It's not just plant talk and garden gossip in the Directors' Correspondence; there are some letters which recount exciting (and rather scary!) events too, such as the late 19th century tiger attack in the Calcutta Botanic Gardens.
There can be few things more terrifying than a tiger attack and when faced with such a situation, you would surely thank your lucky stars if you lived to tell the tale. A European assistant working at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Calcutta [Kolkata] in 1879, named Adolph Biermann, experienced just such an encounter and the incident is described in two separate letters in the Directors' Correspondence.
Tiger on the loose!
The first letter is from Sir George King to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, and he gives his first-hand account of how the tiger escaped from the personal menagerie of the former King of Oudh[Awadh], in which he saw it swim across the river and enter the Gardens. He himself went unnoticed but approximately 15 minutes later the tiger encountered the unfortunate Biermann. At the time of King's writing, Biermann was recovering from the attack but it was acknowledged that he had narrowly escaped with his life. It is worth noting that King relates the news of the incident in the context of his lately being very busy due to a lack of helping hands!
Sir George King, Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta
The attack is also related by George Alexander Gammie in a letter to a Mr Smith. Gammie seems somewhat more sympathetic than King, stating Biermann to be 'most unfortunate' and having had 'a very narrow shave of his life'. He also goes into rather more gruesome detail about the attack itself, describing the way in which a fair part of Biermann's scalp was torn off and the skull underneath exposed, amongst other injuries. Gammie goes on to say that Biermann was leaving for Europe on sick leave a little later in the year.
An excerpt from Gammie's letter describing the attack
It is always interesting to see how an event is recounted from different perspectives, and these letters serve as an example of one of the reasons the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation project is such a fascinating one. I have only been working as part of the team since March, but have already come across some very interesting material in amongst the specimen despatch notes and requests for seeds and suchlike. Such items highlight the importance of these letters from a historical perspective, as well as a botanical one. This unfortunate encounter between a naturalist and a tiger is one such example; giving an insight, however subtle, into the priorities and viewpoints of the authors as they depict the same subject matter in different ways.
Stripes in the news
A further account of the attack can be found in a local newspaper report of the time, which goes into great detail with regards to the nature of the tiger's escape, its movements and encounters with other people, the efforts to contain and destroy it and its subsequent death by the gun of a Mr Wace. The tiger, one of two that escaped and referred to in the article as 'Stripes', also attacked others before being shot, including one hunter who was not expected to survive his injuries. The reporter claims the escape was the result of 'a keeper having incautiously left the door of their cage open while cleaning it'. Of course one can speculate on the wisdom of personally keeping a wild animal such as a tiger as something of a pet! The article's narrative is fairly dramatic and suspenseful and provides another angle on the incident in addition to the anecdotal evidence of the letters.
Sir Henry Nicholas Ridley, first Scientific Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, also had a captive tiger, pictured above. Her name was Janet.
Biermann himself, though he survived, did not live to tell the tale of his encounter for very long, as he contracted cholera and died the following year. But thanks to this archive material, we have some very interesting evidence of a quite unexpected and very unfortunate event.
- Read more digitized correspondence at JSTOR Plant Science
- Find out more about the Directors' Correspondence Digitization Project
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- Read about some other fallen naturalists
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