Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Naturalists in court and courtship

The Bombay Natural History Society offers an interesting case in the history of amateur science in India and there are many little stories hidden away that have not quite been written about, possibly due to the lack of publicly accessible archival material. Interestingly two of the founders of the BNHS were Indians and hardly anything has been written about them in the pages of the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society where even lesser known British members have obituaries. I suspect that this lack of obituaries can be traced to the political and social turmoil of the period. Even a major two-part history of the BNHS by Salim Ali in 1978 makes no mention of the Indians founders. Both the founders were doctors with an interest in medical botany and were connected to other naturalists not just because of their interest in plants but also perhaps through their involvement in social reform. The only colleague who could have written their obituaries was the BNHS member Dr Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar who probably did not because of his conservative-views and a fall-out with the reformists. This is merely my suspicion and it arises from reading between the lines when I recently started to examine, create and upgrade the relevant entries on them on the English language Wikipedia. There are also some rather interesting connections.

Sakharam Arjun
Dr Sakharam Arjun (Raut) (1839-16 April 1885) - This medical doctor with an interest in botanical remedies was for sometime a teacher of botany at the Grant Medical College - but his name perhaps became more well known after a historic court case dealing with child marriage and women's rights, that of Dadaji vs. Rukhmabai. Rukhmabai had been married off at the age of 11 and stayed with her mother and step-father Sakharam Arjun. When she reached puberty, she was asked by Dadaji to join him. Rukhmabai refused and Sakharam Arjun supported her. It led to a series of court cases, the first of which was in Rukhmabai's favour. This rankled the Hindu conservatives who believed that this was a display of the moral superiority of the English. The judge had in reality found fault with English law and had commented on the patriarchal and unfair system of marriage that had already been questioned back in England. A subsequent appeal was ruled in favour of Dadaji and Rukhmabai was ordered to go to his home or face six months in prison. Rukhmabai was in the meantime writing a series of articles in the Times of India under the pen-name of A Hindoo Lady (wish there was a nice online Indian newspapers archive) and she declared that she would rather take the maximal prison penalty. This led to further worries - with Queen Victoria and the Viceroy jumping into the fray. Max Müller commented on the case, while Behramji Malabari and Allan Octavian Hume (now retired from ornithology; there may be another connection as Sakharam Arjun seems to have been a member of the Theosophical Society, founded by Hume and others before he quit it) debated various aspects. Somewhat surprisingly Hume tended to being less radical about reforms than Malabari.

Dr Rukhmabai
Dr Edith Pechey
Dr Sakharam Arjun did not live to see the judgement, and he probably died early thanks to the stress it created. His step-daughter Rukhmabai became one of the earliest Indian women doctors and was supported in her cause by Dr Edith Pechey, another pioneering English woman doctor, who went on to marry H.M. Phipson. Phipson of course was a more famous founder of the BNHS. Rukhmabai's counsel included the lawyer J.D.Inverarity who was a big-game hunter and BNHS member. To add to the mess of BNHS members in court, there was (later Lt.-Col.) Kanhoba Ranchoddas Kirtikar (1850-9 May 1917), a student of Sakharam Arjun and like him interested in medicinal plants. Kirtikar however became a hostile witness in the Rukhmabai case, and supported Dadaji. Rukhmabai, in her writings as a Hindoo Lady, indicated her interest in studying medicine. Dr Pechey and others set up a fund for supporting her medical education in London. The whole case caused a tremendous upheaval in India with a division across multiple axes -  nationalists, reformists, conservatives, liberals, feminists, Indians, Europeans - everyone seems to have got into the debate. The conservative Indians believed that Rukhmabai's defiance of Hindu customs was the obvious result of a western influence.

J.D.Inverarity, Barrister
and Vice President of BNHS (1897-1923)
Counsel for Rukhmabai.
It is somewhat odd that the BNHS journal carries no obituary whatsoever to this Indian founding member. I suspect that the only one who may have been asked to write an obituary would have been Kirtikar and he may have refused to write given his stance in court. Another of Sakharam Arjun's students was a Gujarati botanist named Jayakrishna Indraji who perhaps wrote India's first non-English botanical treatise (at least the first that seems to have been based on modern scientific tradition). Indraji seems to be rather sadly largely forgotten except in some pockets of Kutch, in Bhuj. I recently discovered that the organization GUIDE in Bhuj have tried to bring back Indraji into modern attention.

Atmaram Pandurang
The other Indian founder of the BNHS was Dr Atmaram Pandurang Tarkhadkar (1823-1898)- This medical doctor was a founder of the Prarthana Samaj in 1867 in Bombay. He and his theistic reform movement were deeply involved in the Age of Consent debates raised by the Rukhmabai case. His organization seems to have taken Max Muller's suggestion that the ills of society could not be cured by laws but by education and social reform. If Sakharam Arjun is not known enough, even lesser is known of Atmaram Pandurang (at least online!) but one can find another natural history connection here - his youngest daughter - Annapurna "Ana" Turkhud tutored Rabindranath Tagore in English and the latter was smitten. Tagore wrote several poems to her where she is referred to as "Nalini". Ana however married Harold Littledale (3 October 1853-11 May 1930), professor of history and English literature, later principal of the Baroda College (Moreshwar Atmaram Turkhud, Ana's older brother, was a vice-principal at Rajkumar College Baroda - another early natural history hub), and if you remember an earlier post where his name occurs - Littledale was the only person from the educational circle to contribute to Allan Octavian Hume's notes on birds! Littledale also documented bird trapping techniques in Gujarat. Sadly, Ana did not live very long and died in her thirties in Edinburgh somewhere around 1891.

It would appear that many others in the legal profession were associated with natural history - we have already seen the case of Courtenay Ilbert, who founded the Simla Natural History Society in 1885. Ilbert lived at Chapslee House in Simla - now still a carefully maintained heritage home (that I had the fortune of visiting recently) owned by the kin of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Ilbert was involved with the eponymous Ilbert Bill which allowed Indian judges to pass resolutions on cases involving Europeans - a step forward in equality that also led to rancour. Other law professionals in the BNHS - included Sir Norman A. Macleod and  S. M. Robinson. We know that at least a few marriages were mediated by associations with the BNHS and these include - Norman Boyd Kinnear married a relative of Walter Samuel Millard (the man who kindly showed a child named Salim Ali around the BNHS); R.C. Morris married Heather, daughter of Angus Kinloch (another BNHS member who lived near Longwood Shola, Kotagiri) - and even before the BNHS, there were other naturalists connected by marriage - Brian Hodgson's brother William was married to Mary Rosa the sister of S.R. Tickell (of Tickell's flowerpecker fame); Sir Walter Elliot (of Anathana fame) was married to Maria Dorothea Hunter Blair while her sister Jane Anne Eliza Hunter Blair was married to Philip Sclater, a leading figure in zoology. The project that led to the Fauna of British India was promoted by Sclater and Jerdon (a good friend of Elliot) - these little family ties may have provided additional impetus.


In 2014, someone in London asked me if I had heard of an India-born naturalist named E.K. Robinson. At that time I did not know of him but it turns out that Edward Kay Robinson (1857?-1928) born in Naini Tal was the founder of the British (Empire) Naturalists' Association. He fostered a young and promising journalist who would later dedicate a work to him - To E.K.R. from R.K. - Rudyard Kipling. Now E.K.R. had an older brother named Phil Robinson who was also in the newspaper line - and became famous for his brand of Anglo-Indian nature writing - a style that was more prominent in the writings of E.H. Aitken (Eha). Now Phil - Philip Stewart Robinson - despite the books he wrote like In my Indian Garden and Noah's ark, or, "Mornings in the zoo." Being a contribution to the study of unnatural history is not a well-known name in Indian natural history writing. One reason for his works being unknown may be the infamy that Phil achieved from affairs aboard ships between India and England that led to a scandalous divorce case and bankruptcy.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Research techniques - Wikipedian ways

Over the years, I have been using Wikipedia, as a kind of public research note book. I sometimes fail to keep careful notes and I regret it. For instance, some years ago I was reading through some scanned materials on an archive and came across a record of the Great Indian Hornbill in the Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu. It was carefully noted by some British medical officer who was visiting the place and he commented on the presence of the species in the region as part of a report that he submitted on the sanitary and medical conditions of the district. Google searches did not see or index the document and I thought I would find the content when I wanted it but I have never managed since to find it again. Imagine how useful it would have been to me and others if I had put in a reference to it in the Wikipedia article on the hornbill species with a comment on its past distribution. 
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_B._Fairbank

Not long ago, someone on the email list Taxacom-L sought information on Samuel B. Fairbank - a collector of specimens in India. I knew the name as he was one of the collaborators of Allan Octavian Hume (who even named a species after him) and decided that I knew enough to respond to the request for information. I looked around on the Internet and found that there was enough material scattered around to put together a decent biography (I even found a portrait photo whose copyright had thankfully expired) and it led to a Wikipedia entry that should spare anyone else looking for it the effort that I put in. Of course one follows the normal Wikipedia/reseach requirements of adding citations to the original sources so that anyone interested in more information or in verifying the sources can double check it.

These additions to Wikipedia may strike you as something that is not very different from what an ant does when it (actually usually she) goes out foraging - when she finds food, she eats a bit and then returns to the nest leaving behind a trail marker on the ground that says "this way for food". Other ants that are walking by spot the message written on the ground and if interested go on and help harvest the food resource. The ants that find the food again add a trail marker - now the strength of the trail marker chemical indicates veracity and possibly the amount of food available. This kind of one-to-many communication between individuals mediated via environmental cues has a term - stigmergy. Now the ant colony has been termed as a "super organism", a kind of distributed animal, with eyes, legs and even a brain that is distributed across little seemingly independent entities. Now there is a lot of research on how super-organisms work - it is an area of considerable interest in computer science because - the system is extremely resilient to damage - a colony goes on as if nothing has happened if you went and crushed a whole bunch of ants underfoot. How far this metaphor helps in understanding the organic growth of Wikipedia is uncertain but it certainly seems to be a useful way of conveying the idea of how contributors work. From a biomimicry perspective it could even inspire ways of designing the interface and system of Wikipedia - imagine if visitors could mark their attention to specific lines and the links that the followed. Subsequent visitors could perhaps see links that led to particularly useful additional articles or references.

I sometimes run workshops to recruit new people to contribute to Wikipedia and my usual spiel does not include any talk on "how to edit" Wikipedia but deals with why contribute and about how to incorporate Wikipedia into one's normal day-to-day activities. I sometimes take pictures from walks, record bird calls and research topics for my own learning. I compare what I learn with what Wikipedia has to say and where it fails, I try and fix defects. This does not actually come in the way of my learning process or work much but I like to think that it helps others who may come looking for the same kinds of things.

Incorporating Wikipedia into normal learning practice - should only need a small incremental effort.

The real problem in some parts of the world, such as in India, is that not everyone has access to good enough routes to learning - experts are often inaccessible and libraries are often poorly stocked even if they happen to be available. Of course there are privileged contributors who do have access to better information sources than others but these are the people that often look at Wikipedia and complain about its shortcomings - it seems likely therefore that the under-privileged might be better at contributing. In recent times, Russian underground sites like sci-hub have altered the ecosystem in a kind of revolution but there are also legal channels like the Wikipedia Reference Exchange that really go a long way to aiding research.

Of course there are an endless array of ways in which one could contribute - by translating from one language to another - if you are proficient in two languages - there is the gap finder which allows you to find what entries are on one language and missing on another - http://recommend.wmflabs.org/ . If you are interested in challenging your research abilities and want to see how good you are at telling good and reliable resources from websites with "alternative facts and news" then you should try finding references for dubious or uncited content from https://tools.wmflabs.org/citationhunt/en .

One of the real problems with Indian editors on Wikipedia is that a large number of them support their additions with newspaper and media mentions and many of them do not know what reliable sources mean. Information literacy is key and having more scholarly information resources is important. I have therefore tried to compile a list of digital libraries and resources (especially those with India related content).

Here they are in no particular order:
Although all of these are accessible, you may need little tricks like finding the right keywords to search, using the right google operators in some cases and for some people finding references for obscure things is fun. And some of us, like me, will be happy to help others in their research. With this idea, I created a Facebook group where you can seek references or content hidden behind a paywall. This assistance is provided in the hope that you can summarize your research findings on Wikipedia and make life easier for the ants that walk by in the future.