Sunday, October 2, 2022

Natural history works by Indians

"As a matter of fact ornithology was Englishman's pastime, the British army persons and wine merchants introduced it to India" (sic) - K. N. Narayana Murthy, 1996

I came across this rather curious work with ink-blot based art work that was gifted to Zafar Futehally. What struck me was on one of the first few pages, not the ink-blot, but the commentary, short, simplistic, a mixture of truths and inaccuracies (almost Twitter-esque) which cried for a careful examination. Parts of it are true, indeed ornithology as defined and practiced in its dominant form is indeed not something that Indians have been used to doing. Certainly not the collection and preservation of specimens from across the world, their placement in museums with careful labels, the publication of books and journals, the description of species, their naming or the formation of ornithological societies. So, in a sense those practices of ornithology, where they may exist in India in tenuous avatars, have indeed been imported. Wine merchants being the primary agents is a bit of a stretch (the reference is of course to H.M. Phipson who was involved in establishing the BNHS and perhaps the author knew of W.S Millard who also happened to work with Phipson's wine company). But it is true that early Indian participants in ornithology were those who were close to the English circles, local princes, or nobles who were often educated abroad. This did of course go to make ornithology in India a subject associated with elitism. There is a recent book dealing with ornithology in Japan which also seems to have had a similar history.

The ornithological literature in English (like many other field-based sciences, but not as much as say geology) is littered with words imported from other languages. Surprisingly, two terms that are fairly well-known, and from the Indian region are in fact not introduced by the ornithological elite. The dho gaza (दो गज़ = 2 square yards)  and the bal-chattri (बाल छत्री, which was incorrectly translated as a child's umbrella, but now known to refer to the horsehair noose used in it) are traps used in bird study. Both of these come from indigenous naturalists (in the broad sense). The earliest use and origins of these terms is unknown but should say something about the native knowledge in bird trapping and bird behaviour that existed (much has been lost, with those professions now officially criminalized). 

Now many naturalists in pre-Independence India who sought to make the study of the natural world around them acceptable, and not be an imitation of the English sahibs around them, had a struggle. Surprisingly we (or at least I) know so little about these authors or their works. Some exceptions exist, for instance we know of M. Krishnan who wrote both in Tamil and English. There were others who wrote solely in the local language and nobody has really brought together a compilation of these works (since it needs information from far and wide). I recently heard about one Gujarati work and decided that I should try and compile over time a list of native natural history works (I am skipping works of poetry or prose that merely express beauty). I am most interested in hearing from any readers about books or authors in any Indian language (English included but I am skipping well-known field-guides - such as the works of Salim Ali) and extending up to the pre-internet era. The situation changed with the internet and the relative ease of producing content has led to many translated and derivative works which are best excluded for now. I will update the list below as and when I receive notes.

Friday, September 16, 2022

A forerunner to the Book of Indian Birds

Before the Book of Indian Birds (1941) was a series of bird charts published by the Bombay Natural History Society. More than a decade before the book, in 1928, a series of 5 wall charts were prepared to cover 200 species of birds for use in Indian schools. Salim Ali writes about them in the preface to the first edition of the Book of Indian Birds

"It was part of their plan that the plates prepared for these charts should be subsequently used to illustrate a book on the common birds of India containing simple descriptions and short life-histories of every species depicted, together with a few general chapters on bird-life calculated to interest the beginner and the layman, and stimulate a desire for deeper study. Unfortunately, the publication of the book has been delayed beyond expectation. The unforeseen economic depression that intervened obliged many institutions to cancel or greatly reduce their orders for the Bird Charts placed prior to publication. This retarded the liquidation of the very considerable expenditure the Society had incurred on the charts and held up the publication of the book, since it was beyond their means to undertake this additional liability simultaneously. The issue of this book with its large number of coloured plates at a price that should bring it within the means of the average purse, has now become possible entirely due to the recoupment by the Society of their initial outlay on the preparation of the colour-blocks for the charts, thus minimising the cost of the present illustrations."
Very few have seen these charts and the BNHS archives are largely opaque to researchers. Fortunately for us, there a review of these charts by David Seth-Smith was published in the Avicultural Magazine with black and white copy of one of the charts. And more importantly, copies of that magazine have been made available via the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Perching Birds, Climbing Birds, Birds of Prey, Game Birds, Wading, and Swimming Birds. Each chart was 40 x 36 inches, printed in colour, mounted on canvas, and varnished. It was sold at 45 rupees for the whole set of 5 charts (being then 3 pounds 7 shillings and 6 dimes). A book version of the pictures measuring 12 x 9.5 inches was also sold at 5 pounds 7 shillings and 6 dimes. The distribution in the UK was by Vitty & Seaborne publishers.

Note: This was posted following interest shown to a picture of this chart on Instagram. It would be amazing if the BNHS could locate a set of these five charts and reproduce them in colour for historic documentation.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

IPS: The Indian Pigeon Service


A dear friend shared this documentary "War of the Birds" which includes some rather interesting stories on pigeons used in World War II. This led me to revisit something that I had come across in the past rather briefly. There was an Indian Pigeon Service which was part of the Signal Corps which was active towards the 1940s. Rather little has been written about them - although there was a manual that is unfortunately not available in online archives "Indian Pigeon Service. A manual of instruction on the use of homing pigeons in India and South East Asia. Booklet, Feb 1945 - published by the Chief of the General Staff, Delhi, Feb 1945"- and some letters have been reproduced here and here.

But this makes another bit even more surprising - there were attempts much earlier on introducing homing pigeons in the army and those early experiments were done in Bangalore by the 19th Hussars who set up something called the Assaye Flying Club, a report on which was made in the Lincolnshire Echo of 13 December 1894! 

Perhaps someone with access to army archives can find more.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The pseudonymous shikari

 Early colonial Indian shikar literature is filled with authors hiding behind pseudonyms like "Civilian", "Mountaineer", "Hawkeye", "Silver hackle", "Felix", or "Maori", and I have often wondered whether this was more than just fashion. Perhaps the authors truly wanted to keep their whereabouts private lest their employers or others find fault with them. At least in the case of "Mountaineer", there seems to have been a real need for staying low. I was surprised to find that there are at least two major biographies of "Mountaineer" which I think do not deal sufficiently with his life in the Indian wilderness and are easily missed if one does not make the connection between Frederick "Pahari" Wilson and Shikari Wilson alias Mountaineer

James Hume, A. O. Hume's cousin, sketched by the
Calcutta artist and animal rights pioneer
Colesworthey Grant

Frederick Wilson left life in the East India Company army and went AWOL, supposedly with just five rupees and his brown bess, to hide away in the Himalayas, well before the 1857 uprising. It would appear that he made himself useful during 1857 and received a pardon after which he moved back into the company of his own countrymen. Much of the romanticism associated with him is for his having gone native and styling himself the Raja of Harsil. Wilson made money by denuding the Himalayan forests, cutting down old growth forests and floating timber down the rivers, setting up sawmills in the lower valleys and selling them off to feed the voracious appetite of the early railways. He shot wildlife freely and wrote about his exploits under the pen-name "Mountaineer" - the largest output being to the India Sporting Review - now a very hard-to-find periodical. This magazine was edited by James Hume, a magistrate in Calcutta, with whom the young Allan O. Hume stayed when he first arrived in India in 1849. Now the historian S. R. Mehrotra who passed away a few years ago noted that it was with his Calcutta cousin that he saw the first protest of the Europeans against changing laws. And his cousin James was among the few who did not support the Europeans. (I am unable to see the historical context of the so-called white mutiny of 1849 that Mehrotra refers to) Shikari Wilson was clearly a close friend of James Hume and still later Allan as well. Wilson is said to have shot 1000 to 1500 male monals a year for the sale of their plumage during the height of the plume trade. Brooks travelled along the Bhagirathi river valley in 1875 and noted that monal populations could recover now that Wilson had left them alone! Brooks also recorded the price paid for a monal - Rupees 2 and 8 annas.

The India Sporting Review
A work that ought to be digitized for posterity

Attempts to get the Biodiversity Heritage Library to locate a set of the India Sporting Review have all failed. It is however claimed by cricket historian Boria Majumdar that he has a complete set of the India Sporting Review as part of the Fannatic Sports Museum. It would be amazing indeed if this set could be digitized for wider research access. Then perhaps we will all be able to read more of Mountaineer Wilson.

Frederick "Pahadi" Wilson's bungalow in Harsil
which burned down in 1997
The figures in the foreground are Wilson and his brother-in-law
Mungetu Chand.

Journalist Robert Hutchinson wrote book on Wilson after hearing about him from Sundarlal Bahuguna and D.C. Kala wrote another book on Hulson Sahib. Jack Gibson of Doon School found Wilson coinage being used for gambling when hiking in the region in 1938. Ruskin Bond knew the last descendant of Wilson. Few however seem to have actually looked at Wilson's environmental impact carefully enough.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Damned

 Never block the flow of water or words
- Untraceable proverb of Chinese origin

I have been looking at fish-related literature from India and it has been both instructive and shocking. I came across the brilliant draftmanship of an unknown artist in the employment of Patrick Russell at Vizag. Indian artists drew fish also for Christoph Samuel John, T.C. Jerdon, Walter Elliott, W.H. Sykes, Thomas Hardwicke, and perhaps many others. Some of these were examined by Francis Hamilton and Francis Day. Day had begun as a typical physician naturalist, and in 1855 he had exhibited some of the bird skins that he had collected. From a position as an army physician, he wrote on the state of Cochin, describing also the fishes of the region, and his expertise led to him being moved into the position of inspector general of fisheries.

The genus Wallago after a Telugu name recorded at Vizag by Patrick Russell

Sphyraena jello - from Telugu jellow recorded by Russell

Patrick Russell in his 1803 publication noted the local names of fishes. In his earlier work on snakes he was able to provide coloured plates (and even an MS plate with an actual snake skin stuck on) and it was after his work that the snake genus Bungarus was established, derived from Telugu Bangarum for gold, referring to the colour of the banded krait. It was a revelation that the fish genus Wallago and the barracuda species Sphyraena jello were also derived from local names. His drawings were made for him by an unnamed Indian artist. The drawings were copied and engraved into plates in England and printed.

Reading through Francis Day's work is particularly interesting, and he notes the role of Sir Arthur Cotton, these days only remembered for his "pioneering" work in damming the rivers of Andhra and Telangana. Surprisingly, and unlike our supposedly more enlightened modern engineers who are now all set on causing further mindless ecological carnage through river-linking projects, Arthur Cotton surmised that his dam projects were damaging fisheries and he had Day sent to examine the issue.

In 1867 Her Majesty's Secretary of State for India, in a despatch to the Madras Government, directed their attention to a letter from Sir Arthur Cotton, in which he said he "should suppose that the injury to the coast fisheries must be very great, now that seven of the principal rivers on the East coast" are barred by irrigation works that had been constructed. In consequence of this I was directed by the Government to visit the "anicuts" or weirs in the Madras Presidency, in order that the Heads of Departments might have fuller information on the subject than had been offered them up to that date. This order was carried out as follows : — first the districts to the south of Madras were inspected, and then those to the north. I was afterwards instructed to continue these inquiries, and went to Orissa and Lower Bengal, afterwards to British Burma, and at the end of 1869 to the Andaman Islands. An accident which occurred during these investigations compelled me to proceed to Europe in March, 1870, but this enabled me to visit many of the fish-ladders in use in England, and I returned at the end of the year to India.

My visits to the irrigation works on the rivers of Southern India in 1867, had, however, completely established the fact that the fish which, prior to the erection of the weirs, had ascended the rivers during the season of the rains for the purpose of spawning, were not only prevented from proceeding up stream to spots suitable for the deposition of their ova, but were collected in such vast numbers immediately below these weirs, which they vainly attempted to pass, that the wholesale manner in which they were caught by the native fishermen almost amounted to extermination of the spawning fish of each season.
Day, Preface. Fishes of India. Volume 1.

In his work on The Fish and Fisheries of Bengal, Day further adds that "it might be erroneously concluded that no such destructive causes can affect the non-migratory fish" and goes on to explain how much fish biology is affected by dams and weirs. Day talks about fish that went up from the sea up the Cauvery until Trichy in large numbers in the past. It seems needless to point out that the constructions rather than the fishermen were the real problem. It is likely that some fish species went extinct before they were even described.

Day worked under the department of agriculture Department of Revenue, Agriculture, and Commerce and in his Fishes of India, thanks his superiors Richard Strachey and A.O. Hume. Hume was doubtless a great supporter of Day's work and Day had himself been a bird collector, exhibiting skins at the Madras Exhibition of 1855 for which he received an honorable mention (the judges included Hugh Cleghorn and Hume's cousin E.G. Balfour). Day supported Hume's bird collecting expedition in the Sindh through the fisheries department and personally took part in collecting as well.

Day also thanks Sir Walter Elliott: "formerly of the Madras Civil Service, who most liberally placed at my disposal the whole of his beautiful and accurate coloured illustrations of the Fishes of Madras and Waltair which he had had executed by native artists from the fresh specimen." Some of these plates are in the Zoological Society of London, with Telugu names written on the margins. A careful study of these plates by a fish specialist will surely yield interesting information. 

Meanwhile with typical nationalist pride and careless idiocy the Indian government is all set to go forth with its river linking plans. Who cares about a few thousand fisherfolk, leave alone a few species of fish?!

An unidentified fish included by Francis Day in the Fishes of India


A note on the decline in fishes in the Ganges from The Modern Review, September 1937 (The Tragedy of Bengal's Fisheries by Dines Chandra Majumdar pp. 280-285. ). Another case of the shifting baseline in species declines:

Just thirty years ago the late Sir K. G. Gupta under orders of the Government submitted a report on. Bengal's fisheries. The report, as well as his enquiry, was necessitated by the growing scarcity of fish in those days even.

Further reading