Skip to main content
You are here
Facebook icon
Pinterest icon
Twitter icon

Letters from India: some extracts from Joseph Hooker's historic correspondence.

Virginia Mills
24 October 2013
As we prepare to launch the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project online, Virginia Mills selects extracts from the letters of this renowned 19th century botanist and one-time Director of Kew Gardens describing his pioneering exploration of India and the Himalayas.

The Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project

I've been working on the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project for a few months now, digitising and transcribing the letters of Kew's most renowned Director and all-round scientific polymath: Joseph Hooker. Digital images of the letters along with transcriptions will be made available online for the first time on a new Kew microsite which is scheduled to go live for a pilot phase in January.

There are thousands of letters to and from Joseph Hooker in Kew's extensive archive but for the pilot phase of the project we have selected one series: Joseph Hooker's Indian letters. Even within this one series of correspondence I have found that Hooker's letters home reflect a broad diversity of scientific interests. Hooker's primary concern was botany but his letters also display a keen interest in geography, geology, zoology and anthropology to name but a few.

Hooker in the Himalayas

Joseph was in India from 1847-1851 trekking through the sweltering plains and climbing in the remote Himalayas. He went partly to satisfy his own curiosity about exotic floras and to collect specimens for Kew Gardens, but also with instructions from Charles Darwin to observe the distribution of animals and from naturalist Alexander von Humboldt who was interested in plants at altitude. Hooker reported what he'd observed in long letters to many illustrious correspondents: for example, he wrote to Professor Wheatsone, a pioneer of spectroscopy, describing an unusual occurrence of an aurora in India. Another notable correspondent was John Stevens Henslow - a fellow botanist and mentor to Darwin, who was also Hooker's father-in-law. Joseph married Henslow's daughter Frances on his return from India and in the Kew archive we are lucky enough to have personal letters from Hooker to his family, including his wife-to-be as well as his parents and sisters, in addition to his important scientific correspondence. All contain fascinating observations from a keen-eyed scientist blazing a trail to seldom-explored frontiers in the high Himalayas.

I have selected some extracts from the Indian letters which reflect both the broad variety of Hooker's scientific interests and some of the epistolary anecdotes he recounted to his different correspondents.

Hooker to Darwin

Hooker wrote several letters to Darwin from India. The following extract is from one dated 1848 in which he discusses the distribution of different species in India, including species of antelope divided by a river, different coloured squirrels found on opposite sides of mountain ranges, and the species of wild elephants:

"I find as, might be expected, that the Natural features of this vast area separate different species in most cases, & that sometimes the limits of the latter, though defined, are apparently not subject to any evident law but to caprice... One of the most striking instances of the prevalence of races in districts is afforded by the Elephant, of which there are three distinct wild Indian varieties; confined to the three separate but similar forests they respectively affect" [JDH_1_10_52-54]

In the same letter he continues more lightheartedly:

"I may add that I have been riding a Sylehet [elephant] daily for the last month & a noble beast she is, a grand fellow to talk to your children about hereafter... it has to push on the waggons [sic] with its fore head... If Elephants have head--aches what splitting ones they must be." [JDH_1_10_52-54]

Photo of a letter from Hooker to Darwin on species in India

Extract of a letter from Hooker to Darwin in which he discusses the distribution & variation of species in India.

Click on the image to download a PDF file containing images of the entire letter or download a full transcription of the letter (pdf)

To his father - letters about collecting

To his father, William Jackson Hooker, himself then Director of Kew, Joseph wrote a long treatise about the species of plants he saw on his travels through India and about the specimens he collected, one of which gave him a rather unpleasant surprise:

"Arums are superb and very curious. One flowered in my room this morning & I was awoken by an insufferable stench, putting a therm[ometer]. into the spathe it rose to 9° above the temp[erature]. of the air at 7 am & now at 11 pm it is 4 degrees hotter than the air."

Hooker was a scientist to the core. On awaking to find the smelly bloom what else would a scientist do but proceed to take measurements of the phenomenon such as its temperature? 

Hooker the artist

These are some of Hooker's sketches of Indian Arums, of the genus Amorphophallus.

Sketch by Joseph Hooker of an Arum

He notes of one below that it smells like rotten salt fish. Hooker sent rough field sketches such as these back to Kew where they still form part of the Herbarium collection, consulted by botanists as scientific documents. 

Joseph Hooker annotated field sketch of an Arum

As well as live plants, Hooker collected items of economic botany for his father who had set up a museum to display useful plant products at Kew: any functional or decorative item that was made from plant material, any food stuff or materia medica was to be gathered for this museum:

"With regard to things for the Kew Museum I have done my best; (but the scanty population of the districts I passed over is against much exercise of the arts.) One of the most curious things procured (& I think ever seen) is a fine bellows made entirely of the leaves of a tree & used for smelting iron by the indigenes or aborigines of these parts. Nothing can prove their poverty more strikingly. The article is the size of a very large cheese, has a bamboo snout & is altogether a great curiosity. At the Fairs I invariably pick up beads worn when under a Vow or by the Brahmins, boxes & such like, & all the gums & drugs I can procure. The number of the latter are in Legions" [JDH_1_10_55-58]

Many of the medicinal and edible substances Hooker collected for the museum, as well as other curiosities such as the bellows described, are still part of Kew's economic botany collection. As the Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project progresses we hope to be able to feature items from Kew's collections that complement the letters, such as Hooker's field sketches, his dried plant specimens and economic botany contributions. 

Other family letters

In letters to his sister we see a much more whimsical side to Hooker. This illustrated extract is from a letter in which he caricatures his dog, named Kinchin after the mountain Kanchenjunga, as so smart he will soon be writing Hooker's letters for him! He also describes some mischievous antics of his faithful canine travelling companion.

"when up in the snows I was one day sitting writing in my tent...I looked out at a hole & saw "Kinchin" down at the kitchen"... his head - I shudder to go on - was in my dinner" [JDH/1/10/151]

Joseph Hooker illustrated letter

Illustrated letter from Joseph Hooker about his dog Kinchin and featuring an illustration of the clever canine supposedly learning to write! 

Writing to his wife-to-be Joseph Hooker was not above some of the complaints you might expect from a cantankerous tourist. In one letter alone he complains of his baggage being slow to arrive, the rainy and foggy weather, the difficulty of traversing steep roads, the dirty accommodation, and some of the more unwelcome wildlife:

"my legs with leeches, which swarm about the foot of the hills, bite through your stockings, & roll themselves up into little balls like thick-skinned gooseberries, & thus lie with impunity within your shoes" [JDH_1_10_67-68]

In Hooker's defence he may have found the travelling hard but it only took some treasured letters from home to restore his mood and he was willing to endure all the hardships for the privilege of exploring "the most extraordinary mountains in the world" and collecting their botanical treasures.

The first installment of Hooker's Indian correspondence, featuring images of the letters as well as full transcriptions, will be available on Kew's website from January. I hope you'll visit the site then to discover more of Joseph Hooker's exploits.

And if you want to find out more about Joseph Hooker right now, Kew publishes a sumptuous book about his life and explorations, 'Joseph Hooker: Botanical Trailblazer', available from the Kew online shop.

- Ginny-


If you have any questions or would like to know more about the Joseph Hooker Correspondence project please contact me at  

Related links

Browse by blog team