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Hooker and India

Discover more about Joseph Hooker's Indian expedition (1847-1851). To complement the Indian letters online, Historian Jim Endersby provides a narrative of Hooker's travels in the sub-continent and gives us his expert insight. Modern day explorers and plant enthusiasts share their experiences of following in Hooker's footsteps, including exclusive documentary footage, and some of Hooker's Indian collections are revealed.

Joseph Hooker in India

Explore Hooker's Letters


Insights from Science Historian Dr Jim Endersby

Why was Hooker in India? Where did he go? What did he collect? And what did he have to say about it all in his letters? Joseph Hooker authority Dr Jim Endersby explains how Hooker's Indian expedition (1847-1851) resulted in seminal botanical publications and contributed to his groundbreaking theories on plant distribution.

On 24 June 1849 Joseph Hooker wrote to his friend Charles Darwin from a camp high in the Sikkim Himalaya. Hooker described the blaze of Rhododendron flowers and the vivid jungle colours, that proclaimed. Around him were dozens of unfamiliar species, all 'asking me the vexed question, where do we come from?'

Extract from 'Hooker and India' by J. Endersby

Read Dr Jim Endersby's essay, Joseph Hooker and India


Himalayan Footage from the Hooker Documentary Project

Peter Donaldson and Jupe productions have kindly shared some exclusive clips from their fascinating documentary film project about Joseph Hooker. Six years in the making, the documentaries retrace Joseph Hooker’s ground breaking explorations in the Himalayas, the Antarctic, Morocco and the USA. Using Hooker’s notebooks and sketches from Kew's archives Peter was able to follow exactly in Hooker's footsteps. Some of these areas in the Himalayas have probably never been filmed before.

The first clip sees Peter Donaldson in the stunning scenery of Choonjerma mountain pass, looking out on the same view as Hooker did over 150 years ago. Peter describes how his research led to him finding the first western sketch of Mount Everest; penned by Hooker eight years before it was officially measured and named.

Watch Finding the First Sketch of Mount Everest - Joseph Hooker for Kew from Peter Donaldson on Vimeo

In this second clip the expedition reaches the Tibetan border, unattended apart from the occasional yak caravan crossing from Tibet, and exactly as it was in Hooker’s day. But in some ways the Himalayan landscape has changed markedly and much of it is due to a warming climate. In this second clip Peter Donaldson shows how glaciers near Kanglachen Pass in the Himalayas have receded since 1848.

Watch Glacier Recession in the Himalayas - Joseph Hooker for Kew from Peter Donaldson on Vimeo


Tracking Hooker

Plagued by leeches and clad in perpetually damp tweed, Joseph Hooker survived the dangers of plant hunting in the Himalayas. Toby Musgrave compares the conditions of Hooker's journey with his own travels through Sikkim.

Extract of Joseph Hooker's hand drawn map of Sikkim showing the border with Tibet

Extract of Joseph Hooker's hand drawn map of Sikkim showing the closed border with Tibet

When Joseph Hooker sat gazing at Kanchendzonga - the world's third-highest peak - from a Darjeeling bungalow in July 1848, did he feel the same emotion as 20th-century space pioneers? Hooker was about to depart into unmapped territory, Unknown to Europeans (he made the first map of Sikkim after his 1848-1849 expedition.) Today, whatever the destination there will be a map of the area, or at the very least a satellite photograph of it. Indeed, my map of the area was deemed a security risk by the Indian Army and temporarily confiscated. Hooker went on many plant hunting expeditions, before he became Kew's second Director. His Himalayan expedition is known for the plants he noted and collected, particularly Rhododendon species, and for the journal he kept. Every evening after dinner, Hooker sat 'cross-legged on the bed...my face scorching, and my back freezing...smoked a cigar, and write up journal...by the light of the fire". We (my brother Will and friends Chris Gardner and Paul Davis) consulted Hooker's Himalayan Journals when planning our route, and each evening we read what Hooker next encountered, before writing our own accounts...

Extract from Toby Musgrave's article, 'Tracking Hooker'