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Michael Palin on Hooker

Michael Palin has a passion for travelling in common with Joseph Hooker. But what struck Palin about Hooker was not so much where he had been but who he knew: everybody apparently. Joseph Hooker's extensive scientific networking became the subject of a paper prepared by Palin. Originally read at the Athenaeum club he has kindly given us permission to reproduce his lecture, featuring items from Kew's Library, Art and Archive collections that inspired him during his research.

Michael Palin © John Swannel

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, member of the Athenaeum for 60 years from 1851 to 1911: Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew from 1865 to 1885, and considered by many to be the greatest botanist of the 19th century. He was a man who depended very much for his advancement on the considerable network of friends that a club such as the Athenaeum provided. But there was another network which was vitally important to him: a worldwide web of collectors who supplied him with much of the information, samples and specimens on which he based his discoveries and the many published works for which he is remembered. It was through one of these shadowy figures – the collectors – that my interest in Hooker was first aroused.

At the beginning of last year I found myself at the port of Santarém on the Amazon. Myself and my film crew were looking for a ferry-boat to take us up the Tapajos river to see the remains of Fordlandia, an ambitious and ultimately hopeless attempt by Henry Ford to revive the Brazilian rubber industry in the 1920s and 1930s. The remains loom up out of the surrounding forest. An art deco water tower rises above the trees. A huge and empty turbine hall. Middle America re-created in the middle of the jungle.

Why did the Brazilian rubber industry need reviving? Spool back to the 1870s and come in Henry Alexander Wickham, an adventurer and explorer who had come to the attention of Joseph Hooker through a book of Wickham’s which had contained drawings of Hevea brasiliensis, the most commercially productive of all the Brazilian rubber trees. Hooker, then Director at Kew, wrote to Wickham commissioning him to secure seeds of Hevea brasiliensis and somehow get them back to England. 'Spare no expense to get living seeds', Hooker insisted. The expense, as it turned out, according to John Hemming, one of the best contemporary writers on the Amazon, was £1,505 4 shillings and tuppence. It was paid for, significantly, by the India Office. In 1876, at the port of Santarém, Henry Wickham boarded a ship from Brazil to Britain carrying with him thousands of seeds which were to drastically change the fortunes of both countries. 

extract of a letter written by Joseph Hooker. The handwriting is small and quite hard to read.

Extract of a letter written by Hooker

Wickham’s precious cargo duly arrived in Liverpool and was rushed to Kew. 2,800 of the Hevea seeds were germinated, and sent out to the British possessions in Malaya and the sub-continent. Here, another Henry, Henry Ridley, comes into the picture. He it was who pushed through Hooker’s plans to cultivate Hevea brasiliensis on existing tea plantations, despite the initial reluctance of the owners. The Brazilian rubber tree, free of natural predators, thrived on the other side of the world. By 1908 there were ten million rubber trees in Malaya. Between 1910 and 1915 the wild rubber crop in Brazil lost 80% of its value and by 1919 it had shrunk to 8% of the world total. The Brazilian rubber boom, which had produced swaggeringly confident buildings, like the Opera House in Manaus, was over. Wickham continued to lead a playboy life, but Henry Ridley, known affectionately as 'Rubber' Ridley, lived on into grand old age. His obituary in The Times read, simply, 'Ridley, whose active life was cut short at the age of 101, played an important part in the establishment of rubber in Malaysia'. The creation of a British-dominated rubber industry was one of the greatest successes of the aggressive and determined botanical exchange policies that characterised the Royal Botanic Gardens under the Hooker regime, but by no means the only one. In the 1860s another tree-hunter, the rather suitably named Richard Spruce, brought back to Kew seeds of the Cinchona tree from Ecuador. From its bark quinine was extracted, and transplanted to the East, it became a vital antidote to malaria as well as one of the essential ingredients of gin-and-tonic.

But tonight I want to explore one of the men behind all this. The puppet-master at the heart of an extraordinary period of expansion of imperial power through scientific knowledge in which he himself played a crucial and influential part. That Joseph Hooker was well-connected is unarguable. Indeed any of you who might have had a drink in the Morning Room before coming down here would have done so under the watchful eye of the man behind the bar - Charles Darwin, another Club member - who once said of Joseph Hooker: 'I care more for your opinion in natural history than for all the rest of the world'. But the truth is that Joseph inherited a web of patronage from his father, an indefatigable networker, a veritable David Frost of his time, and one of the founder members of the Athenaeum in 1824.

Joseph's father, Sir William Jackson Hooker

Joseph's father, Sir William Jackson Hooker

William Jackson Hooker (here he is) was born in Norwich in 1785. His father was a merchant’s clerk and a keen, not to say obsessive, gardener. William inherited his father’s horticultural inclinations and by the age of 23 had discovered a new moss, which was named after him – Hookeria. William assiduously cultivated (pun intended) the great and the good in the world of natural history. And there were few greater and gooder than Sir Joseph Banks, a patron of the natural sciences who had sailed with Captain Cook, and, as a result of whose influence, William Hooker was appointed to the Chair of Botany at Glasgow in 1820.

Three years earlier, William Hooker’s second son was born in Halesworth in Suffolk and named Joseph, possibly in grateful recognition of Banks’ support. His second name was Dalton, after his godfather the Revd James Dalton – an important collector of mosses and lichens. He would doubtless have been highly satisfied that his young godson was able to correctly identify a moss growing on a wall in Glasgow as a Bryum argentium, even though he was only six years old at the time. Joseph grew up reading enthusiastically the stories of Captain Cook’s voyages, as well as Mungo Park’s 'Travels in Search of the Niger' and later, Darwin’s 'Voyage of the Beagle'.

In 1830 at the age of 13, Joseph, already fluent in botanical names as well as a compulsive collector of insects, was clearly desperate to follow in the footsteps of the explorer-scientists he had read about. Through his father’s connections he secured a place on an Antarctic expedition to be led by James Clark Ross an explorer who had located the magnetic North Pole in 1831 and now wanted to find its counterpart in the south. Despite his father’s contacts, Joseph Hooker had to earn his place and had already studied astronomy at Glasgow. It was his qualification as a doctor that secured him a position on the Ross expedition. As those of you familiar with the great naval stories of Patrick O’Brian will know, there was in those days a very close connection between medicine and botany as embodied in O’Brian’s great creation – Stephen Maturin. The Apothecaries Act of 1815 had made botany a compulsory part of medical qualifications, as a knowledge of plants and their properties was considered vital to the understanding and administration of medicines. Doctors at the time made up their own mixtures out of their chosen ingredients. There was no pharmaceutical industry to do this for them. 

Hooker's Paintings of  Mount Erebus & Mount Terror after which the Antractic Expedition ships were named. Paintings from Hooker's Antarctic Journal.

Hooker's paintings of Mount Erebus and Mount Terror

On the 30 September 1834, HMS Erebus, 378 tons and HMS Terror, 364 tons, their hulls reinforced against the ice, sailed from England. They did not return for four years. During which time they crossed the Antarctic Circle, reaching 70.14 degrees - further south than Cook. They saw the coastline of Antarctica and an active volcano, over 12,000 feet high, which they named, after their ship, Mount Erebus. This is how Hooker sketched it in his notebook. Soon after that, they spent 46 days manoeuvring through the ice-pack, narrowly avoiding being crushed by ice-bergs. Many years later, Roald Amundsen, no less, paid them considerable tribute. 'These men', he wrote, 'sailed right into the heart of the pack, which all previous explorers had regarded as certain death'. And wherever and whenever possible Hooker was collecting specimens, some 8,000 altogether, including tussock grass from the Falklands as well as ferns from St Helena and Ascension, gigantic seaweed plants 300 feet long, and the anti-scorbatic cabbage found only on the remote Kerguelen Islands in the South Indian Ocean. Also known as the Desolation Islands, this is where Hooker sketched a penguin in his journal.

No sooner was Joseph safely home than William Hooker, by now first Director of the Botanic Garden at Kew, set about planning the next stage of his son’s career. He had already lobbied the Prince Consort to show him the drawings that his son had sent back from Tasmania and the South Atlantic. But the government rejected a request for a grant towards a book of Joseph’s findings. Sir William, undeterred, went to one of his contacts, Sir Robert Peel, who conveniently happened to be the Prime Minister at the time. The Treasury duly sanctioned a grant of £1,000. The book became Flora Antarctica, published in 1847. It was a considerable piece of work. Hooker had to clarify, name, identify and describe 8,000 species and that was before he wrote the essay that went with them. And there could be no shortcuts. Hooker had to be comprehensive and precise. This was to be the definitive botanical record. At the same time he began a long correspondence with Charles Darwin, which eventually ran to some 1,300 letters. Hooker was intrigued, but unconvinced, by Darwin’s theories on the mutability of species. Darwin in turn was fascinated by Hooker’s own observations of similar species found on islands thousands of miles apart.

In 1845, Hooker, not yet turned 30, but quietly and assiduously ambitious, applied for the position of Professor of Botany at Edinburgh University. The Hooker connections hauled in such esteemed supporters as Von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, but for once this patronage was thwarted and the position went to a local man. But within a year Joseph’s redoubtable father secured him work for the Royal Geological Society. But what Joseph really wanted to do was to go to India, to the mountains of the Himalaya, a botanist’s paradise. The Admiralty, still his official employer and paymaster, were not keen; this time it was Joseph himself who went straight to the top. To Lord Auckland, First Lord of the Admiralty, who duly secured him a position. On the 11 November 1847 Hooker set out, armed with commissions from his father to collect for the Royal Botanic Gardens, from Darwin who needed information on animals and Von Humboldt who needed data on plants and altitude.

The boat on which he travelled was carrying the new Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, out to India, and Joseph, unsurprisingly, made an influential friend of him. Indeed if you want to know who was really important in Joseph Hooker’s career, you need to look no further than the rhododendrons that he was so avidly to collect in India. You’ll find at least one Rhododendron aucklandii and another Rhododendron dalhousiae – after the Governor-General’s wife.

Illustration of Hodgsonia heteroclita

Hodgsonia heteroclita, named by Hooker after his friend Brian Hodgson

From Sikkim, squeezed between Nepal and Bhutan, Hooker sent titbits of information to Darwin, like the fact that there were different coloured squirrels on either side of the Ghats. When he reached Darjeeling (7,000 feet above sea level) his contacts came to his rescue again and he was offered accommodation in the bungalow of one of the finest and most experienced India hands – Brian Hodgson, from whose windows he enjoyed a spectacular view of Mount Kanchenjunga, 28,152 feet high and at that time believed to be the highest mountain in the world. It’s now known to be the third highest after Everest and K2. Hodgson was a serious scholar, an intellectual who, like Hooker, didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was a fascinating study himself. As the British resident in Kathmandu he had single-handedly assembled a team to help him codify almost every aspect of Nepalese life – history, geography, language, flora and fauna, customs and rituals, architecture and buildings. Hooker noted that 'He has seldom had a staff of less than two and twenty persons of various tongues and races employed as translators, collectors, artists, shooters and stuffers'. Clearly a man after Hooker’s own heart. And predictably he ended up as a rhododendron. But also as Hodgsonia heteroclita, described as a 'gigantic climber, allied to the gourd'.

Hooker was no mean climber himself. In 1848 he set out for the high Tibetan passes, the first European to make the attempt. Amongst his equipment were instruments for navigating and surveying – brushes, pens, pencils and paper for sketching – a small selection of reference books: a botanists collector’s case known as a vasculum, glass bottles, cutting implements, boards and straps for pressing. He had few luxuries beyond an evening cigar and a dog - a Tibetan Mastiff which he called Kinchin - which became his constant companion until one day it fell to its death and was swept away by a river. For Hooker, Sikkim offered an unmissable opportunity to examine three distinct climatic zones from tropical in the valleys, through temperate, to alpine. He was resolute and determined. Travelling in areas that had never been mapped, unafraid to try the local specialities – nettle soup, begonia stalk sauce and tree fern. He crossed swaying bamboo bridges, picked leeches from his skin one-by-one, and occasionally he became almost emotional – as in this poetic description in his journal of a sunset – seen from the mountains.

Gradually the golden lines grew dim, till the sun set behind the dark-blue peaked mountains in a flood of crimson and purple. As evening advanced, a sudden chill succeeded, and mists rapidly formed immediately below me in little isolated clouds, which coalesced and spread out like a heaving and rolling sea, leaving nothing above its surface but the ridges and spurs of the adjacent mountains. These rose like capes, promontories, and islands, of the darkest leaden hue, bristling with pines, and advancing boldly into the snowy white ocean. As darkness came on, and the stars arose, a light fog gathered round me, and I quitted with reluctance one of the most impressive and magic scenes I ever beheld.

Joseph Hooker

On a second expedition to Sikkim, Joseph Hooker, the tall, bean-pole intellectual reached the top of Donkia mountain, which at 19,300 feet, was the highest that any man had ever reached at that time. His excitement at climbing so high was nothing compared with his satisfaction at discovering, on the very top of one of the Himalayan passes, a plant identical to one he’d last seen in Antarctica. Returning to Hodgson’s bungalow in Darjeeling he set to work pressing the plants and flowers he and his collectors had found, making illustrations, bottling beetles and generally recording in scrupulous detail all that had been gathered. Then he sent everything in 80 separate loads down the river to Calcutta and back to England. After three years in India Hooker had noted 3,000 species and made 700 sketches as well as gathering a wealth of geological, zoological, entomological and meteorological data. His achievements were idealised in this portrait of Hooker, surrounded by his bounty, executed by William Tayler the Postmaster General of Bengal. But his father, as always, wanted more. Kew’s funding after all, depended on continued success. After one particular demand for more rhododendrons, Joseph’s patience was, for once, sorely tried – 'If your shins were as bruised as mine after tearing through the interminable rhododendron scrub of 10 – 13 feet you’d be as sick of the sight of these glories as I am'. Like it or not, Hooker’s rhododendrons made him something of a folk hero back home. In fact his discoveries in Sikkim induced what one writer has called rhododendromania – not just at Kew, but in the gardens of grand houses that wanted to recreate the profusion of the Himalayan valleys that Hooker had popularised – Cragside in Northumberland and Menabilly in Cornwall, being two well-known examples.

Here Hooker is surrounded by attendants presenting him with plants, the dramatic Himalayan landscape behind them. Hooker did employ local people as plant collectors but he also hunted for plants himself, often in very challenging terrain.

Idealised portrait of Hooker in India, by William Tayler c.1850

In 1854 he published 'Himalayan Journals', which one of his biographers, Mea Allen, has ranked alongside The Voyage of the Beagle and Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago as a 'trilogy of the golden age of travel in pursuit of science'. He dedicated the book to Charles Darwin, despite the fact that on first reading Darwin had described the style as “sometimes turgid” and recommended condensing the first two chapters. Though Darwin was his close friend, Hooker was aware that Alfred Russel Wallace had come to a conclusion about evolution and natural selection at the same time as Darwin and was about to publish. It was Hooker and the eminent geologist, Charles Lyell, who wrote to the Secretary of the Linnean Society to request that both Wallace’s and Darwin’s theories be made public together, as they were at a meeting of the Society in November 1859. Hooker later described his position on this controversial debate in an essay entitled On the Flora of Australia. Announcing his support for 'the ingenious and original reasonings and theories by Mr Darwin and Mr Wallace' he admitted that only a few years earlier he had believed the species were created separate and immutable. 'In the present essay', he goes on, 'I shall advance the opposite hypothesis that species are derivative and mutable'. As his biographer Jim Endersby says in his book Imperial Nature; “he thus became the first man of science anywhere to embrace Darwinism”. Though one feels that Hooker, the man who knew everybody, took the decision carefully, and only when he had made certain that all his influential friends were with him.

In 1860, his support was tested more publicly when he was asked to a debate organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science at the recently opened Natural History Museum in Oxford. The subject was Darwin’s newly published Origin of the Species. Darwin himself was too unwell to appear. With Hooker’s father-in-law, Professor Henslow, in the Chair, Bishop Wilberforce (third son of the anti-slavery campaigner) led a formidable and facetious attack on Darwin’s findings. It was well received, and when Bishop Wilberforce enquired of his principal opponent Thomas Huxley whether it was on his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side that he claimed descent from a donkey, Huxley’s reply was drowned out by laughter. Joseph Hooker rose to speak. Goaded by the derisive laughter he went straight for the bishop’s jugular. This was Hooker’s Clark Kent moment, which he described with relish in a later letter to Darwin.

I hit him in the wind at the first shot in ten words taken from his own ugly mouth – and then proceeded to demonstrate in as few more 1) that he could never have read your book and 2) that he was absolutely ignorant of Bot. Science. Huxley praised me to my face. Told me it was splendid and that he did not know what stuff I was made of. I have been congratulated and thanked… and plenty of ladies have flattered me

Joseph Hooker to his friend Charles Darwin

This streak of wilfulness beneath the ordered façade of Hooker’s life was manifest soon after this, when he decided to visit Syria and Lebanon to survey the famous cedar trees. He was strongly advised against it. A civil war had broken out between Druze and Christians and thousands had been massacred. When he heard of his friend’s intentions Darwin wrote in some concern, 'Bless my soul! I think you must be a little insane'. Hooker went anyway and described how on the 4 October 1860, as they entered Damascus, they were met by a scene with depressing echoes in the present day. Hooker’s journal, again: 'The Christian quarter had been reduced to ruins piled high, heaps of mutilated corpses'. Once back home, Hooker began work on a series of books. Though he and his father were well-connected, they were never rich and Hooker needed the money that came from such commissions as A Concise Flora of New Zealand and A New Popular Flora of British India, which Hooker would edit.

Notice for a public meeting to discuss Kew's restricted public opening hours, 1879

Notice for a public meeting to discuss Kew's restricted public opening hours, 1879

On August 12 1865 Sir William Hooker died. He had achieved great things at Kew, increasing the size of the garden from 11 to 600 acres (incorporating Richmond Old Deer Park), including the construction of the Palm House, from designs by Decimus Burton, who of course had designed the Athenaeum 20 years previously. William, a fixer to the end, ensured that his son should follow in his footsteps and on 1 November 1865, two years short of his 50th birthday, Joseph succeeded his father as Director of Kew Gardens. Joseph had already been working on Kew’s behalf with the Colonial Office on botanic exchanges; successfully introducing West African oil palm to India, Australia and New Zealand, macadamia nuts from Queensland to South Africa, and disease-resistant West African coffee plants – like Coffea arabica - to Ceylon where fungal disease had wiped out much of the island’s coffee plantations. In 1876 under Hooker’s auspices Brazilian rubber seeds were taken via Kew to the Empire, becoming his greatest commercial success.

But Kew was not without problems one of which was the ongoing saga of public access. As this notice shows, public meetings like this open-air Indignation Meeting was called to protest against the restriction of opening hours. Hooker was all in favour of keeping the public as far away as possible and it might have been this most tedious aspect of his administration that led him to confide, in a letter in that 'I have an ardent wish (which alas is not even tempered by hope) to camp out again for a month or two in a savage country'.

In 1871 his wish came true with a trip to Morocco and the Sahara. Taking with him knives, scissors, handkerchiefs, watches, musical boxes and opera glasses for the locals, Hooker once again went to the limits, becoming one of the few Europeans to have crossed the High Atlas. And collecting and sketching as tirelessly as ever. This is a cactus-like plant from a rocky island near Mogador in Southern Morocco – illustrated here from Hooker’s original sketch by Walter Fitch.

Caralluma maroccana by Fitch after Hooker

Caralluma maroccana by Fitch after Hooker

As he approached his mid-fifties Hooker wrote to Darwin 'The dream of my later days is to be left alone – I want no high position, no dignities, no honours'. He was not to be so lucky. Soon afterwards he accepted the Presidency of the Royal Society (the first naturalist since Banks to be asked) and this was followed by the KCSI - Knight Commander of the Star of India, a Companion of the Bath, three medals from the Royal Society and in 1877 a Knighthood.

That year, he made one last big field trip when, at the age of 60, he set out for the American Rockies at the invitation of a long-time friend and correspondent Asa Gray, then Harvard Professor of Botany. Here they are being served a picnic lunch (below); Asa Gray, the rather fine-looking, bare-headed figure sitting on the ground is holding a case with boards and straps for pressing the specimens they gathered. Back in England, Hooker continued to produce books and to engage with Darwin on plant geography. They particularly differed over the casual transportation of seeds. Darwin believed they were carried by ocean currents and birds. Hooker believed that the connection between the plant species found on islands thousands of miles from each other could be explained by their being part of a submerged land mass. And it was not until 1915 that he was proved right when Alfred Wegener first proposed the existence of ancient super-continents and the theory of Continental drift.

From the 1880s onwards Hooker began to outlast many of his friends. Charles Darwin died in 1882. Hooker was one of the pall-bearers at his funeral. In 1885 Hooker retired as Director of Kew but not before ensuring that the most successful botanical dynasty of all time would continue by appointing his son-in-law William Thistleton-Dyer, married to Hooker’s daughter Harriet, to succeed him. And this is the only existing photo of Sir Joseph actually in the Gardens at Kew, accompanied by his second wife, the appropriately named Hyacinth.

By 1899, Hooker had survived all the officers who took part in the last Antarctic expedition, but a determined and resolute colleague of the Hookers, Sir Clements Markham, had pushed very hard for another expedition to the southern Polar Regions and he invited Hooker onto the committee. It was Hooker who suggested, perhaps remembering how difficult it had been to distinguish the land from floating icebergs, that they take a balloon for aerial surveys. In 1902 Captain Robert Falcon Scott ascended in a balloon and saw more of Antarctica than anyone ever before.

Joseph Hooker and Asa Gray in Colorado

Joseph Hooker (left) and Asa Gray (right) on an expedition in the Rocky Mountains,1877, Hooker aged 60.

So, as the 20th century began Hooker remained busy; working at his home in Sunningdale, compiling a complete, authoritative taxonomic system and with a hand still steady enough to use a microscope and dissect seeds and plants. He enjoyed the benefits of a semi-retirement keeping in touch with the world with Lady Hyacinth by his side and surrounded by the collections of a lifetime. And the honours he never sought, kept coming. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1907.

In the last years of his life, he was still publishing monographs, three alone on the species Impatiens. In his ninetieth year, he had his portrait painted with his always spectacular facial hair, now silver-grey and totally out of control. On the 29 May 1910, Captain Scott asked Hooker if he would hoist the flag and initiate the voyage of the Terra Nova to Antarctica. It was one of his last public appearances. On the 10 December 1911, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, born in the reign of George III, died in the reign of George V, leaving nine children from two wives. The constant struggle between the private man of science and the august and accomplished public figure was settled in death, when Hooker gave express instructions that he was to be buried next to his father in the churchyard of St Anne’s on Kew Green, despite there having been a place allotted to him in Westminster Abbey.