John S. Gibbons - 1851-? - Collectors in East Africa - 5.

By Bernard Verdcourt

Extracted from The Conchologists' Newsletter, No. 79, pp. 344–348, published December 1981

John Stephen Gibbons collected a number of shells in Zanzibar some of which he described himself and others were dealt with by W. Nelson and J. W. Taylor. A few have yet to be identified since the types appear to be missing and no figures were given in one of the original papers. Not much has been found out about him.

The son of Stephen Gibbons, he was born at Brocklesby, Lincolnshire on 1 April 1851. He was educated at Aberdeen University and graduated M.B., C.M. in 1872. Two years later he was living at Swallow Vale, Caistor, in Lincolnshire. He then became surgeon on a series of boats, MSS ‘Roman’ in 1875, MSS ‘Kaffir’ in 1876, MSS ‘African’ in 1877–8. During 1879–1880 he was surgeon to the Royal Mail Steam Packets and in 1881 was living at Moddersfonstein, Victoria, western South Africa. Later (1892–3) he lived at Prieska in Cape Colony. From 1900–1906 he was district surgeon in Cape Colony but I cannot find out anything about him from 1907 onwards. Gibbons wrote about a score of papers (published in the first three volumes of the Journal of Conchology). He collected marine shells at various seaports in East and South Africa, West Indies and Brazil.

An interesting item concerning this collector is listed in Wheldon and Wesley’s catalogue New Series 152 (1980), a manuscript of J. S. Gibbons offered for sale "Synopsis of East African Shells" 89 pp. 5 parts plus South African Shells 44 pp. 2 pts. This was unpublished but was presented to the Conchological Society by J. W. Jackson in 1925 and was obviously dispersed when the short-sighted decision was made to sell their library.

A little additional information was obtained by examining his will at Somerset House. It confirmed my suggestion that he was rather better off towards the end of his life. The will is dated 30 January 1936, with a codicil about furniture and personal effects added on 14 October 1936. Probate was granted at Lewes on 5 February 1937 and the executors were Charles B. Craven (described as a Stockbroker although the Stock Exchange archives contain no reference to him) and a Mrs. Marion Jane Putland (wife of Alfred Bernard Putland) who lived at Thornton Heath and may have been related to some Putlands who lived in Lewes. The estate was £3944. 1.lld.; £1000 free of duty was left to Charles and £100 free of duty to Mrs. Putland to acknowledge her trouble as an executor (which seems quite a lot for those days). The main beneficiary was Marion Ethel Craven Ellis "now residing at East Cliff House No. 74 All Saints Street, Hastings" "for her absolute use .... when she shall attain the age of twenty one years or marry under that age" the "income .... to go to her during her minority". I have not managed to trace this person nor find out her relationship with Craven. The will also mentioned a wish to be cremated.

K. S. Erskine, who obviously read the Wheldon and Wesley Catalogue before I did and managed to purchase the manuscripts, has very kindly lent them to me. I am also very grateful to Messrs. Wheldon and Wesley for putting the purchaser in touch with me at my request. The manuscript is octave in size, stitched, and bears the title mentioned above together with the Conchological Society’s stamp and date "15.8.25 from J.W.J.". It dates from about 1875, and is written in a very legible hand. Part 1 is entirely introductory; he defines the district in which he operated including visits to Mozambique (15°2´S, 40°48´E) and Zanzibar (6°28´S, 39°33´E), Delagoa Bay and Natal (he actually wrote 4O°48´W! a curious slip for a seaman) in all, about 1000 miles of coast.

The manuscript continues with notes on the "Physical aspects", "Currents", "Distribution of Shells", "Economic aspect", "Hunting Grounds", "Opportunities of collecting etc", "Naming", "Results", "Land and Freshwater shells". These notes contain much of general and historical interest and it is to be hoped that Mr. Erskine can in time find some way of making the manuscripts more generally available.

Under economics Gibbons mentions that 8,000,000 Cypraea moneta valued at £51,000 were annually exported from Ras Hafun by the Arabs (getting the information from Burton) to the west coast of Africa but that the trade had almost ceased. He makes his apologies for not collecting more than he did. "Passing up and down the coast as I have done once a month it might be supposed I had ample opportunities for collecting, and, to a certain extent, such was the case, but, although calling at Mozambique twice a month, only a very short time is spent by the steamer and if, as often happens, that the tide should be high I can get no marine shells whatever, at Zanzibar on the other hand, three, four or even five days a month are spent but the necessity of cleaning the shells very shortly after they are taken consuming part of this time and the great heat prevents any very energetic hunting". He goes. on to say that an easier method of collecting was to buy from the natives and even at this early date a hint of conservation awareness is present – "they ruin the reefs by collecting every shell they find of any value".

Speaking of the non-marines he states "It is somewhat strange that so few land shells should have been found here" but of course he could never have had an opportunity to reach even the nearest coastal forests on the mainland. "With the exception of Achatina the land shells are insignificant in size and colouring. They are not only deficient in number of species but even individuals are usually sparing and always extremely local. About Zanzibar for instance Achatina is the only shell usually found – Bulimi, Pupas etc being confined to small areas on the coast and to the coral islets".

Part 2 of the manuscript begins the list of Marines; it is very likely some of his records are the first for the East African coast. The cowries are the only East African Marines I know about so it is interesting to peruse his list (using his names) – tigris, common, brought to ship in large numbers by the natives; arabica, widely distributed but rare; histrio occurs at Zanzibar; mauritiana, very rare; talpa, only seen once in a canoe at Zanzibar; onyx, common at Inhambane, rare higher up; broderipii "Zanzibar, two specimens were obtained about 1850 by the British Consul (Burton’s Zanzibar). There is no proof that these were obtained within East African waters although it is quite possible but to my knowledge no others have been found in East Africa." I have checked in Burton’s Zanzibar – P. F. Burton (Zanzibar; city, island and coast, (1872)) mentions that "Lieut.-Colonel Hamerton was fortunate enough in those early days to obtain two specimens of the Cypraea Broderipii (sic) or orange-cowrie with a stripe down the dorsum. Exaggerated ideas of its value had been spread and it was reported that £500 had been offered for a single shell"; pantherina, no specimens seen; arabicula, recorded from Zanzibar but no specimens seen; caputserpentis, not uncommon; lynx, rather common; caurica, very common; erosa, moderately common; vitellus, common; cruenta, occurs at Zanzibar; argus, "Mozambique, not uncommon in canoes very closely allied to Cyp.vitellus, common at Inhambane" – someone has pencilled in "this is Cyp. occellata" (sic) – the argus has mihi after it indicating it was a name Gibbons meant to give it himself seemingly having forgotten there is a very different C. argus L. – what his argus was I do not know. C. ocellata is a Ceylonese species not close to C. vitellus; carneola, moderately common; isabella, rarely seen in good condition; lutea extremely common – lutea is an Australian species and obviously an error; undata Zanzibar, Mozambique, common at latter place (= diluculum); zigzag (sic), Mozambique from canoes by natives; oblonga mihi, Mozambique two specimens, two specimens from boat, it is allied to Cyp. undata; quadrimaculata, Mozambique, two only from boats; staphylea, Zanzibar, Mozambique two only from boats; limacina, Mozambique, one live specimen whilst depositing its ova on a large stone at low water; moneta, Zanzibar, Mozambique, sometimes but not often washed up, rarely found alive I believe – much commoner in my day so possibly recovered from massive over collecting last century; annulus, common; lamarckii Zanzibar, Grant’s list; helvola, Zanzibar, Grant’s list; tabescens, Zanzibar, Grant’s list – presumably teres. There are obviously a few misidentifications and names which cannot be placed; without his collection it is not possible to establish the true identity of these.

Part 3 continues the marine species starting with Conus but it also contains mention of brackish and freshwater species as well as those from mangrove swamps eg. Potamides decollatus and Pyrazus palustris. Most of the freshwater species are from Grant’s list and not his own collecting; of 9 Ampu11aria (including Lanistes) listed he only found A. olivaceus in S. Zanzibar, numerous in lagoons on the mud. He mentions Littorina intermedia and L. glabrata, the former able to withstand great heat and dryness and the latter high above tide-mark on rocks; L. angulifera at Nozambique; L. natalensis Zanzibar; L. (Modulus) candida Zanzibar, one specimen sub—fossil, old sea beach, coral island; L. (Modulus) unidentata mihi Zanzibar, one specimen at low water. He found one species of Neritina at Zanzibar, one dead and worn at low tide and several others on mud flats but always water-worn.

Part 4 continues the marine species and contains all the terrestrial species. He dismisses a report by a Mr. Shepperd of HMS London, that Clausilia and Vitrina occurred on Zanzibar, as erroneous. Of Helix he records Helix (Nanina) mozambicensis "as common dead on the island of Mozambique ..... At Zanzibar on a Coral Islet specimens occurred that were pronounced to be H. jenynsii (Pfr.) by Mr. Smith of the British Museum but which appear to me to be merely a variety". Actually Sitala jenynsi is generically distinct from Trochonanina mozambicensis. He goes on to list "2 Helix dubia mihi Zanzibar not uncommon dead at roots of grass in a shady place near the sea". Presumably the same as the species later described by Taylor under the same name, although unfortunately it cannot be identified, "3 Helix (Zonites) ventricosa (mihi) Zanzibar. One dead specimen among dead leaves. Mr. Shepperd obtained live specimens at the roots of Banana trees. 4 Helix (Streptaxis) pupa mihi Zanzibar. Three specimens with the last alive."

He then lists a number of Bulimus taken from Grant’s list covering what today would be placed in Burtoa, Limicolaria, Rachis, Rhachistia etc. and species found by himself "1 Bulimus mozambicensis Pfr. Mozambique very numerous ..... 2 B. punctatus (Anton) Zanzibar and Mozambique ..... common ..... 3 B. similis Mozambique two dead under stones on the Mainland 4 B. olivaceus mihi. Zanzibar. Numerous among dead leaves and empty shells under bushes. Bawri Island, confined to this locality. 5 B. tumidus mihi. Zanzibar occurs sparingly about Zanzibar and dead only. Absent from Bawri Island but found on other Islets. 6 B. obesus mihi Zanzibar. Two dead and aged specimens from Bawri Island. I almost fancy this is a member of the subgenus Gibbus a group found at Mauritius. 7 B. bawriensis mihi Zanzibar. Rare and dead only in old shells among decaying leaves. Bawri Island only. The next two species with this form a section in which are some S. Australian Bulimi. B. pacificus Pfr. from Queensland appears exactly the same as this but may be distinct. 8 B. zanguebarica mihi. Zanzibar. Numerous dead in a sandy place down the coast in company with H. dubia. 9 B. cinereus (mihi). Zanzibar – one dead specimen with the last species. 10 B. costatus mihi, Zanzibar two dead specimens under dead leaves. 11 B. (Stenogyra) delicatae (sic) mihi Zanzibar. Local in interstices of loose coral in shady places ..... 1 Pupa cerea Zanzibar. Not uncommon about Zanzibar and on Bawri Island in or under dead shells. This may perhaps be a Vertigo!. 2 P. turricula mihi Zanzibar. Rare and dead only among dead leaves and grass. 3 P. (Ennea) bidentata mihi. Zanzibar. One dead shell with Helix dubia in a sandy place."

Many of these were described by Taylor and Gibbons (see list at end) but quite a few are now unidentifiable due to lack of authentic specimens. He lists 10 Achatina but had not seen all himself. "1 Achatina fulica (Fér.) Zanzibar (Seychelles Grant’s list) Common at Zanzibar and different being the only land shell that is so. It occurs in hedges, trees and among grass under bushes (graveyard Zanzibar pencilled in). 2 A. panthera (Pfr.). Common at Mozambique living on trees or in cavities of rocks shaded by trees. This species lives in trees hybernating in holes in the trunk. I have seen them 30 or 40 feet from the ground – resembles A. immaculata (Lamk) from Delagon Bay (he was right – they are con— specific) 3 A. immaculata (Lamk). Inhambare (Delagoa Bay) two specimens only but said by Mr. da Costa to be common living on the ground. 4 A. reticulata Pfr. Lindi Bay, Zanzibar (Grant). Specimens dead from the former place presented to me by Dr. Turnbull and said to be numerous. 5 A. lactea (Reeve). Zanzibar. This appears to be a small bleached form of A. reticulata (actually a quite different species from Somaliland – persisteht records of it from Zanzibar are undoubtedly based on young bleached A. reticulata or mislabelled specimens). 6 A. rodatzi (Dunker). Zanzibar, occurs sparingly with A. fulica to which it is closely allied differing little except colour (just a variety). 7 A. allisa (Reeve) Zanzibar (Cape Palmas, W. Africa) One dead specimen from a Coral Island, Zanzibar Channel. (This is actually A. iredalei Preston but allisa may well be an earlier name in which case Reeve’s original locality is erroneous) ..... 10. A. (Subulina?) intermedia (mihi) Zanzibar – found this in one place under a thick bush, the shells were buried in the loose mould just beneath the surface and were moderately numerous".

He interestingly records a Succinea – "S. ventricosa mihi Zanzibar. Rare in a dry sandy place where however in the wet season the ground would ..... ? marshy – this species closely resembles S. vitrea Pfr from Bombay". What "1 Limax fusca mihi under leaves and stones in shady places Zanzibar" might have been we shall never know. Next he mentions "Urocyclus (Gray). A genus allied to Arion described in Zoo. Soc. Proceed. 1864 p. 250. 1 Urocyclus kirkii (Gray). Mozambique (Lin. Soct.??) This is probably the slug I found so numerous on the Island of Mozambique on bushes. An allied species is found in Delagoa Bay and Natal".

Another interesting entry refers to Oncidium. "I found a species of Oncidium at Zanzibar on moss in a crevice. Bawri Island. The sea entered the crevice at high water. I unfortunately did not secure specimens". Gibbons refers to this in his paper (see bibliography). I do not think it had ever been seen again in East Africa. He records also "Vaginulus ates? mihi Mozambique. Plentiful under stones and on the ground in stony places". "1 Physa minuta mihi Zanzibar, one dead shell in a ditch filled with weeds." and "2 Physa (Physopsis) palustris mihi Zanzibar, one specimen dead with last species" are also recorded together with "1 Planorbis ..... Zanzibar about a dozen specimens in a stagnant pool" which is presumably the Planorbis gibbonsi of Nelson (see bibliography).

Under Auriculidae he records "1 Auricula (Ellobium) amplex (H. & A. Adams) Zanzibar a few on long weeds under a canoe in marsh close to the sea and at the mouth of a stream. 2 Auricula (Ellobium) mucronata mihi Zanzibar, rare among weeds in a marshy spot. 3 Auricula (Cassidula) zonata (H. & A. Adams). Zanzibar, rather scarce in marshy spots. 1 Melampus obconica mihi Zanzibar ..... 2 Melampus varians mihi Zanzibar. Very numerous on marshy spots among weeds and often associated with Cerithidea decollata and Littorina intermedia; there .is a banded and a light coloured variety. 3 Melanpus purpureus mihi Zanzibar. Three dead specimens on Chapani (one of the coral islands) – differs very little from the last".

Of Cyclostomatidae he lists four species. 1. Cyclostoma creplini Zanzibar (Woodward), 2. C. zanzibaricum (Petit) (sic) Mozambique – rather rare at Zanzibar, common on the island of Mozambique on shrubs and trunks of trees. 3. C. calcareum (Sowerby). Mozambique (near Tete and Lake Nyassa – Grant’s list) numerous as subfossil in a sandy formation on the Island of Mozambique. Now extinct on the island. 4. C. kraussiana (Pfr.) Inhambane (Delagoa Bay, Natal). This is a Natal species that extends to the tropics. Truncatella palustris is recorded from Zanzibar as rather numerous dead shells. Part 5 is entirely taken up with marine bivalves and the other two parts with South African Marines.

Perhaps some South African reader can say what happened to Gibbons in that country. I am indebted to Colin A. McLaren, Archivist and keeper of Manuscripts, Aberdeen University Library for his date and place of birth.


List of molluscs described from material collected by J. S. Gibbons

Buliminus cinereus Taylor,1877. Zanzibar. = Edouardia conulina (von Martens, 1869). Type not found.
Buliminus costatus Taylor,1877. Zanzibar. Not identified. Type not found.
Buliminus gibbonsi Taylor,1877. Mozambique. = Pseudogessula gibbonsi (Taylor, 1877). Types in B.M. (1910.9.5. 13–14)
Buliminus obesa Taylor,1877. Zanzibar,
Bawri Is.
= Edentulina obesa (Taylor, 1877.
Buliminus olivaceus Taylor,1877
(not of Pfr.).
Bawri Is. = Pseudoglessula subolivacea (Smith, 1890). Types in B.M. (1910.9.5. 9–12)
Buliminus tumidus Taylor,1877. Zanzibar and Chapin Is.
(?Chapani Is.)
= Edouardia tumida (Taylor, 1877). Type in B.M. (1910.9.5. –15)
Buliminus bawriensis Taylor,1880. Zanzibar,
Bawri Is.
= Pupoides coenpictus samavaensis (Paladilhe, 1872). Type not found.
Buliminus zanguebaricus Taylor,1880. Zanzibar. = Pupoides coenpictus sennaariensis (L. Pfr., 1855). Type not found.
Ennea taylori Gibbons,1879. Zanzibar. = Streptostele (Raffraya) taylori (Gibbons, 1879) Type in B.M. (1910.9.5 –19).
Gonaxis Taylor,1877.   Unchanged.
Gonaxis gibbonsi Taylor,1877. Zanzibar Unchanged. Types in B.M. (1910.9.5. 26–8).
Helix dubia Taylor,1880. Zanzibar Type not found and unidentified. No true Helicid would live in Zanzibar: from the description it sounds like a juvenile Trochonanina
Opeas delicata Taylor,1877. Zanzibar = Opeas delicatum. Types in B.M. (1910.9.5. 20–25).
Planorbis gibbonsi Nelson,1878. Zanzibar Position uncertain but possibly Afrogyrus coretus (de Blainville, 1826). Type not found.
Pupa (Ennea) sexdentata Taylor,1880
(not von Martens, 1865).
Zanzibar Type missing and identity unknown; it could possibly be the same species later described by Preston as Gulella gwendolinae (Prest.)
Pupa turricula Taylor,1880. Zanzibar Type not found and unidentified.
Stenogyra lucida Gibbons,1879. Zanzibar,
Bawri Is.
Streptostele lucida (Gibbons, 1879). = Opeas bawriense Pilsbury, 1906. (Type in B.M. (1910.9.5.7)).
Subulina intermedia Taylor,1877. Zanzibar Unchanged. (Given as pl.3 fig. 4 but is actually fig. 5). Type mislaid?
Urocyclus flavescens Keferstein var. pallida Gibbons,1879. Mozambique. = Elisolimax flavescens (Keferstein, 1866). Type not found.
Zonites? ventrosa Taylor,1877. Zanzibar Sometimes referred to Tayloria but said to be a rich brown colour and more likely a juvenile Thapsia, type not found.



Gibbons, J.S. (1879). Descriptions of two new species of land shells and remarks on others collected on the East African coast. J. Conch. 2: 138–145.
Nelson, W. (1878). Description of a new species of Planorbis. Quart. J. Conch. 1: 379.
Taylor, J.W. (1877). Descriptions of new species of land shells from the east coast of Africa. Quart. J. Conch. 1 (3): 251–255, pl.2.
Taylor, J.W. (1877). Descriptions of new species of land shells from the east coast of Africa. Quart. J. Conch. 1: 280–283, pl.3.
Taylor, J.W. (1880). Descriptions of new species of land shells from the east coast of Africa. J. Conch. 3: 142–144 (reference was made to a pl. 1 but I have never seen this in any copy* of the journal concerned)
*Adrian Norris tells me it is missing from Taylor’s own copy of vol. 3 so it can be safely assumed that it never appeared in a published form even if it had ever been drawn.

B. Verdcourt