Plant-collecting that became a part of colonial exploration was rarely an innocent, Sunday afternoon exercise: it was exacting, highly competitive and at times, physically dangerous. The work of the early 20th-century plant collector is best exemplified in the writings of Frank Kingdon Ward, an intrepid collector whose books document his several years in the Himalaya. Ward was a shy Englishman who was terrified of heights and hated the cold. Clearly a person of conflicting emotions, he was able to overcome his primeval fears and spend long months in expeditions focused not on climbing high mountains or remote passes but in collecting minute botanical specimens. In the process, of course, he undertook many perilous journeys and became the premier plant collector of his times. While Joseph Hooker first took Sikkimese rhododendrons to Britain, Ward inherited the task of introducing more cultivators to eager gardeners back home. His descriptions of the plant collector provide fascinating insights into a less known aspect of the imperial project — the collection and naturalization of rare species. Plant-hunting, Ward wrote In the land of the blue poppies, is not like big-game hunting; it is a job undertaken to earn bread and butter through a love for flowers. The plant hunter, he wrote “does not make up a cheery party of congenial spirits, and go off for three months on full pay”. Rather he goes alone, for several months “without seeing or speaking to another white man. And sometimes it hurts”.
By the time Kingdon Ward was ready to retire from the field, pioneering collectors and naturalists had been succeeded by a tribe of commercial plant hunters. However, as he noted, “it is indeed certain not only that we have as yet only skirmished on the fringes of botanical Asia” and although there was fierce competition to find a ‘new’ specimen, he felt that “the true collector derives just as much joy from finding a plant which is new to him whether it has already been ‘discovered’ or not”. And in any case, there was plenty of scope to keep taking back “old friends” who were dying out because of the “ill-treatment of our presumptuous climate”.
Kingdon Ward was a specialist in a by then established field of collectors, horticulturist-administrators, painters and photographers who made botany an enterprise that combined professionalism with a keen commercial edge.
As the discovery of plants increased with European imperialism so did the understanding of the Other in plant taxonomy. ‘Exotics’ were those that had come from abroad, often from the tropics, and natives, the local residents. The many garden plants of the western hemisphere that are treated with such familiarity today had origins as varied as China for the peony and camellia, the Himalaya for the rhododendron, while the Damask rose came from the gardens of Damascus and the best known bromeliad, the pineapple, from Christopher Columbus’ second trip to the New World; he found it being cultivated by the Carib Indians in the West Indies. As the number of plants available for horticulture, medicinal use and garden adornment increased, the importance of classifying as well as studying them scientifically was acknowledged. An earmarked space seemed appropriate and, by the 17th century, the idea of the botanic garden came into being.
While today botanical gardens may have become tourist destinations with well-demarcated zones for plants, herbs and trees, their essential purpose remains that of scientific experimentation and discovery, sometimes with the marketable angle in mind. When the amateur botanist, Captain Robert Kyd of the East India Company, proposed the setting up of a botanic garden in Calcutta, he initiated a new chain of thought. There was a growing recognition of the need to not only classify local plants but also to ‘improve’ them as well as create an ambience for commercial products such as cotton and tea. Thus, in 1787, the botanical gardens were established on well over 200 acres. With over 12,000 trees and 1,400 species, the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, as it is known today, is the oldest and most extensive garden of its kind in southeast Asia. During Victoria’s reign it was known as the Royal Botanic Garden.
Among the several names associated with early Indian botany, the father and son duo of William and Joseph Hooker, Nathaniel Wallich and Johan Konig are significant. The latter introduced Linnaean taxonomy to India, greatly helping the classificatory process. While William Hooker never came to India, he was an indefatigable letter-writer and his detailed correspondence with Wallich is an impressive record of reflections on botany. A number of others involved with Indian botany had in one way or another been associated with the East India Company’s Garden or the ‘Company Bagan’, later known as the Royal Botanic Garden; the new garden in Calcutta included a teak plantation that supplied valuable timber to the ship-building industry and new crop varieties that Kyd hoped would be able to avert “the greatest of all calamities, that desolation [caused by] Famine and Subsequent Pestilence”. Kyd was succeeded by William Roxburgh, who, together with the Baptist missionary, William Carey — another keen amateur horticulturist, set up the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India. The profit-making impetus was further hastened under Roxburgh. The new superintendent realized that botany could help in the identification of plants to be used as dyes and for sacking while the usefulness of different trees in construction could be experimented with. Thus plant taxonomy continued apace with research on the economic viability of plants and trees and in no time, plant collectors throughout the country started sending specimens for identification to the garden. In addition, the superintendent of the botanical gardens had another task — teaching botany in the city’s medical college.
By the time Emily Eden came to visit her brother, the governor-general Auckland, in the Calcutta of the 1830s, she found that while some Europeans were genuinely interested in botany and horticulture, for the majority, the Royal Botanic Garden was the venue for a convenient and pleasurable outing away from the heat and noise of the metropolis. Several decades later, girls from the Bethune school and the Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya were taken in curtained phaetons for a day’s outing to the well-laid out gardens. By this time too, among the Indian upper and middle classes, the gardens at Calcutta became a favoured destination for carriage rides on many a winter day or summer evening. Apart from many new interesting flora on view, the prime attraction was the 250-year-old banyan tree, 140 metres across.
As expected, the tree with its myriad aerial roots held promise for the umpteen photo studios in the city and in no time, photographers from Bourne & Shepherd studio found it an interesting locale; there is an early 20th-century photograph of Lady Curzon seated before the many roots of this amazing tree. Such images, however, had a limited and somewhat exclusive viewership as they were tucked away in expensive books and albums. Keeping in mind the wider market for views of the raj, Bourne & Shepherd soon decided to sell images to the well-known London-based postcard manufacturers, Raphael Tuck & Sons. By the end of the 19th century, such postcards were readily available and at a fraction of the price of a photograph. This 1904 postcard from the Tuck stable of the avenue of palms at the Royal Botanic Garden has the trademark figure, a mali, positioned beneath an imposing specimen: Bourne & Shepherd was well-known for its use of humans to give a sense of space, size and atmosphere. The structure of this pre-1907 postcard was quite different from its successor as above the image there was a blank space for messages and the undivided reverse was for the address. While botanical knowledge may have been limited to a few, the role of the visual through the photograph, the postcard and the more arcane botanical illustration, helped bring another aspect of the raj at work into the domestic space.