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About Nathaniel Wallich

Discover Wallich’s fascinating life story and why he is considered such a major figure in the history and development of Indian botany.

Pastel portrait of Nathaniel Wallich

 

Early years and imprisonment

Wallich undertook a medical degree and graduated MD in his native city, Copenhagen, in 1806 but also studied botany at the university alongside Martin Vahl. 

He was appointed surgeon to the Danish factory at Serampore, near Calcutta, in 1807. However, the settlement was annexed by the East India Company as a result of the Danish alliance with Napoleonic France in 1808 and Wallich became a prisoner of war.

Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta

William Roxburgh, the Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta, requested that Wallich be allowed to enter the company’s service on the merit of his scholarship, and in March 1809 he began employment as Roxburgh’s assistant. Wallich became Superintendent of the Garden in 1815, leaving in 1816 and then returning in 1817. Wallich served in this post until 1846 when he finally left India. Shortly before taking on the role of Superintendent in 1815, Wallich proposed the formation of the Indian Museum in Calcutta, to which he offered his services and items from his own collection. Wallich took charge of the Museum in June 1814 and it flourished as a result of his guidance and contributions from private collectors. 

Love and death

Nathaniel Wallich was born Nathanael Wulff Wallich on 28 January 1785 in Copenhagen to merchant Købmand Wulff Lazarus Wallich (1756–1843) and his wife, Hanne, née Jacobson (1757–1839).

Wallich married Juliane Marie Hals (b. 1797), who was subsequently known as Mary Ann Wallich, on 30 May 1812, but she died just two months later.

In 1813 he married Sophia Collings. Together they had at least seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Their son, George Charles Wallich, was a distinguished oceanographer.

Wallich died at his home in London, on 28 April 1854 and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. An obelisk was erected to his memory by the East India Company in the botanical garden at Calcutta.

The genus Wallichia, of the Palmae, and many species commemorate his name.

While at the botanic garden, Wallich made a name for himself through his enthusiasm for collecting and describing new plants, having them drawn and painted, and distributing specimens to the chief gardens and herbaria in Europe and North America. In 1820, in conjunction with William Carey, Wallich began the task of publishing Roxburgh’s extensive Flora Indica, to which he added many of his own findings. The second volume did not appear until 1824, largely due to an 18-month expedition Wallich made to Nepal, and subsequent illness and recuperation.

Wallich experienced a steady decline in his health throughout his life but he constantly remained a keen and active botanist. During a period of sick leave in Singapore in 1822, Wallich encountered the British statesman Stamford Raffles, whom he had first met when Raffles visited the garden at Calcutta, looking for a naturalist to join him in Sumatra. The two men pursued a number of botanical excursions while in Singapore and decided to found a botanical garden there for the study of local flora and cultivation of commercial crops. 

While in Nepal, Wallich sent a great many plants home to leading botanical figures such as Sir Joseph Banks. Wallich inspected the forests of western Hindustan in 1825, and in 1826 and 1827 he studied those of Ava and Lower Burma respectively.

1828 saw Wallich invalided to England, where he took with him some 8,000 specimens of plants, duplicates of which were widely distributed to both public and private collections. The best of these were presented to the Linnean Society. Between 1828 and 1832, Wallich published his most vital work, Plantae Asiaticae rariores, or, Descriptions and figures of a select number of unpublished East Indian plants, which spans three volumes.

All the tea in Assam

After his time in England, Wallich returned to India in 1832 and became instrumental in the hugely important discovery of tea plants growing in the Assam region. The East India Company’s monopoly of the Chinese tea trade came to an end in 1833 and the British government turned its attention to India. In February 1834 the historic Tea Committee was formed by governor general Lord Bentinck, with George James Gordon as its secretary. A circular was sent out by the Tea Committee asking where in India tea could be grown, and a Captain Jenkins, who was based in Assam, replied stating it to be ideal for tea cultivation. Gordon was sent to China to procure specimens but the task was soon aborted, however, when Wallich wrote to inform him of the discovery of tea plants already growing in Assam, potentially negating the need for imports from China. Wallich became part of a team, alongside the botanists William Griffith and Charles Bruce and geologist John McClelland, set up by the Tea Committee to investigate the plants and assess their suitability.

After the discovery had been made, Wallich found himself at the centre of contention over who had the rightful claim as the initial discoverer of the plants. A Captain Charlton stated that he had lived in Assam from May 1830 to October 1831 and upon leaving had presented the Agri-Horticultual Society of India with tea plants he had collected there. In addition to this, upon returning to the province in May 1834, he had given specimens of leaves and fruits to Captain Jenkins, then Political Agent. As proof of his claim he presented a letter from the Tea Committee, signed by Wallich on 6 December 1834, confirming the fruit to be real tea. This letter had been submitted to the government but not printed in the Parliamentary Reports of the House of Commons. The Tea Committee swiftly attributed the discovery to Charlton and Jenkins but Charlton, unsatisfied, drew their attention to another letter from Wallich whereby he named Charles Bruce, a member of the team set up by the Tea Committee along with Wallich, his brother and a David Scott as having brought the tea plants to public attention.

Wallich was suffering from cholera at the time of this dispute but once sufficiently recovered he produced documents to support himself against Charlton’s attacks. He refused to communicate with Charlton directly, angered by the course of action the latter had taken in not writing to him and addressing his grievance directly. Wallich had written to both Charlton and Jenkins to thank them for their efforts regarding the discovery in December 1834, but he had also explained that the tea had in fact already been discovered in 1826 by Scott, who had sent specimens of leaves to the Agri-Horitcultural Society. Examining the trail further, Wallich found evidence that the Bruce brothers had indeed found the tea and sent samples of plants to Scott, confirming them as the initial discoverers. It was Charlton’s fruit samples that had enabled the plants to be identified beyond any doubt as genuine tea, and Wallich fully recognised his contribution, but the fact remained that Charlton had not been the first to draw attention to the plants and Charlton himself had acknowledged and admitted this in his letters to Wallich.

Return to London

The deterioration of his health finally forced Wallich to resign from Calcutta in 1846 and in the same year he settled in London. He became Vice-President of the Linnean Society, of which he had been a fellow since 1818, and frequently presided over its meetings. In addition to the works already mentioned, he is credited with 35 papers, mostly botanical, submitted between 1816 and 1854 to various journals including the Asiatick Researches, Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Transactions of the Linnean Society, Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, and the journals of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Horticultural Society.

Today, Wallich's personal collection is housed in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Further reading

  • Barley, Nigel (ed.), The Golden Sword: Stamford Raffles and the East, London; The British Museum Press, 1999
  • Dudeja, Vijay (ed.), In Full Bloom (a history of the Agri-Horticultural Society of India), Calcutta: The Agri-Horticultural Society of India, 1996
  • Matthew, H. G. C. & Brian Harrison (eds.), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography vol. 56, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004
  • Robinson, Tim, William Roxburgh: The Founding Father of Indian Botany, Chichester: Phillimore & Co. Ltd., 2008
  • Taknet, D. K., The Heritage of Indian Tea, Jaipur: Indian Institute of Marwari Entrepreneurship, 2003