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Travels in India

Dr Jim Endersby, Reader in the History of Science, University of Sussex relates the events and significance of Joseph Hooker's Indian and Himalayan expedition with extracts from Hooker's correspondence.

 

Joseph Hooker in India

Hooker and Darwin shared a preoccupation with the origin of species, the question of how and why they came to be growing in the specific places where naturalists found them. While Darwin made only one journey, aboard HMS Beagle, Hooker was an inveterate traveller.

Jim Endersby

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 'a differently constituted region in a naturalists eye'. Around him were dozens of unfamiliar species, all 'asking me the vexed question, where do we come from?' [JDH_1_10_187-188]

Portrait of Charles Robert Darwin

Charles Robert Darwin

Hooker and Darwin shared a preoccupation with the origin of species, the question of how and why they came to be growing in the specific places where naturalists found them. While Darwin made only one journey, aboard HMS Beagle, Hooker was an inveterate traveller. His first voyage, aboard HMS Erebus (1839–43), took him to Antarctica as part of a four-year expedition around the world’s southernmost oceans and lands. During the expedition he visited many of the places Darwin had been to earlier, and the two men became friends soon after Hooker’s return to England.

Within months, Darwin wrote to tell his new correspondent that, after reading 'heaps' of books, 'gleams of light have come' and he was 'almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable'. As he read these words, Hooker became the first person in the world to hear of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection; it would be another fifteen years before the rest of the world would read about it when Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Hooker’s calm response to Darwin’s jokey yet serious revelation became the basis for a long correspondence that would eventually range across every possible topic, from the laws of nature to the price of orchids, taking in the births (and, sadly, deaths) of their children, and the novels they were reading.

However, just three years after their first letters, Darwin was dismayed to discover that his favourite correspondent was about to set off on his travels once again, to the distant and unhealthy climate of India. But, characteristically, Darwin assuaged his grief by sending his friend off with a long list of questions about the wildlife, climate and indigenous peoples of the country he was to visit. The chance to get new information from yet another country was one Darwin never missed, and Hooker was happy to oblige. For the next three years – from January 1848, when Hooker arrived in Calcutta, to January 1851, when he boarded the steamer that would take him home again – Hooker wrote constantly, answering his friend’s questions, and offering evidence for and against evolution. He also sent numerous letters to his family, friends, and botanical colleagues, describing the plants, places, people and things he saw. Alongside his notes, were endless drawings, from quick sketches in the margins of letters to careful watercolours that would become the basis for the lavishly illustrated books that would eventually describe his many finds. Hooker’s Indian letters have been preserved at Kew for over 150 years, accessible only to a handful of scholars; they are now online, in their complete form, for the first time.

So, who was Joseph Hooker and why do his letters matter?

Joseph was the younger son of William Jackson Hooker, professor of botany at Glasgow University and later director of Kew. However, while William Hooker had influence and contacts in the world of early-nineteenth-century science, he did not (unlike Darwin’s father) have a large fortune, and as a result, Joseph began his shipboard career not as a gentlemanly dining companion to the captain, but as a humble assistant surgeon, a junior officer in the navy. During the voyage, Hooker wrote to his father to say that 'I am not independent, and must not be too proud; if I cannot be a naturalist with a fortune, I must not be too vain to take honourable compensation for my trouble'. However, when he returned, Hooker found 'honourable compensation' was hard to come by. Scientific positions of any kind were still rare in Britain and the main source of employment for botanists was university positions teaching trainee doctors and apothecaries. Hooker tried this, briefly, at Edinburgh university but was unable to obtain a permanent post. He then spent some time as botanist to the Geological Survey, but again no permanent position materialised that would allow him to pursue his passion for plants.

Portrait of Joseph Dalton Hooker

In 1847, with his father’s help, Hooker managed to obtain government support to spend two years exploring the Himalaya, and embarked for India on 11 November. He began his trip in Calcutta, then travelled inland, initially by palanquin and sedan chair, but he found elephant riding much more comfortable. He told his aunt, that he had become quite adept at mounting the creature 'by stepping on a tusk, and gripping at a broader ear. And if I drop anything, hat or book, he picks it up with his trunk and adroitly tosses it over his head into my lap.' [Hooker to Ellen Jacobsen, 8 April 1848 JDH_2_3_10_1-6].

As well as collecting plants, Hooker took regular measurements of temperature and other meteorological readings, which he send to a Professor Wheatstone co-inventor of the electric telegraph, telling him 'My objects are purely botanical; but I hope, by the careful use of good instruments, to obtain data for calculating the effects of climate on the vegetation of large areas.' [JDH_1_10_47-50]

After a boat ride down the Ganges, Hooker headed north to Darjeeling, and wrote to his father that he was looking forward to leaving the desiccated plains and seeing 'a luxuriant vegetation once more.' [JDH_1_10_59-62]

Painting of Mount Kanchenjunga taken from Hooker's Himalayan Journals

Mount Kanchenjunga taken from Hooker's Himalayan Journals

In Darjeeling, Hooker met Brian Houghton Hodgson, a British diplomat, administrator, Sanskrit scholar and expert on Nepali language and culture, who invited Hooker to share his bungalow a couple of months after Joseph arrived in Darjeeling. The bungalow had a spectacular view that Hooker loved of Kinchin junga (now Kanchenjunga), the highest mountain in India, but then believed to be the highest in the world.

Hodgson was a passionate amateur zoologist and employed three Indian artists who he had trained in the conventions of Western scientific art. Hodgson and Hooker became close friends and Hodgson lent the younger man books and gave him advice on preparing for his forthcoming trip to the Himalaya. By 1849, 'Dear Hodgson' had become 'Dear old Brian' in Hooker’s letters. Among the many new species of rhododendron that Hooker discovered in Sikkim, was one he decided to call R. hodgsonii in honour of his friend.

In his first trek from Darjeeling, Hooker collected the new species he would name Rhododendron Dalhousiae [now dalhousieae], in honour of Christina Dalhousie, the wife of India’s new Governor-General, with whom Hooker had travelled out. For the journey, Hooker hired several Lepchas (Lepchas, known as Rongpa in Sikkimese, were one of Sikkim’s ethnic groups) to collect and dry his plants. He praised the Lepchas' skill as woodsmen, describing them as hardy, agile and resourceful. They knew the forest and its plants well, providing Hooker with considerable assistance. He was less impressed with three Bengali collectors on loan from the Calcutta botanic gardens, who apparently complained over much lighter loads than the Lepchas would carry. The Lepchas also knew the local plants well and could distinguish about a dozen bamboo species by sight. Hooker recorded that they made a wide variety of tools, weapons and other implements from the forest flora.

From Darjeeling, Hooker set-off for his most important goal: the Himalayan state of Sikkim. As he travelled higher, he wrote to his father to summarise the pattern of the Himalayan vegetation: 'In travelling N. you come upon genus replacing genus, Natural Order replacing Natural Order. In travelling E. or W. (i.e. N.W. or S.E. along the ridges) you find species replacing species, and this whether of animals or plants. Don’t forget to send this to Darwin.' [JDH_1_10_75-77] Hooker knew Darwin would share his interest in the geographical distribution of plants, which might shed light on the origin of species.

In the published account of his travels, the Himalayan Journals, or notes of a naturalist (1855), Hooker commented on the importance of the distribution of plants in Sikkim, since it combined 'the botanical characters of several others', it offered 'material for tracing the direction in which genera and species have migrated, the causes that favour their migration, and the laws that determine the types or forms of one region, which represent those of another' (Vol. 1: 37–38). Hooker hoped that as plant distribution developed into a more rigorous study, it would eventually lead to the discovery of the laws that explained why particular plants grew where they did. These laws would not only be fascinating in themselves, but would have practical applications too because the British Empire was not just built on industry, but also on plants. As he collected samples of India rubber and tea, Hooker was also looking for the laws that would allow botanists to predict where valuable, new plants could be found, and also to know which plants could successfully be transplanted to new countries where they could be cultivated profitably.

Sikkim was a small and impoverished state that was bordered by Chinese-controlled Tibet to the north, Nepal and Bhutan on either side, and British India to the south. Its Rajah, Chomphoe Namgye, was understandably anxious not to annoy any of his powerful neighbours so he and his chief minister, the Dewan, were suspicious of travellers like Hooker who surveyed and made maps. The British political agent Archibald Campbell, was another friend of Hodgson’s and tried to help Hooker get permission to travel in Sikkim. However, the Rajah responded to his requests by telling him that the numerous 'Gods and Divinities' of his realm had been consulted, and the lamas had been asked 'as to whether it is good and proper that the British gentleman should examine the trees and plants of my country. The result is that it will not be proper.' (7 October 1848).

Oblivious to the lamas and their gods, Hooker finally obtained permission to enter Sikkim. Travelling was often difficult, as he described in a nonchalant letter to his friend the botanist George Bentham, 'one often progresses spread-eagled against a cliff some way and crosses narrow planks over profound abysses with no hold, but as my head never gets giddy, there is no more fear of falling than in the main roads' [JDH_1_10_148-150]. In a letter to his mother, Hooker mentioned that he’d taken to wearing long worsted stockings to help keep off leeches, of which he had sometimes had to remove as many as 100 at the end of a day. Sandflies and mosquitoes added to the discomfort of ticks and leeches; he described arriving at camp in the evening “streaming with blood, and mottled with the bites” of various insects [JDH_1_10_168-170].

Lamteng Village, Sikkim. Sketch by FItch after Hooker for the Himalayan Journals

The Rajah and his supporters continued to harass Hooker and tried to prevent him getting to the Tibetan border, which Hooker had been explicitly warned not to cross. However, Hodgson confided to William Hooker that Joseph was planning to slip into Tibet in secret to measure the 'elevations of that wondrous plateau' [JDH_1_10_120]. Hooker chafed under these restrictions and complained regularly about the attempts to keep him out of Tibet. He wrote to his father that: 'the Singtam Soubah [the provincial governor] behaved courteously to me; but, to draw me away from my purpose of entering Thibet, he expressed the Rajah’s affection for me as boundless;—nothing but extreme solicitude for my safety possessed his breast and actuated his conduct;—and if I were to be lost in a stream—if evil of any kind befell me,—a shrine at Lhasa and annual worship were the least honours that would be decreed to my memory; therefore he implored me to consult my own security and return to Darjeeling' [JDH_1_10_191-193].

But Hooker finally won him over by curing his colic, upon which the governor guided him and his men to the pass at Kongra Lama. On 24 July 1849, Hooker was able to measure the height of the Tibetan plateau from the Sikkimese side of the border (15,745 feet according to his barometer, 15,694 feet by the boiling water test).

Hooker told his mother [JDH_1_10_204-206]:

The Sikkim Rajah has done everything in his power, short of violence, to harass or oppose me, & his standing order is that I am not to be treated as a sahib. The insults to which this exposes me & the degree of patience & resolution required I may talk of to my parents who know how short of temper I am in trifles. To my face I am told by a ragged rabble that if I were a gentleman the S.S. [Singtam Soubah] would give different instructions to his people.

Joseph Hooker

A few weeks later Hooker met up with Campbell again. The two men went back to the border, accompanied by Tchebu Lama, a local holy man who was friendly to the British, but they were detained by a Tibetan border guard. While Campbell and the Lama negotiated, Hooker galloped off into Tibet, outrunning the soldiers who went after him, and didn’t return for several hours.

In November the border violation was used as a pretext to arrest and imprison Campbell and Hooker. Hodgson wrote to William Hooker that 'the real grievance [of the Rajah] is, that not merely your son, a traveller, but that a representative of Government [Campbell] goes north, exploring the frontier & entering Thibet, against the wish and remonstrance of Sikkim.' [JDH_1_10_223]

The commander at Darjeeling, a Captain Byng, asked for reinforcements in case it were attacked, but the Government of India thought Byng too placatory and replaced him with a special commissioner, C.H. Lushington, who immediately threatened the Rajah with invasion, promising him that British troops would 'exact a severe retribution' unless the captives were released. The Rajah capitulated, blaming the Dewan, who in turn blamed others. Campbell and Hooker were released and showered with gifts and apologies. The Rajah had his British pension withdrawn and some of his territory annexed, but one British official felt the British had been too harsh, writing:

The infringement by Dr Campbell of the Chinese regulations prohibiting the entry of strangers to their territory was an act of grave indiscretion… It was more—it was an act certain to embroil the Sikkim Raja with the Chinese. A weak power between great powers must doubly suffer. We seem to have punished the Sikkim Raja far too heavily for his offence.

(Government of India, Political Department. Indian and Bengal Despatches., f.1269, E/4/810. BL, India Office Library and Records.)

General Sir J.H. Littler thought Campbell’s attitude to the Rajah 'too harsh' and felt that the Sikkimese suspicion of foreigners trying to survey and map their lands was entirely reasonable. Hooker now felt he was to blame for encouraging Campbell to be more confrontational. “If anyone is to blame I am, who at Kongra Lama rode ahead of Campbell”.

Hookers sketch of the Chomaloo lake seen from Donkia Pass

View of Chomiomo mountain

Following his release, Hooker spent 1850 travelling with Thomas Thomson, an old friend from Glasgow University days, who was now an East India Company surgeon. The two spent nine months in Assam where, with the help of numerous indigenous guides and collectors, they collected about 2,000 species of flowering plants, including many stunningly beautiful orchids, within a ten-mile radius around their camp, together with 150 ferns and many mosses, lichens and fungi.

Hooker and Thomson returned to Calcutta in December and in late January 1851, boarded a steamer to England. Hooker had collected over 3,000 species in Sikkim and Bengal, plus all the others in Assam. He had discovered plants growing at higher altitudes that anyone had previously believed possible (herbaceous plants growing as high as 18,000 feet, and some cryptogams going even higher). His haul also included drawings of over 700 plants, plus numerous sketches of landscape, geology and the local peoples.

In 1849, while Hooker was still in India, his father arranged to publish the first of three parts of The Rhododendrons of the Sikkim-Himalaya, a summary of the many species of the plant that Joseph Hooker had discovered during his travels (at least 25 were new to European science). The beautiful plates by Walter Hood Fitch were based on Joseph’s field sketches. When the Athenaeum reviewed the first part, they described the speed with which these newly discovered plants had been published as 'one of the marvels of our time'.  (Athenaeum, No. 1122, 28 April 1849)

Hooker produced a second lavishly illustrated book of Indian flowers,Illustrations of Himalayan Plants, in 1855. This was largely a memorial to his friend John Fergusson Cathcart, who had commissioned Indian artists to produce almost a thousand botanical illustrations which were bequeathed to Kew after Cathcart’s premature death in 1851. As Hooker said in the introduction to this work:

Science is not yet self-supporting; it requires the countenance of amateurs no less than the severe studies of proficients to ensure its progress. Works like the present must appeal to the lovers of art and horticulture, the latter of whom are mainly indebted to the labours of Botanists for the objects that afford them their greatest and most rational delight.

Joseph Hooker

While Hooker was occasionally happy to dip into the pockets of the ‘lovers of art and horticulture’, he was careful to ensure he also built his scientific reputation by publishing the Flora Indica (1855). The first part of which consisted largely of a 200-page essay in which Hooker set-out his views on classification, and soundly berated those who carelessly attempted to name new species.

No less a person than the great German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt (whose South American journals had inspired both Darwin and Hooker to become naturalists) was impressed by Hooker’s maps and by the wide variety of geological, botanical, and meteorological data he amassed: 

what a notable traveller is Joseph Hooker! What an extent of acquired knowledge does he bring to bear on the observations he makes, and how marked with sagacity and moderation are the views he puts forward

Humboldt to WJH, 1 December 1850, published in Hooker’s Journal of Botany, Vol. 3, 1851: 21

Jim Endersby