Sea and Land: Victorian History Book Illustrates the Dreaded and Grotesque Natural World

This 1889 book highlights all the horrors of the natural world, from sea serpents and krakens to carnivorous man-eating plants.
A man-eating plant in Sea and Land by J.W. Buel

J.W. Buel’s 1889 book Sea and Land offers up a comprehensive “illustrated history of the wonderful and curious things of nature existing before and since the deluge.” From the very first page it promises a natural history of all flora and fauna found on Earth, from “things that are found in the deep sea” like sea serpents and ship-sinking krakens, to the myriad beasts, cannibal tribes, and blood-thirsty vegetation waiting to eat us on land.

“I had utterly failed to appreciate how prodigal nature is; how illimitable her resources, how marvelous the diversity of her creative power,” Buel writes in the introduction. “As I proceeded, gathering interesting facts, each new wonder became the parent of a host of rarer marvels, until I became fairly bewildered by a sabbaoth of natural phenomena, and a multiplicity of animate organisms of which I had before formed no conception.”

What follows is 300 engravings illustrating the “character and disposition” of the world’s creatures, all of which seem hellbent on destroying humanity. Women are being carried off by tigers, crocodiles, and chimpanzees. Hunters and explorers are engaged in life-or-death combat with dinosaurs, swordfish, giant crabs, and man-eating plants.

“I have spared nothing to become familiar with the works of the greatest travelers and scientists,” Buel claims, “and to glean from them their most valuable and interesting revelations.”

The result, thanks to Mr. Buel’s diligence, is a lurid guide to all the ways people have died in the wild, the finer points of properly cooking an elephant’s foot to satisfy the cultivated tastes of a civilized gentleman, superstitions and witchcraft on the high seas, butchering a whale, using horses to fish for electrical eels, and cooking dinner on the back of a giant sea monster.

Sea and Land is a collection of strange travels, thrilling adventures, superstitions, and mysteries that at times feels more Jules Verne than natural history.

For example, in the chapter “Mysteries of the Deep Sea,” Buel introduces a nightmarish creature from the past, the flying pterodactyl:


“We have next to describe the most grotesque and horrifying creature that inhabited the ancient ocean, a wild phantasm of nature, more terrible in its appearance than a nightmare conception. Its hybridity was so remarkable that it was reptile, bird and bat all at once, having the characteristics and semblance of each. The scientific appellation of this mongrel monstrosity is Pterodactylus.”

Or how about the monsters of the Kansas plains, beasts who once inhabited the great cretaceous ocean of the West:

Monsters of the Kansas plains

And of course early man had some pesky vermin to contend with:

Early man fights off a plesiosaurus

There are plenty of contemporary ocean monstrosities, as well:

Man attacked by a killer spider crab

“A story is told of a party of fishermen who had camped out on a river bank, and one of whom aroused the others in the night by yells and screams. Running to the spot they found that one of these monster crabs, in wandering over the flats, had accidentally crawled over him with his great claws, frightening him almost to death.”

Illustration from J.W. Buel's book Land and Sea depicting a crab lifting a goat

“It is said that several of Drake’s seamen, having been cast by shipwreck upon a desert island in a helpless condition, were set upon by a legion of these terrible creatures and devoured.”

The kraken sinks a ship

Things with tentacles are also horrifying. Octopus, squid, krakens, and cuttle-fish (which Buel refers to as the “greatest monster of ante-diluvian times”) are not to be trusted.

The Alecto tries to capture a cuttle-fish in 1861

Octopus attack

Fatal adventure with an octopus

There are plenty of other deranged fish in the sea, as well:

Dog fish attack

A man battles a saw fish

Boy biten by a shark

Sword fish attack

Buel relates the “dreadful adventure of a priest” named Philoponus who sailed with Columbus. Philoponus wrote of an encounter with a “marvelous tribe of Indians, who maintained supremacy not only over the land, but over the ocean monsters as well.” These men, according to the priest, visited the Spaniards while riding a sea-gryphon. He described the creature as “an immense animal having a scaly back, fringed collar, a lashing tail and a hog’s head. It was also furnished with four huge paws, each paw having three fingers; it also had tremendous wings and fins.”

Cooking dinner on a leviathan's back

During the same voyage off Cape Verde, Philoponus claims, several Spanish boats were attacked and devoured by sea-gryphons.

“This learned priest concludes his interesting narrative with a declaration
that he was told—and he implicitly believed the statement,” Buel wrote, “that during a short period, when he was so badly indisposed by seasickness as to be unable to appear on deck, that his ship was anchored for several hours to a great sea monster having a hog’s head and a bear’s claws, and that two of the more venturesome of the crew got out upon the leviathan’s back and built a fire whereon they cooked a dinner, which in no wise disconcerted the great animal.”

Ganges crocodile

In India women used to take their children to the shores of the Ganges and offer them up as a sacrificial feast for the crocodiles.

The Phantom Ship

In the section on superstition, Buel writes of the Phantom Ship:

“During that period in American history when there was carried on an extensive, though infamous, traffic in captured slaves from Africa, the phantom ship was reported seen by several different vessels every month, until its haunts seemed to be established off the Cape of Good Hope, a region quite dangerous enough to give rise to the superstition. The origin of this strange illusion is no doubt found in the fact that, under certain conditions of the atmosphere, objects on the surface of the sea loom up, so that a vessel so far distant that its masts are hidden by the sphericity of the earth, may yet be seen in an inverted position, apparently in the sky. Such a sight, witnessed by sailors totally unacquainted with the laws of refraction, would naturally impress them with a supernatural cause, and hence give rise to the belief in a phantom ship.”

Buel then goes on to write about an old witch from the mid 15th-century named Sampson whose confession, he notes, was extorted by “toasting her over coals of fire”:

“At that time His Majesty (James VI) was in Denmark, she took a cat and christened it, and afterwards bound to each part of that cat the chiefest parts of a dead man, and several joints of his body; on the night following this preparation the cat was conveyed into the midst of the sea, by herself and other witches sailing in their baskets, and so committed the said cat to the waves right before the town of Leith, in Scotland. Directly after this was done there arose such a tempest in the sea as a greater hath not been seen, which tempest was the cause of the perishing of a vessel wherein were sundry jewels and rich gifts, which should have been presented to the new Queen of Scotland, at Her Majesty’s coming to Leith.”

There are plenty of things on land to contend with, as well:

The tragic death of officer M'clane

Missionary seized by alligator

Hunter attacked by orangutan

Woman carried off by a crocodile

Orangutan abducting a woman

Woman carried off by a tigress

Buel writes about several carnivorous plants, but the ya-te-veo of South American and Africa is the only one that consumes humans.

“This marvelous vegetable Minotaur is represented as having a short, thick trunk, from the top of which radiate giant spines, narrow and flexible, but of extraordinary tenaciousness, the edges of which are armed with barbs, or dagger-like teeth. Instead of growing upright, or at an inclined angle from the trunk, these spines lay their outer ends upon the ground, and so gracefully are they distributed that the trunk resembles an easy couch with green drapery around it. The unfortunate traveler, ignorant of the monstrous creation which lies in his way, and curious to examine the strange plant, or to rest himself upon its inviting stalk approaches without a suspicion of his certain doom. The moment his feet are set within the circle of the horrid spines, they rise up, like gigantic serpents, and entwine themselves about him until he is drawn upon the stump, when they speedily drive their daggers into his body and thus complete the massacre. The body is crushed until every drop of blood is squeezed out of it and becomes absorbed by the gore-loving plant, when the dry carcass is thrown out and the horrid trap set again.”

Man eaten by a carnivorous plant

“A gentleman of my acquaintance, who, for a long time, resided in Central America, affirms the existence of such a plant as I have here briefly described,” Buel goes on, “except that instead of the filaments, or spines, resting on the ground he says they move themselves constantly in the air, like so many huge serpents in an angry discussion, occasionally darting from side to side as if striking at an imaginary foe. When their prey comes within reach the spines reach out with wonderful sagacity (if I may be allowed to apply the expression to a vegetable creature), and grasp it in an unyielding embrace, from whence it issues only when all the substance of its body is yielded up.”

As 19th-century English surgeon and zoologist Thomas Rymer Jones mused, “To eat and to be eaten, seems to be one of the great laws of nature.” It only seems fitting that a Victorian-era book about nature would explicitly detail this particular law in all its gruesome glory.

Panorama of life

Read Sea and Land right here.