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By William Carey was a dedicated horticultural expert Malavika Karlekar
  • Published 11.06.09

A question to be asked of chroniclers of times and peoples is — why do most feel that only the ‘big story’ needs to be told? Success in recognized fields — in love and in war, in diplomacy, in music, art, in religion and so on — is what goes down in the annals. Little is recorded and perhaps known of the other lives of grey eminences; or even if these are known, hardly any importance is accorded to them. How many, for instance know that William Carey, a founder of the Baptist Missionary Society who had the Bible translated into Bengali, Sanskrit and several dialects and after whom educational institutions are named, was a horticultural expert? Or that he was married three times, and was hardly a caring husband and father? His first wife, Dorothy, an unlettered young girl from rural England, was driven insane by the move to a totally alien environment, and there was talk of his four sons being somewhat neglected?

Carey’s private collection of botanical specimens was second only to that of the Hon’ble Company’s Botanic Gardens at Calcutta; though he had wanted to work in Tahiti or West Africa, when he found himself in Bengal in 1793, he wasted little time in nurturing his passion for the local flora, planting, organizing and cataloguing. Clearly, he also ‘wasted’ little time on his family and, while marvelling at his friend’s intellectual devotion, his colleague, Joshua Marshman, could not but add “while an insane wife, frequently wrought up to a state of most distressing excitement, was in the next room”. Sympathetic friends felt that Carey did not know how to cope with the situation; or is it that he would rather spend his time in intellectual and horticultural pursuits, leaving the unfortunate Dorothy to fend for herself?

In his five-acre garden in Serampore, Carey had created a private botanical garden complete with aviaries, four enormous tanks for aquatic flora and thousands of plants from humble grasses to mahogany trees. Not everyone understood his passion, and when Marshman chided him for not wearing a wide-brimmed hat while he worked in his garden, Carey apparently retorted, “What does Marshman know about a garden? He only appreciates it, as an ox does grass!” He soon became a close friend and associate of the legendary William Roxburgh, the head of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, consulting him frequently on scientific names and other details. In 1798, Carey noted with some irritation that “the saul tree, which, being an unnamed genus, Dr. Roxburgh, as a mark of respect to me, has called Careya saulea”. In part his objection arose from the fact that he did not think that European names should be used to name indigenous plants. Though Carey’s view hardly prevailed in botanical taxonomy, the sal came to be known as the Shorea robusta, and Roxburgh named instead another deciduous tree of eastern India, the kumbhi or slow match tree, Careya Arborea. While in Burma (Myanmar) its wood is used for the construction of house posts and furniture, in India, the tussar silkworms are fed on its leaves.

A few years after coming to India, Carey wrote to friends and associates in England that he was “sending an assortment of Hindoo gods to the British Museum, and some other curiosities to different friends”. In return, “Do send a few tulips, daffodils, snowdrops, lilies, and seeds of other things.” The person who was to bring this precious cargo by sea was instructed not to put it in the hold; rather, “send the roots in a net or basket, to be hung up anywhere out of the reach of salt water, and the seeds in a separate small box. You need not be at any expense, any friend will supply these things. The cowslips and daisies of your fields would be great acquisitions here” (picture). Carey had to wait another 20 years before memorabilia from the English countryside arrived at his doorstep in 1821, complete with sods of earth: his delight was unbounded and he wrote, “That I might be sure not to lose any part of your valuable present, I shook the bag over a patch of earth in a shady place: on visiting which a few days afterwards I found springing up, to my inexpressible delight, a Bellis perennis of our English pastures. I know not that I ever enjoyed, since leaving Europe, a simple pleasure so exquisite as the sight of this English Daisy afforded me; not having seen one for upwards of thirty years, and never expecting to see one again.” Carey set up a system of exchange with well-known botanists in other parts of the world and soon became an acknowledged expert, giving frequent lectures.

A keen observer of wildlife and fauna as well, Carey recorded all that he saw in his garden in great detail: in 1796 he wrote, “We have sparrows and water-wagtails, one species of crow, ducks, geese, and common fowls; pigeons, teal, ortolans, plovers, snipes like those in Europe; but others, entirely unlike European birds, would fill a volume.” Insects too were very numerous, and “I have seen about twelve sorts of grylli, or grasshoppers and cricket”, eight or ten sorts of ants, including termites who “will eat through an oak chest in a day or two and devour all its contents”. Butterflies, however, were not as numerous. While fish and rice were the staple diet of the Bengalis, for his own consumption Carey found that “edible vegetables are scarce, and fruit far from plentiful. You will perhaps wonder at our eating many things here which no one eats in England”: three or four sorts of arum, poppy leaves, amaranths, pumpkins, gourds, calabashes, and the egg-plant fruit.

In true missionary spirit, in his 12-page introduction to Roxburgh’s Hortus Bengalensis, or a Catalogue of the Plants of the Honourable East India Company's Botanic Garden in Calcutta, Carey urged English residents all over India to set apart a small plot in their gardens for local plants whose native names they could glean from their servants. In fact, the majority of the many indigenous plants cultivated in the Botanic Gardens had been acquired through contributions from such persons. The realization that there was a need to institutionalize and share the information being gathered led Carey and Marshman to set up, in 1820, the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India. They particularly wanted Indians to become members and were gratified that, apart from them, at the first meeting, there were only three other Europeans present.

The society provided valuable information on how to enhance the quality of soil, cropping methods, the introduction of new and useful plants as well as on improvements in livestock and farm implements. A message from the good padre for the imperial rulers was not long in coming: with improved agricultural practices, the surplus of grain could be exported, and this, besides “her opium, her indigo, her silk, and her cotton”, would greatly tend to enrich India and endear Britain to her. The society continues today in Calcutta as the Agri-Horticultural Society of India, its founder commemorated in a bust installed in the Metcalfe Hall in 1842, by another of Carey’s eminent botanist friends, Nathaniel Wallich.

In 1823, a critically ill William Carey — in bed with a fever following a dislocation of the hip-joint — watched as the fury of the Damodar river in spate washed away his botanic treasures or buried them under sand. As soon as it was possible, he was carried to view the scene of desolation: his collection was gone, his careful scientific arrangement of orders and families had been washed away. Though deeply saddened, within the hour, Carey was writing off for new orders and in a few years “the place [became] as lovely if not so precious, as before”. He enjoyed his garden and his research for another decade and when the septuagenarian William Carey, known popularly as the Father of Modern Missions, died in 1834, his third wife, Grace was by his side.