword fits neatly into it. An engraving on the steel at the top states: This Blade was mounted by JOHN PROSSER Charing Cross. The current location of the mahogany box containing the sword on its travel from England is not yet known, if it still exists.
As a result of my impending visit, the Hermitage Museum made analyses of the sword blade and handle with a portable X-ray fluorescence device, ArtTAX. Their analysis of the blade gave a nickel concentration of only between 2 and 4%, which is highly discrepant with the expected value of about 16% Ni as in the Cape of Good Hope iron meteorite.57 Because the sword shows no indication of being a forgery, this could be an interesting topic for further research, the sword perhaps being more enigmatic than originally thought.
Although the sword might have been viewed by some as a kind of enthusiastic whim on the part of Sowerby, it was clearly treated with sufficient respect and interest to become an object of influence. Its advocates included the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks. He would have been pleased with the link between it and the wonder of meteorites, for the view was increasingly common that these objects of celestial origin could be conveyors of hitherto unknown information about the realms beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Just the fact that they were unlike terrestrial rocks aroused curiosity and excitement. Meteorites were now respectable items for a collector's cabinet, and prices could be high; the Vienna Museum was an early leader in acquisitions.
The sword was another example of Sowerby's aim to bring natural history into people's lives—at whatever level. His tenacity in seeking to ascertain its fate brought him not only satisfaction and a royal ring but also the knowledge that more attention had been given to the material of its construction—meteorites. His enthusiasm for this natural metal, its properties of lustre, malleability and resistance to corrosion, as well as its special source, led him even to propose (unsuccessfully) that it be used in the forthcoming coronation of George IV as: ‘a “celestial addition”, the fine and rarest meteoric iron, to dignify the coronation’.58
Sowerby was clearly pleased that his sword had been found after its first disappearance. There is satisfaction now that it has been ‘found again’ after many years of a supposed second loss or possible destruction. Meteoriticists, especially, want information on where specimens reside—they are rare and important scientific material. Although most would probably not wish that any specimen be used for a sword, they might well appreciate the several benefits that came from it.
I am most grateful to several members of the staff of the libraries of the Royal Society, the Natural History Museum, London, the Geological Society of London and the Royal Dublin Society for their assistance in obtaining information. I am indebted to Mr Ilya Ermolaev, Scientific Curator, the Arsenal Department of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, for finding Sowerby's sword in the Collection, for providing information and for helping arrange the visit to examine it; and also to Dr Dmitry Lyubin, Head of the Arsenal Department, for permission to visit, for his welcome and for his interest in the study. I also thank the State Hermitage Museum for the provision of photographs. My thanks also go to Elizabeth Henderson for her assistance during the examination of the Sowerby Sword, and to Dr Sara Russell and Caroline Smith, of Earth Sciences, the Natural History Museum, for their assistance and advice on the Cape of Good Hope meteorite and for reading a draft of this paper. I also appreciate the constructive comments and suggestions from two referees.
↵1 James Sowerby, British Mineralogy; or, coloured figures intended to elucidate the mineralogy of Great Britain (5 volumes) (Sowerby, London, 1804–17).
↵2 James Sowerby, Exotic Mineralogy; or coloured figures of foreign minerals, as a supplement to British Mineralogy (2 volumes) (J. Sowerby, London, 1811–17).
↵3 Sowerby, op. cit. (note 1), vol. 2, pp. 1–19, ‘Tab. CI., Ferrum nativum, meteoric iron’.
↵4 E. Howard (with J.-L. de Bournon and J. L. Williams), ‘Experiments and observations on certain stony and metallic substances, which at different times are said to have fallen on the Earth; also on various kinds of native iron’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 92, 168–212 (1802).
↵5 C. T. Pillinger and J. M. Pillinger, ‘The Wold Cottage meteorite: not just any ordinary chondrite’, Meteorit. Planet. Sci. 31, 589–605 (1996). This gives an informative and amusing account of the fall of the Wold Cottage meteorite and its significance in debates over meteorite origin.
↵6 Sowerby, op. cit. (note 2), vol. 2, pp. 133–140, ‘Tab. CIXIII., Ferrum niccoliferum, nickoline, or meteoric iron’. The volume is dated 1817 but the plate and letterpress were published in 1820. Sowerby wrote: ‘In British Mineralogy, tab 101, I have given some account of the native iron in Meteorolites; it was at a time when these Stones were so little understood, that the fact of their falling was doubted by most Philosophers; this is now generally admitted’.
↵7 V. F. Buchwald, ‘Cape of Good Hope’, in Handbook of iron meteorites, vol. 2, pp. 407–409 (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975).
↵8 John Barrow, An account of travels into the interior of Southern Africa, in the years 1797 and 1798 (London, 1801), vol. 1, p. 225.
↵9 This report is just one example showing that meteorites were considered important and interesting objects.
↵10 M. van Marum, ‘Beschryving van eenen zonderlingen in het zuidelyke Afrika gevonden ijzerklomp’, Natuurk. Verh. Holl. Maatsch. Wet. Haarlem (2) 2, 257–284 (1804). Cited by Buchwald, op. cit. (note 7), and discussed by U. B. Marvin, ‘Historical notes on three exceptional iron meteorites of southern Africa: the Cape of Good Hope, Gibeon, and Hoba’, in Workshop on extraterrestrial materials from cold and hot deserts (LPI Contribution no. 997) (ed. L. Schultz, I. Franchi, A. Reid and M. Zolensky), pp. 48–52 (Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, TX, 2000).
↵11 The Natural History Museum, London, holds an important collection of letters, manuscripts, bills, etc., relating to the artist and scientist James Sowerby (1757–1822) and his family (hereafter referred to as Sowerby Collection, NHM). Use of these documents is by permission of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum (London).
↵12 Undated list by Dr Charles De Schreber. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B118, Box 37.
↵13 Sowerby's faintly written draft reply to De Schreber refers to ‘Mr Francillon our mutual and worthy friend’ and tells him of meteorite specimens in his collection and his desire to acquire others. He enclosed a list of his publications. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B118, Box 37.
↵14 Sowerby, undated handwritten note (watermark 1801). Sowerby Collection, NHM, B117, Box 87.
↵15 Sowerby was not consistent in his reporting of his acquisition of the Cape of Good Hope specimen. In 1820, op. cit. (notes 2 and 6), he said that Mr Fichtel (cf. Mr Francillon) gave him the specimen, and again in 1820, op. cit. (note 6) said that he received it in 1805 (cf. 1806). He was probably accurate when in 1812 he stated: ‘There are no specimens in England, except what have been taken from the piece in my possession.’ (Proc. Dublin Soc. 48, 95 (1812), cited by M. I. Grossman, ‘William Higgins at the Dublin Society, 1810–20: the loss of a professorship and a claim to the atomic theory’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 64, 417–434 (2010), n. 49 at p. 432.)
↵16 Op. cit. (note 4).
↵17 Mark I. Grossman, ‘Smithson Tennant: meteorites and the final trip to France’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 61, 265–283 (2007).
↵18 Grossman, op. cit. (note 17), p. 266.
↵19 [Tennant], ‘XXX. Proceedings of Learned Societies, Royal Society of London’, Phil. Mag. 25, 182 (1806).
↵20 Sowerby, op. cit. (notes 2 and 6).
↵21 Grossman, op. cit. (note 17), p. 267.
↵22 Personal communication from the Archivist (Modern Records), The Royal Society, 28 February 2013.
↵23 Draft or copy of letter, 6 June 1814, to unknown recipient from James Sowerby in which he asks to borrow a flag, or two, for when the Emperor passes his house. It states that he occupies two houses each with a frontage of 18 feet. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B20, Box 32.
↵25 J. H. Adeane and M. Grenfell (eds), Before and after Waterloo. Letters from Edward Stanley, sometime Bishop of Norwich, (1802; 1814; 1816) (T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1906), at p. 86. The letter was from Mrs Stanley, wife of Edward Stanley, to her sister-in-law, Lady Maria Stanley, on 16 June 1814.
↵26 Bill from ‘Henry Maudslay & Co. at their Patent Press Steam Engine and Machine Manufactory, Cheltenham Place, Lambeth’, 4 May 1814. Sowerby Collection, NHM, Bills, Box 31.
↵27 The specimens in the meteorite collection of the Natural History Museum, London, include BM 1935 47, ‘thin strips of hammered (?) iron’ (1 gram and 0.44 gram), and 15143, ‘A laminated portion of the Cape Meteoric iron of which a sword was made by Mr Sowerby for the Emperor Alexander. Mr G. B. Sowerby by purchase 1842’ (4.3 gram).
↵28 Bill, 5 July 1814: ‘Bought of John Prosser, Manufacturer of Arms & Accoutrements to the King and their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, Kent and Cumberland, Nº 9 Charing Cross. A Mahogany Sword Case £2 2/-’. Sowerby Collection, NHM, Bills, Box 31.
↵29 Sowerby Collection, NHM, B121, Box 37.
↵30 Draft or copy of letter, 18 June 1814, from James Sowerby to the Right Honourable Lord Yarmouth. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵31 Unknown writer to James Sowerby, 21 June 1814. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵32 Op. cit. (note 25), p. 93. Letter from Mrs E. Stanley to Lady Maria Stanley. London, Monday, 23 June 1814.
↵33 Lake Allen, The history of Portsmouth 1817, containing a full and enlarged account of its ancient and present state (London, 1817).
↵34 The description of the contents of the package is based on pencilled draft notes in Sowerby's hand. The text of the letter of 3 July 1814 from James Sowerby to the Emperor is from a copy made by Sowerby's son, George. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵35 J. Hamel at Upper Marylebone St. to James Sowerby, 27 September 1814. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵36 Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵37 James Sowerby to Dr Alex Crighton, St Petersburgh, undated draft or copy. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵38 Dr Alex Crichton in St Petersburgh to James Sowerby, 7/19 November 1818. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵39 Kosodawlew to James Sowerby, 16/28 May 1819. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵40 Dr Crichton, St Petersburgh, to James Sowerby, 30 May and 10 June 1819; received at Mead Place, London, 5 July. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵41 Joseph Hamel to James Sowerby. The letter was addressed to ‘Mr Sowerby Esq. Author of British Botany & British Mineralogy etc. London’. This was annotated further by someone: ‘lived at Union Place? Lambeth; his actual address may be enquired for at some member of the Royal or Linnean Society’. It arrived at 2 p.m. on 6 July. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵42 Journal de Francfort, number 175, 24 June 1819.
↵43 Dr Crichton at Baker Street to James Sowerby, postmarked 12 November 1819. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37.
↵44 James Sowerby to Dr Crichton, undated draft or copy. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B120, Box 37. The minute book of the Geological Society records the names of visitors and of the members who introduced them; Sowerby and Crichton do not feature.
↵45 The brief description is based on two coloured photographs of the ring given to James Sowerby by the Emperor Alexander I. Sowerby Collection, NHM, M11, Box 65.
↵46 Arthur de Carle Sowerby, in collaboration with Alice Muriel Sowerby, and Joan Evelyn Stone, The Sowerby Saga. Being a brief account of the Sowerby family and of its history from earliest times down to the present based upon recent research into available extant literature (Washington DC, 1952).
↵47 James Sowerby, ‘Particulars of the Sword of Meteoric Iron presented by Mr Sowerby to the Emperor Alexander of Russia’, Phil. Mag. 55, 49–52 (1820).
↵48 Op. cit. (note 2), Tab. CLXIII, vol. 2, pp. 133–140. The plate and letterpress were published in 1820.
↵49 E. D. Clarke to James Sowerby, 21 April 1820. Sowerby Collection, NHM, 13, Box 5.
↵50 James Sowerby to E. D. Clarke, 21 April 1820. Sowerby Collection, NHM, 13, Box 5. He wrote that the Elbogen specimen had been sent to him by order of the Emperor of Germany. Clarke sent a warm letter of thanks on 22 April and said he would ensure that the university library purchased copies of Sowerby's works.
↵51 Charles Panse to James Sowerby, 9 April 1820. Royal Society, MS/709.
↵52 M. A. R. Khan, ‘A siderite of the fourteenth century’, Nature 154, 465 (1944). He reports that he had enquired of Dr J. Astapowitsch of the Sternberg Astronomical Institute of Moscow, who in a letter of 27 July 1937 said he could find no trace of it.
↵53 Op. cit. (note 17), p. 275.
↵54 Dr Dmitry Lyubin, Head of Arsenal Department, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, to Paul Henderson, 2 June 2011.
↵55 Vagn Fabritius Buchwald, Iron and steel in ancient times (Historisk-filosofiske Skrifter 29) (The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen, 2005). Buchwald gives a two-paragraph account, together with a black and white photograph of the sword, on pp. 14–15. He states: ‘The sword has long been considered lost, but was recently located in the collections of the Hermitage, St Petersburg (Rolf Buehler, pers. Comm).’ Grossman, op. cit. (note 17), did not know of this work.
↵56 Op. cit. (note 2), vol. 2, pp. 133–140.
↵57 Hermitage Museum analysis document number 1847, dated 27 November 2012. The instrument used was a mobile X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, ArtTAX. Details on the other aspects of the analysis, such as spatial resolution or the number and location of analysed areas, were not provided. The museum gives other useful information about the sword and scabbard on its web site, http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/html_En/03/hm3_4_7_img.html (accessed on 15 August 2013).
↵58 James Sowerby to Sir Ben Bloomfield, undated draft or copy of letter (watermark 1819). Sir Benjamin Bloomfield was private secretary to the prince regent at this time. Sowerby Collection, NHM, B118, Box 37.
- © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society.