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Vol. XXVIII No. 24, April 1-15, 2019

Hooker’s brief sojourn in Madras – an ignored page in history

By Dr. A. Raman

Even today Joseph Dalton Hooker’s monumental 7-volume Flora of British India (1875-1897)1 remains valid and is referred to extensively not only within the Indian subcontinent, but also throughout the world.

During his stay in India, Hooker spent his time in Calcutta and neighbourhood, mostly travelling further north into the Himalaya and its foothills. He explored these natural areas for botanical novelties, since right from a young age he was inspired by his equally remarkable botanist-father William Jackson Hooker. Joseph Hooker’s versatility in the world of natural materials was so profound that he powerfully extends his brilliance in the knowledge of animals and landscapes and geomorphology, further to plants. The Himalayan Journals, subtitled the Notes of a Naturalist in Bengal, the Sikkim, the Nepal Himalaya, and the Khasia Mountains, (1855, John Murray, London) are indeed academic treats to anyone interested in India’s fascinating natural history for the details they provide and for the lucid prose in which the entire volume is presented.

Although innumerable volumes refer to the life and work of this remarkable natural historian, who spent considerable time in India, I cannot but avoid mentioning Mea Allen’s volume the Hookers of the Kew (1967) (borrowed a long time ago from the British Council Library in Madras), which introduced me to this enchanting personality in a formal manner. I was a student of biology at Presidency College, then.

As the life and work of Joseph Hooker in the subcontinent has been spoken about extensively and plentifully, I will restrict myself to referring to his short stop in Madras, an element which has been ignored by professional historians.

Hooker touched Madras en route to Calcutta. His Madras stop is verbalised in the Notes of a tour in the plains of India, the Himala (Himalaya?), and Borneo; being the extracts of private letters of Dr Hooker written during a government botanical mission to those countries (1848, Reeve, Bentham, & Reeve, London). Since this document is litle known, I share here some of the more relevant details.

In the last few pages of this slim volume, which is an edited text from Hooker’s personal journal, he speaks of his rather quick impressions of Madras.

Hooker and his party – which included Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor-General of India, and Lady Dalhousie – arrived in Madras from Kandy (Sri Lanka) at about 11 pm on[Text Wrapping Break]January 5, 1848. In his words:

“We arrived in Madras roads …. There is neither bay nor harbour, only a wide expanse of anchoring ground, like Yarmouth2 roads, but wanting all protection to seaward in the shape of sands; so that a constant rolling sea renders landing very difficult.

“Madras, as seen from the roads, is a long city on an extensive flat, without a rise of ten feet on any part, and the ranges of houses appear scattered and disjointed, from the number of trees planted amongst them. The amount of inhabitants is not less than 5 or 600,000, a very large proportion of whom had assembled to witness the landing of the Governor-General.”

Hooker then talks of their landing on the shores of Madras using the local masula boats, which could ride the rolling waves characteristic of the Madras coast line.

“We had anchored at a distance of two miles from the shore, and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a very large boat came alongside, of the only kind fit for landing through the surf. These are about forty feet long, very high out of the water, flat-bottomed, wall-sided, and formed of planks of soft (mango-tree) wood, sewed together with cord. They are pulled by about twenty … paddlers, who keep up a most discordant ditty by way of keeping time with the paddles, which are poles of some twenty feet in length, having a small round blade at the end.”

At Government House the Governor of Madras (George Hay, the eighth Marquess of Tweeddale), received Hooker and others. Hooker remarks that trees of mango, date, ‘cocoa-nut’, peepul, tamarind, and Thespesia populnea were numerous in the garden.

During his stay, Hooker met with Walter Elliott, who is remembered as a notable orientalist, linguist, zoologist, and ethnologist of Madras. During his short stay in Madras, Hooker visited the Agri-Horticultural Society’s garden and saw Elliott’s bird and animal collections.

Please refer to the previous story Specimens from Madras sent to Darwin (Madras Musings, 16-30 September 2009) for Walter Elliott’s interest in birds and plants of the Coromandel.

Hooker concludes his impressions with a short, crisp note written in Calcutta on January 20, 1848:

“Here I am on the banks of the Hoogly at last, with our excellent friend Wallich’s pet, the H.E.I.C. Botanic Garden, looking me full in the face from the side of the river opposite to where I now am.”

It will be interesting to know if Hooker had signed in the visitors’ book at the Madras Agri-Horticultural Society and if that has been preserved.

1Hooker indicates in the cover pages of Flora of British India volumes that he has been assisted by various botanists.

2Yarmouth is a coastal town in Norfolk, at the mouth of the River Yare, east of Norwich.

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