This week sees the publication of a new website, funded by the World Collections Programme, which reunites collections relating to the Danish botanist Nathaniel Wallich. Find out more about the man himself in the Directors' Correspondence collection.
Wallich and Indian Natural History
On 6 and 7 December Kew, the British Library and the Centre for Art and Humanities Research (CAHR) at the Natural History Museum, are holding a joint conference in celebration of the 'Wallich and Indian Natural History' project, funded by the World Collections Programme.The three institutions have joined forces to reunite, online, many of their collections relating to the Danish Botanist Nathaniel Wallich and this resource will soon be available to the public.
Pastel portrait of Nathaniel Wallich, RBG Kew Library reference MO 024 (Photographed by Emma Le Cornu, copyright RBG Kew)
The Directors’ Correspondence digitisation team are looking forward to attending the conference. We have become familiar with Wallich through the digitisation of over 170 of his letters for our own project. This was no easy task: Wallich’s handwriting was very difficult to read! However, Wallich seemed to us a likeable and interesting character: a devoted family man, who openly displayed his anguish at the loss of a young child; a good colleague who enjoyed collaborating, corresponding and working with others; and a very opinionated man, with a dry sense of humour, who did not suffer fools gladly.
On leave from Calcutta
One significant series of letters in the DC covers the period 1829 to 1832. In March 1828 Wallich was granted a leave of absence from his post in Calcutta to recover his health and arrange the distribution of the East India Company's Herbarium. Wallich based himself in London and it was during this time that he published his most important work: Plantae Asiaticae Rariores. He met and collaborated with fellow botanists in London, and wrote to Sir William Jackson Hooker, then Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow.
Illustration of Coelogyne Wallichiana from Volume 1 of Wallich's Plantae Asiaticae Rariores. Image courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden. http://www.botanicus.org
Flattery gets you everywhere
Wallich was determined to prolong his stay in England. This may have been due to his health and personal circumstances, but it is also clear from his correspondence that it would afford him the best opportunity to finish the Plantae Asiaticae Rariores. However, it was not easy to persuade his employers, the East India Company (EIC), to extend his leave. In one of Wallich’s letters he provides evidence to show that Lord Ellenborough, the President of the Board of Control, wanted the Company to get rid of Wallich and his salary altogether [archive ref: DC 52/92].
Faced with such opposition, Wallich decided that flattery would be the best course of action. He implored Hooker to give all credit for the receipt of the Indian plant specimens to the Court of Directors, the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the EIC, as it was their "splendid munificence" [archive ref: DC 52/57a] that allowed Wallich to bring the specimens to England. Wallich goes so far as to say that in any publication regarding the specimens, his name should be left out "as much as possible in order that the honor & credit [bestowed on the Directors] may be more satisfactory to them" [archive ref: DC 52/56].
The tactic paid off. An extension of Wallich's leave of absence was granted at the beginning of 1831 on the assurance that he would complete both the distribution and publication of his Plantae Asiaticae Rariores by 1 Apr 1832. His relief and excitement at the news was obvious:
Wallich expresses his delight at having his leave in England extended [archive ref: DC 52/94].
Wallich returns to Calcutta
Wallich left England to return to Calcutta in October 1832. In his last letter to Hooker before sailing for India his anguish at having to leave is manifest:
"my distress is beyond all utterance – it is almost beyond endurance, and my nerves are deserting me. I am shaken to the very centre – can I possibly recover from all this? But the die is cast – must go ... Once more farewell – dear Hooker – write often to me – oh forget me not – my sole consolation will be to hear from all those dear beings I leave behind me.” [archive ref: DC 53/152]
Wallich's DC letters are available to view on the JSTOR plant science website. These digital resources, together with the collections available on the Wallich and Indian Natural History website, will bring Wallich back to life and allow generations of researchers to make the acquaintance of this interesting man and most revered botanist.
- Helen -
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