Emanuel Mendes Da Costa 1717-1791

The First Jewish Clerk of the Royal Society

By The Royal Society

Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-91)

Emanuel Mendes Da Costa (1760) by Unknown and Courtesy of the London Metropolitan ArchivesThe Royal Society

Emanuel Mendes da Costa was a naturalist, collector and the first Jewish clerk of The Royal Society, elected in 1763.

This exhibition, in partnership with the Jewish Museum London and the London Metropolitan Archives, celebrates the recent rediscovery and restoration of his portrait in the London Metropolitan Archives.

Auto da Fé (1822) by Biblioteca Nacional de PortugalNational Pantheon

Mendes da Costa Family: International Merchants

Part of an illustrious Jewish family who emigrated from Portugal to London to escape persecution from the Inquisition, da Costa's relatives included Fernando Mendes (1647-1724) the Royal Physician to Catherine of Braganza, wealthy diamond and coral merchants. 

Court robe Court robe (19th century)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mediterranean Red Coral, which underpinned the Mendes da Costa's wealth, was a highly-prized material. In China it was reserved for the use of the Imperial family and nobles. Coral beads were used to decorate items such as this court robe. It was traded for raw diamonds and other gems in the Indian ports of the East India Company.

Zurbarán: Jacob and His Twelve Sons, Paintings from Auckland Castle (2017) by Meadows Museum DallasThe Royal Society

Da Costa's family owned paintings by the 'Spanish Caravaggio', Francisco Zurbarán (1598-1664). These paintings of the Twelve Tribes of Israel were later bought by Durham Bishop Richard Trevor (1707-1771) to shame the British aristocracy who rejected a bill to naturalise English Jews.

Emanuel's family also owned several estates in Tooting and Mitcham, including Eagle House.

Emanuel Mendes Da Costa (1760) by Unknown and Courtesy of the London Metropolitan ArchivesThe Royal Society

The development of a naturalist

In Mitcham, the young Emanuel acquired an enthusiasm for natural history, meeting other naturalists like Charles Dubois (c.1658-1740), Joseph Dandridge (1665-1747), Henry Baker (1698-1774) and Peter Collinson FRS (1694-1768).  Collecting and natural history was a gentlemanly occupation and of great interest to the scientists of the time.

Folio 45 from an album of 124 watercolours (1737/1741) by Emanuel Mendes Da CostaThe Jewish Museum, London

Da Costa’s early sketchbook shows him perfecting his skills in observing species of fossils.

... some of which he collected locally on Mitcham Common near his residence...

...he dated and detailed his drawings, noting here its scale: 'N.B. this Icon is drawn only half the size of the Fossil Echinus it represents'.

Folio 19 from an album of 124 watercolours (1737/1741) by Emanuel Mendes Da CostaThe Jewish Museum, London

He also drew exotic animals, like this coati from Brasil. Some copied from books, and some from live and stuffed specimens.

Royal Society Fellowship election certificate for Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1747-11-26) by The Royal Society, LondonThe Royal Society

Da Costa’s reputation as an expert in ‘the mineral and fossil part of the Creation’ led to his election as Fellow of the Royal Society on 26 November 1747.

Naphtali Franks (18th century) by Hudson, ThomasThe Jewish Museum, London

Jewish Fellows of the Royal Society

Da Costa was not the first or only Jewish member of the Royal Society.  His cousin Joseph Salvador (1716-1786), who directed the East India Company, was elected Fellow in 1759. Naphtali Franks (1715-1796), portrayed here, was elected to the Royal Society for his work in botany in 1764. Franks was an emigrant from New York working as a diamond trader.

Portrait of Jacob de Castro-Sarmento (1737) by Andrew Miller (d.1763)The Royal Society

Dr Jacob de Castro Sarmento (1692-1762), another Fellow of the Royal Society, was a physician who translated Sir Isaac Newton’s ideas into Portuguese for the benefit of his countrymen. Sarmento also sent Portugal’s first microscope to the University of Coimbra from London.

Sarmento’s Theorica Verdadeira das Mares (1737) discussed Newton’s theory of tides. His portrait shows him grasping a book labelled on the spine ‘New', or Newton’s Principia (1687) which described the three laws of motion and gravity.

Letter to Emmanuel Mendes Da Costa Letter to Emmanuel Mendes Da Costa by Martin Folkes P.R.S. (1690 – 1754)The Royal Society

Martin Folkes (1690-1754), President of the Royal Society, invited da Costa to Goodwood House, the Duke of Richmond's estate. Folkes assured da Costa there was food 'without breach of the Laws of Moses', and a Hebrew-speaking Christian Chaplain respectful of Judaism.

Portrait of Martin Folkes (c. 1740) by William Hogarth (1697-1764)The Royal Society

Folkes was an Enlightenment Freemason, religiously tolerant. As President of the Royal Society Dining Club, he clearly wished da Costa to enjoy amiable dinners at Goodwood, a gathering place for Royal Society Fellows.

A Harlot’s Progress, Plate II (no date) by William HogarthThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Despite these attempts at integration, Jewish people were satirized in eighteenth-century London. In this engraving from William Hogarth's 'Harlot's Progress', the prostitute Moll distracts her wealthy Jewish protector by exposing a breast and tipping over a tea-table so that her lover can slip out of the room.

Venus Dione by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)The Royal Society

Da Costa and Carl Linnaeus

Although Hogarth imputed sexual immorality to rich Jewish Londoners, da Costa had a different attitude. In his Elements of
, he expressed dismay at the sexualized description
that Swedish natural historian Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) gave to his description of the shell, the Venus

Mendes da Costa wrote: 'One subject, however I shall insist upon; that is, to explode the Linnæan obscenity in his characters of the Bivalves; not only for their licentiousness, but also that they are in no ways the parts expressed. Science should be chaste and delicate'.

A portrait medallion of Carl Linnaeus, by Josiah Wedgwood I and Thomas Bentley (1775/1780)British Museum

Linnaeus formulated the modern system of naming organisms, known as binomial nomenclature. Known as the 'father of modern taxonomy', he and da Costa had ongoing disagreements about natural history.

Plate 5 from the Elements of conchology by Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-1791)The Royal Society

Da Costa also objected to how Linnaeus changed the names of species and genera. Da Costa thought the shells here as nos 3, 4, 7, 8 and 9 were 'volutes ... from à volvendo, or rolled up [which Linnaeus] changes to Conus [cone]'.
Linnaeus prevailed.

Two specimens of the Bird-of-Paradise (1721) by Thomas ColeThe Royal Society

Clerk of the Royal Society

After several years as a gentleman-naturalist, Emanuel's family lost its fortune, his father suffering a major loss of a diamond shipment to Barbary Corsairs. Da Costa was forced to seek a means of income, becoming the Royal Society clerk in 1763 and Keeper of the Society's Repository Museum. Figure 1-2 are birds of paradise specimens from the Repository.

Letter to the Royal Society dated 13th September 1763 Letter to the Royal Society dated 13th September 1763 by Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-1791)The Royal Society

Da Costa sorted out the neglected Repository's instruments and specimens. As he notes in his letter, he launched enthusiastically into this ‘Augean’ task, comparing it to the labours of Hercules.

A list of ‘Omissions in Mr Da Costa’s Account of Moneys received for Admissions and Compositions’ A list of ‘Omissions in Mr Da Costa’s Account of Moneys received for Admissions and Compositions’The Royal Society

Da Costa's downfall

 As clerk, da Costa was paid his salary twelve months in arrears and, in the meantime, was responsible for meeting the running costs of the Society. No longer wealthy, da Costa ‘lent’ himself some extra monies from the Society’s funds to help ends meet, but never managed to repay the loan.

At an audit of accounts in November 1767, the Society was shocked to discover that da Costa appropriated £1,300 of the Society’s funds. For the next four years da Costa was confined to debtors’ prison of the King’s Bench in Southwark.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin (1782) by Joseph Wright (1756-1793)The Royal Society

In 1767 Benjamin Franklin FRS wrote to his son in Philadelphia:

 'We have had an ugly affair at the Royal Society lately, One Dacosta [sic], a Jew, who, as our clerk, was entrusted with collecting our monies has been so unfaithful as to embezzle near £1300 in four years ... I have been employed all the last week in attending the enquiry into and unravelling his accounts, in order to come at a full knowledge of his frauds'.

Plate 1 from the Elements of conchology by Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-1791)The Royal Society


His 'misfortunes' seem nevertheless to have focused da Costa’s mind. From prison, he produced an anonymous series of pamphlets on conchology (as is known the study of shells) and gave a series of public lectures on fossils and shells.

Plate 2 of The British conchology by Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-1791)The Royal Society

After he was released in 1772, he published the Elements of Conchology aimed at the growing market for amateur naturalists. In 1778, da Costa published British Conchology, offering his own taxonomic scheme which differed from that of Linnaeus.

Plate 3 of The British conchology (1778) by Emanuel Mendes da Costa (1717-1791)The Royal Society

In the introduction to his British Conchology, da Costa seems to sum up his life’s work:

'The world is but too much inclined to treat with levity those studies which do not lead to its riches or preferments ... it is no wonder that the enthusiasm of the Naturalist is so often ridiculed, who can ... turn aside into the silent paths of life, in quest of nothing better than contemplative pleasure'.

Emanuel Mendes da Costa's grave (2019) by Dr Aron SterkThe Royal Society

A sad end

Despite his efforts, he was remembered only as a blot on the Society’s record. Da Costa was buried by his parents and grandparents in the Portuguese Jews’ cemetery on Mile End Road in London. Sadly, his gravestone bears no inscription to celebrate the scientific endeavors of the first Jewish clerk of the Royal Society.

Credits: Story

Curated as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Collaborative Doctoral Award for Dr Aron Sterk, University of Lincoln.

We would also like to thank:

Louisiane Ferlier (The Royal Society), Keith Moore (The Royal Society), Abigail Morris (The Jewish Museum, London), Anna Marie Roos (The University of Lincoln), Kathrin Pieren (The Jewish Museum London), Philippa Smith (London Metropolitan Archives) and the AHRC.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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