S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Villet, Mr Charles Mathurin (plant collection, zoological collection)

Born: 1778, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Died: 8 June 1856, Cape Town, South Africa.

Charles M. Villet, a French teacher, actor and trader in natural history specimens, appears to have arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1790 and became a naturalised citizen in 1803. From that year until 1806 he was the manager of a group of French actors that specialised in comic opera, with the result that he is regarded as a pioneer of the theatre at the Cape. Meanwhile he started a school at 7 Church Square, Cape Town, in 1804, known as the French School, where he taught French, Dutch, English and arithmetic. As late as 1812 he was still listed in the African court calendar as a teacher of French. He became a protestant, applied for burghership of the colony in 1817, and identified mainly with the Dutch-speaking community. On 2 June 1799 he married Johanna Alexanderse in Cape Town. On 20 November 1806 he married his second wife, Amalia J. de Groot. Altogether he had 16 children, including Carolus Johannes Villet*, who later went into business with him, and a son named Charles Mathurin like his father.

In 1809 Villet opened a shop at 71 Lange Street (later Long Street), where he traded in botanical and zoological specimens. His business was the first of its kind at the Cape and its stocks were described by W.J. Burchell* in December 1810 as including local birds, insects, seeds and bulbs. In the directory of the African Court Calendar he is listed at various times as a "Naturalist and teacher of French" (1809), "Ornithologist" (1815, 1820), "Seedsman" (1825), and "Seedsman and naturalist" (1829). In 1814 he applied for a piece of land at Green Point, where he established a botanical garden and a collection of live animals that attracted both residents and visitors. The garden was kept in good order until the time of his death, but the menagerie appears to have been given up earlier. At times it included large animals such as a rhino and an elephant. There was also an imported boa constrictor, but it would not eat and died after a few months in May1829. Villet prepared both its skin and skeleton, the latter in particular being very rare in European museums at the time (South African Commercial Advertiser, 30 May 1829).

His shop contained extensive stocks of natural products that were sold both locally and overseas. For example, in 1819 he sent a collection of mounted animals to London where it was exhibited in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, and was sold in 1828. The catalogue describing the collection was entitled Zoological museum. A description of a very extensive collection of rare and curious specimens in every class of natural history... Formed at the Cape of Good Hope... and now exhibiting at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly (London, 1825?, 36p). In Cape Town he had, among others, two stuffed species of globe-fish (genus Diodon) in 1829 (South African Commercial Advertiser, 14 October 1829). In an advertisement (Ibid, 2 March 1831) he offered for sale "very fresh kitchen garden, Cape ornamented and cultivated flower seeds; also a great variety of very scarce and valuable bulbs; all in the best condition and fit for exportation. Also for sale, insects, stuffed birds, and many other natural curiosities". He futhermore offered to purchase "two young lions (male and female) for which a good price will be given; also any other wild live animal". Late in 1831 he was in Plettenberg Bay, where he sold C.F. Dr?ge* seven birds and two bloubok, the latter now extinct (Kirby, 1942). In 1836 the South African Commercial Advertiser reported that he had provided bulbs of a new variety of ranunculus and grafted fruit trees to a grower in Mauritius.

The displays in Villet's shop functioned also as a museum, to which members of the public were admitted on certain days for an entrance fee. Villet collected at least some of his specimens personally. For example, in 1821 he requested permission to shoot a hippopotamus in the Berg River valley and in 1826 and 1827 permission to shoot some bucks. In 1825 and 1827 Thomas Miller* sent parcels of dried plants to Britain that had been collected by Villet on Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula. According to Miller, Villet sold a huge collection of natural history specimens to the Captain of a China merchant vessel on its way to England in 1827. Plant specimens attributed to him are in the herbarium at Kew Gardens, near London.

Villet was a member of the South African Institution (1829-1832), the first purely scientific society in southern Africa, and of its successor, the South African Literary and Scientific Institution. In 1836 his son Carolus Johannes Villet* (known as Jean) joined him in the business, which became known as C.M. Villet and Son. They advertised their wares in the South African Commercial Advertiser (e.g., 1 December 1849) and also advertised as "Seedsmen and florists" in the Cape of Good Hope almanac and annual register (e.g., 1847, 1857). The elder Villet supported the creation of a botanic garden in Cape Town in May 1848 and subscribed ?1 to the venture.

List of sources:
African court calendar, 1809, 1810, 1812, 1815, 1820, 1825, 1829. Reprint by South African Library, Cape Town, 1982.

Bregman, L.D. "Snug little coteries": A history of scientific societies in early nineteenth century Cape Town, 1824-1835. PhD thesis, University College, London, 2003.

Cape of Good Hope almanac and annual register, 1857: Cape annual advertiser, p. 71, advert by C.M. Villet & Son.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 3, 1977.

Gunn, M. & Codd, L.E. Botanical exploration of southern Africa. Cape Town: Balkema, 1981.

Heese, J.A. South African genealogies. Pretoria and Stellenbosch, 1986-2005.

Kirby, P.R. Early professional museum collectors in South Africa. Southern African Museums Association Bulletin, 1942, Vol. 2, pp. 393-401.

McCracken, D.P. & McCracken, E.M. The way to Kirstenbosch. Cape Town: National Botanic Gardens, 1988.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). . Documents relating to Villet, Charles Mathurin / Villet, Charles Maturin / Villet, Charles Martin / Villet, Charles M. / Villet, C.M.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Regulations of the South African Literary and Scientific Institution, pp. 13-14: List of members. Cape Town: G. Greig, 1832.

Rudner, I. The earliest natural history museums and collectors in South Africa. South African Journal of Science, 1982, Vol. 78, pp. 434-437.

South African Commercial Advertiser, 14 October 1829, p. 2, Ichthyology; 30 May 1829, p. 2, From a correspondent; 2 March 1831, p. 1, Advertisement: Natural curiosities, bulbs, &c; 12 October 1836, p. 2, Mauritius: M. Villet; 17 May 1848, p. 4, Botanic Garden, Cape Town; 1 December 1849, p. 1, Advertisement: Cape flower bulbs and seeds.

Summers, R.F.H. A history of the South African Museum, 1825-1975. Cape Town: Balkema, 1975.

Compiled by: C. Plug