Gardens - East India Company

From 1800 onwards, gardens in the Indian subcontinent reflected the influence of European settlers. Gardens mixed European design with Indian plants, resulting in very colourful gardens. Attempts at creating the lawns so beloved of English settlers, were foiled by the lack of water in most areas.

Gardens for science and industry

At the same time, a different kind of garden was being developed: the botanic garden. Although in the 21st century we often think (wrongly!) of botanic gardens as simply the place for a day out, in the 18th and 19th centuries they had a vital economic role. Botanic gardens were the testing place for new plant introductions. They functioned as part of a worldwide network of plant exchange.

The Calcutta Botanic Garden

The first of these new gardens was opened in 1787 in Calcutta, the thriving commercial capital of British India. The idea came from Colonel Robert Kyd. He saw the garden as a centre for the introduction of new crops, both food plants such as the sago palm from Malaysia, and commercial crops such as cinnamon. The garden was funded by the East India Company (which governed Calcutta), with the aim of developing new crops such as cinnamon.

William Roxburgh

Colonel Kyd died in 1793 and was succeeded by the remarkable William Roxburgh (1751-1815), one of the heroes of Asian botany. Like many botanists at the time, Roxburgh was a doctor. He sailed as a surgeon's mate on East India Company ships, eventually taking up a post in Madras General Hospital in 1776. Roxburgh spent much of his time pursuing botanical interests, and became Superintendent at the Calcutta garden in 1793.

Thousands of plants were sent from, and received, at Calcutta each year. Roxburgh sent plant collectors to the Malacca islands in Southeast Asia, to collect nutmegs, cloves and sago palms. The nursery was the most important part of the garden, propagating seeds and cuttings to be sent to other gardens around the world. Roxburgh introduced mahogany plantations and many fibre crops.

At the same time, Roxburgh was very active in identifying and publishing the local flora. He commissioned local artists to produce 2542 paintings of plants. These are still at Calcutta, but Kew Gardens has a set of copies that Roxburgh sent to Sir Joseph Banks, and the Natural History Museum has 1,160 copies made for John Fleming. Roxburgh's collection of paintings was the basis of his books, including his three volume masterpiece, Plants of the coast of Coromandel (1795-1819). Roxburgh was succeeded by Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854), another great botanist. Wallich was involved in the development of tea plantations from Chinese seeds in the 1830s. During the nineteenth century the Botanic Garden acquired new facilities for research. It continued to be active in plant introductions such as quinine.

Satellite gardens were established, including Lal Bagh at Bangalore (1856), Ootacamund at the hill station of Ooty (1883), the Lloyd Botanical Garden in Darjeeling (1878) and Saharanpur (1817), 100 miles north of Delhi. These gardens allowed the growing of more temperate plants than was possible in sub-tropical Calcutta.

Sir Joseph Banks and world botany

Banks (1743-1820) was one of the great naturalists of his time. He maintained a wide network of contacts, travelled with Captain Cook to Australia, and transformed Kew Gardens from pleasure grounds to a great botanic garden. His advice was often sought by the East India Company and other colonial and government bodies, and he was heavily involved (by post rather than in person) with the Calcutta Botanic Garden.

Sir Joseph Banks was also linked to the start of other gardens: Peradeniya in Sri Lanka (1810) and, in the western hemisphere, St. Vincent (1764). Almost all these gardens were staffed by gardeners trained in the Royal gardens at Kew.

From his base at the Royal gardens at Kew, Banks conducted a vast correspondence. He arranged Captain Bligh's famous expedition on the Bounty to bring breadfruit to Kew from the Pacific, as well as the exchange of thousands of other useful or ornamental plants.

Victorian vigour

After Banks' death in 1820, Kew Gardens went into decline. The government attempted to close the Gardens in 1838. However, under the leadership of William Hooker (appointed director in 1841) the Gardens were once more to flourish. During the period 1840-1940 Kew's involvement in the British Empire was more formal, and more directed by central government.

Kew was at the centre of a network of botanic gardens that included the gardens of British India, and gardens in British Guiana (Guyana), Jamaica, South Africa, Singapore and other countries. Famous plant transfers include the rubber tree from Brazil to Southeast Asia (1876) and quinine from South America to the Nilgiri hills of India.

During the twentieth century the role of botanic gardens in tropical agriculture declined. Instead, their research focused on understanding wild plants, with increasing emphasis on conservation of plants and their habitats. All of the Indian botanic gardens listed above still exist, sometimes as ornamental parks. The Calcutta Botanic Garden is an active research institute, now under the name of the Indian Botanic Garden, Howrah.