Joseph Hooker's Indian Christmas
To celebrate Christmas, the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project Officer describes Hooker's experiences of Christmas during his Indian expedition.
Digitising Joseph Hooker
Joseph Hooker's groundbreaking expedition to India and the Himalayas (1847-51) kept him away from home for over three years. The letters he wrote during that time are being digitised and will be made available online from next year as part of the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project.
Travelling in unexplored lands and scouring remote wildernesses for plant treasures, Hooker seems to have been in his element. Indeed, in his letters he says he will not be satisfied until he has travelled the whole world:
"I wish to see the Andes & every other part of the world as much as I should no more be satisfied as a traveller by Borneo than I was by the Antarct[ic] Exped[ition]. or am by the Himal." [JDH/1/10/175-179]
Christmas away from home
But how might he have felt about being away from friends and family when his first the festive season away, Christmas 1847, rolled around? Well, his mother might have been a little put out to hear that her son was having such a jolly time during the first months of his journey to India that he was not thinking about his family at all. In fact he forgot about Christmas altogether as he confessed in a letter to her from Ceylon [Sri Lanka]:
"Our Chaplain was an excellent one, & performed the service & preached well; he startled me by the announcement of the following Saturday being xmas; for I had latterly kept no count of the weeks and months." [JDH/1/10/25-28]
Extract of a letter from Hooker to his mother, 4 January 1848
No doubt Hooker was overtaken by the thrill of setting out on a new expedition, mind fixed on the exciting adventures ahead - and new plants to be found.
He does allow that his loved ones might spare a festive thought for him, though. To his fiancée Frances Henslow he wrote on the assumption that she was missing him too much to enjoy Christmas:
"I dare say you thought of us on Christmas day & so we all did of England & English friends... I wished Lady D[alhousie]. many Happier Christmases, & flattered myself that I was not far wrong in wishing you the same. " [JDH/1/10/29-31]
A not so merry Christmas on the high seas
Hooker certainly wasn't a happy traveller that first Christmas away in 1847, which was spent uncomfortably on board the steam frigate Moozuffer:
"You I hope were more comfortable than we; for to add to the many discomforts of the present voyage... we had adverse winds & a rolling sea....[we] have to pig it out in the ship's armoury, a dirty place, next to the Engine, intolerably hot & smothered with Coal dust. We lie on mattresses on the deck; & it is all we can do to turn out tidy for meals in the cabin" [JDH//10/29-31]
Example of a 19th century steam frigate
The Christmas fare on board ship wasn't up to his standards either:
"Of Roast Beef we have none; but the more easily compassed Plum pudding was present."
In fact Hooker really wasn't a fan of Indian food at all. In a letter to his friend, the botanist and one time Director of Calcutta Botanic Garden, Nathaniel Wallich he wrote:
"In only one thing I am deceived by all you Indians in England; & that is the cookery -- which is in every respect villainous & atrocious. Your stews, pillafs, & curries I abhor & eschew, et hoc genus omne. Wines are invariably bad, ascending in scale of inferiority with the quality & price."[JDH/1/10/82-83]
The heart of a traveller
I may be in danger of painting Joseph as just some crotchety, complaining old humbug, but mostly he was an enthusiastic traveller. He was certainly willing to endure any hardship to collect plants, braving the monsoons, treacherous cane bridges, rock slides and dense uncharted jungles, lack of provisions and altitude sickness to accumulate his extraordinary collections:
"I have been here three days & again I am out of food... I had not the day a morsel of bread or meat only Tea & a case carrots... We went 2 miles through the densest scrub... rounded another cliff in the bed of the river which was up to our middle & the current very strong... A mile further we could stand out no longer... The rocks & cliffs were impracticable, the snow beds too slippery, & the icy torrents we crossed every few yards bitterly cold... The ground covered with beautiful spring flowers... These explorations are very hard work, but I get such lots of plants that they are always abundantly profitable & I am in rare health." [JDH/1/10/175-179]
The ideal present?
If you want to know more about Joseph Hooker - or are looking for the perfect present - Kew publishes a sumptuous illustrated book about his life and travels, Joseph Hooker: Botanical Trailblazer, available to buy online.
If you have any questions or would like to know more about the Joseph Hooker Correspondence project, please contact me at email@example.com.
- Introducing the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project
- Find out more about Joseph Hooker
- Search Kew's online archive catalogue
- Celebrate Christmas at Kew