Site icon Rajesh Kochhar

Natural history in India during 18th and 19th centuries

Rajesh Kochhar

Journal of Biosciences,  2013,  Vol.  38,  No. 2, pp. 201-224

European access to India was a multi-dimensional phenomenon. The merchant-rulers were keen to identify commodities that could be profitably exported to Europe, cultivate commercial plants in India that grew outside their possessions, and find substitutes for drugs and simples that were obtained from the Americas. The ever increasing scientific community in Europe was excited about the opportunities that the vast landmass of India offered in natural history studies. On their part, the Christianity enthusiasts in Europe viewed European rule in India as a godsend for propagating the Gospel in the east. These seemingly diverse interests converged at various levels. Christian missionaries as a body were the first educated Europeans in India. Like in philology, they were pioneers in natural history also. They constituted a valuable resource for naturalists in Europe. European interest in their field work brought them scientific recognition as well as the much needed cash. More significantly, they introduced the colonial administrators, especially the medical men, to systematic botany.

One can make a clear distinction between pre-Linnaean and Linnaean phases in European foray into  Indian natural history. Europe was introduced to western Indian drugs and simples by the 1563 work of  the Goa-based Portuguese physician Garcia d’Orta (1501/2–1568) . A century later, during 1678-1693, the Dutch administrator Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein (1636–1691) furnished Europe  with information from south India. In both cases, the initiative originated in the colonies itself (Kochhar 2012). Things changed in the second half of the 18th century. Now, individual European naturalists and institutions wanted not only specimens from India but also bits of tacit knowledge resident in local population. The European India was ready and willing to oblige, but as a collaborator rather than a courier. We shall focus on India-based Europeans who built a scientific reputation for themselves; there were of course others who merely served as suppliers.


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