THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

92 posts categorized "South Asia"

17 April 2018

Papers of Major Geoffrey Herbert Blake, Royal Indian Army Service Corps

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The India Office Private Papers recently acquired the diaries of an officer who served in the Royal Indian Army Service Corps during the Second World War. 

RIASC IWM SE 588Royal Indian Army Service Corps troops unload an American C-47 cargo plane at an airstrip in the Pinwe area, 21 November 1944 © IWM (SE 588)

Geoffrey Herbert Blake was born in Peterborough on 30 September 1923.  On leaving school, he began training to become an accountant, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war.  In June 1943, he joined the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, which was responsible for vital supply and transport services for the Indian Army.  He spent the next four years in India, and recorded his experiences in his diaries.

Blake diaries  Mss Eur F717British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

The diaries begin with an introduction on 5 March 1943 in which Blake stated his reasons for keeping the diary: 'I hope that it may record in some detail the most interesting journey of my life, and that it will give me something to talk about in my old age (if I even qualify for this status in life)'.  He then described the process of embarking on the long journey to India.  He left Liverpool on 14 March aboard the MV Britannic, a White Star liner which had been converted to carry troops for the duration of the War.  The Britannic joined a large convoy for the voyage south, with Blake commenting that 'As far as we could see, troop transports were in line', with destroyers protecting them.  The convoy stopped at Freetown, in Sierra Leone, for two days, before resuming the journey to Cape Town in South Africa.  Blake would spend about six weeks camped near Cape Town, before continuing on to Bombay, arriving on 11 June 1943.

First sight of India  Mss Eur F717-1British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

On arriving in India, Blake travelled to Bangalore, where he would spend six months at the Officer’s Training School, before taking up his duties in Air Despatch.  His diaries give a daily account of his life in India as an officer in the Indian Army during the tumultuous years of the Second World War.  He left Bombay aboard the SS Empress of Scotland on 22 January 1947 for the voyage to Liverpool.  Expressing sadness at leaving a country he had grown fond of, he wrote philosophically: 'It looks as if my Indian journey is drawing to an end, but what will the next journey be?'

The start of a journey  Mss Eur F717-1British Library, Mss Eur F717 Noc

The catalogue of the papers can be found online.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Papers of Major Geoffrey Herbert Blake (1923-2017), Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) 1943-1947 [Reference Mss Eur F717]

 

05 April 2018

Ode to Income Tax

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One of the joys of cataloguing an archive is that you never know what you might find.  At the beginning of this new tax year, we take a look at an unusual item found in the papers of Charles Canning, Governor General and Viceroy of India.

Mss Eur F699-1-1-12  letter 10  f.3rMss Eur F699/1/1/1/12, letter 10, f.3r Noc

It can't be common to find a document in favour of taxation, let alone a poem singing the praises of a new Income Tax.  It becomes an even more astonishing find when that poem is written in Bengali and the author is identified as a fourteen year old schoolboy.  The poem and its translation are found amongst letters written to Governor General Charles Canning by Sir Henry Bartle Frere, Member of the Council of India.  It was originally sent to Frere by the Scottish missionary Dr Alexander Duff.  Duff had founded the General Assembly's Institution, later the Free Church Institution in 1830, with the aim of offering English language based education to middle and upper class Indians.  The Free Church Institution was affiliated with the University of Calcutta soon after its establishment in 1857.

Alexander-DuffAlexander Duff by James Faed the Elder, mezzotint, published November 1851, NPG D35771 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC

Frere writes that the poem's author, Bejoy Nath Roy is “rather famous in the School of the Free Kirk Institute as a writer of occasional poems” and that the boy's Master was “struck by the singular subject he had chosen”.  According to the translation, Bejoy Nath Roy writes “The Government wet with the dew of  mercy incurred debt only for the good of India“ ... “Let no-one grudge therefore to pay the tax”.  He uses the metaphor of the Government as a physician curing the nation, and having affected a cure, demands payment for services rendered. 

Mss Eur F699-1-1-1-12  letter 10  f.5vMss Eur F699/1/1/1/12, letter 10, f.5v Noc

What happened in India in 1860 to inspire such words?  The country had spent the years 1857 and 1858 in the turmoil of the uprising known as the Indian Mutiny.  Indian finances had been in a parlous state even before the rebellion, but with the need for extra military expenditure, the deficit increased.  The economist James Wilson was appointed as a financial member of Council of India in 1859.  His plans to reform India's financial structures included a new Income Tax, as well as an adjustment to Customs Duties, a License Tax for traders, and a new paper currency.  Wilson's plans caused consternation in some quarters.  Sir Charles Trevelyan's outright hostility to the tax led to his recall back to England.   And the extent of the dreaded Income Tax?  A two percent levy on incomes between 200 and 500 rupees, and four percent above that.  In little over a year, and with the support of the Governor General, Wilson managed to lay the foundations of improved financial planning, budgeting and auditing, so much so that India's deficit had been reversed by 1862-63.  Wilson did not see it, he died of dysentery in August 1860.

The poem is a snapshot, shedding light on an unusual poetic subject.  Perhaps though it says less about attitudes to taxation and more gives us a glimpse of the 19th century Western education system within India, whereby particular attitudes towards the British and British administration were promulgated within schools.

And if anyone is aware what happened to aspiring poet Bejoy Nath Roy, please do let us know. 

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
Mss Eur F699 Papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning

 

20 March 2018

Insurgency in the archives

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DEAR READER, Please realize that this book will be no suitable ornament at present for Mahogany drawing tables or ivory bookshelves - no doubt its rightful place. The despoilers and oppressors of India will want to hunt it out of view. They cannot stand its fierce light. Whether, therefore, you are an Indian, or a foreigner temporarily in India, we entrust this and subsequent volumes to you for safe custody, by all the ingenious means one employs to save a treasure from theft or robbery, and for as many people to read as you can personally arrange.

Free India Committee, India Ravaged, January 1943 (Delhi, 1943), shelfmark EPP 13

On Friday 12 and Saturday 13 January 2018 the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, hosted a two-day workshop on ‘Insurgency in the archives: the politics and aesthetics of sedition in colonial India’, with focus on the British Library’s collection of publications proscribed by the Government of India. As discussed in a previous post, this collection is one of the largest archives of primary sources relating to any twentieth century decolonization movement. Unable to do justice to the papers presented in such a short space this blog will present collection items related to the workshop’s five panel themes.

Archiving revolution

Both censors and insurgents were concerned with the maintenance of records and circulation of texts. Revolutionaries sometimes also appropriated the apparatus of the colonial state: distributed their writing in the mails or adopted the style and format of official literature. India Ravaged (above) collects texts documenting ‘atrocities’ committed under ‘British Aegis’ during the Quit India movement of 1942. Elsewhere a ‘balance sheet’ published by Indians based in San Francisco estimates that whilst Englishmen extract $136 million from India per year, the daily income of an average Indian is 2.5 cents.

EPP 1(8)
The Balance Sheet of British Rule in India (San Francisco, n.d.), shelfmark EPP 1/8

Communism in the vernacular

British anxiety about Soviet incursions in this region was such that communist literature was automatically banned.

PIB 69(1)
Sāmrājyavāda, a Hindi translation of Lenin’s Imperialism (Benares, 1934), PIB 69/1

PIB 18(1)
Lenina aura Gāndhī by René Fülöp-Miller, a comparative study of Lenin and Gandhi translated into Hindi from German (Delhi, 1932), shelfmark PIB 18/1

Networks of extraterritorial sedition

Banned works not only discussed international affairs, but were also sometimes disseminated via transcontinental underground networks. The wide-ranging nature of these is evident in a cache of Chinese language pro-German propaganda produced during WW1.

PIB 215(65)
A collection of German war reports and speeches translated into Chinese (n.d. and n.p), shelfmark PIB 215/65

Regulating ‘hatred’ and ‘disaffection’

The two main criteria for censorship were established in the 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure, which defined ‘seditious material’ as that likely to incite ‘disaffection’ towards the Government of India or ‘class hatred’ between India’s different communities. The proscribed publications are therefore a valuable archive of both the nationalist movement and communal tensions in the lead-up to Independence and Partition.

PIB 126(2)
A handbill printed on saffron paper urges Hindus to only buy produce from coreligionists in order to protect Gomāta (Mother cow). (Ayodhya, n.d.), shelfmark PIB 126/2

PIB 93p1
A special edition of the Arya Samaj Urdu-language periodical Vedik Maigzīn disputes the authority of the Quran (Lahore, 1936), shelfmark PIB 93

Spoken texts, picture texts

The collection is particularly strong in popular print and street poetry. These texts were intended for a mass audience during a period of low literacy levels, and meant to be seen and heard as much as read.

PIB 210(2)p1
Vidrohiṇī (Rebel woman), a collection of nationalist songs (Bombay, 1942), shelfmark PIB 210/2

 PP Hin F93
Gore kuttoṃ kā harāmīpana (The bastardy of the white dogs), a stream of invective printed on red paper (n.p., 1930?), shelfmark PP Hin F93

Such literature would have circulated hand-to-hand and by word of mouth, before being intercepted by the colonial censor and kept in the British Library.

Pragya Dhital

Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London

 
Further reading:

Pinney Christopher. 2004. ‘Photos of the Gods’: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (London: Reaktion Books)

Shaw, Graham and Mary Lloyd (eds.) 1985. Publications proscribed by the government of India: a catalogue of the collections in the India Office Library and Records and the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books, British Library Reference Division (London: British Library)

Singer, Wendy. 1997. Creating Histories: Oral Narratives and the Politics of History-making (New Delhi: Oxford University Press)


Previous blog posts on the proscribed publications collection:

Alex Hailey, 'Caught out at Customs', 4 April 2017 

Pragya Dhital, 'Inflammable material in the British Library', 25 September 2017

 

15 March 2018

Preventing disorder at the East India Company factories

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More than 1500 volumes of East India Company Factory Records are being digitised though a partnership between the British Library and Adam Matthew Digital. The factories were the Company’s overseas trading posts from the 17th to 19th centuries. The Factory Records are copies of documents sent back to London to be added to the archive at East India House.  

EIC factory Cossimbazar 1795 Add.Or.3192 - Cropped East India Company Factory at Cossimbazar 1795 Add.Or.3192 Online Gallery Noc

The main categories of documents included in this series are formal minutes of official meetings; diaries recording daily business and life at the factory; and correspondence.

A wide range of topics is covered, for example:
• Commercial transactions and dealings with local merchants
• Descriptions of goods traded, with prices
• Private trade of Company servants
• Relations with other European nations and with local inhabitants
• Ship arrivals and departures; negotiations with captains
• Personnel management
• Misdemeanours
• Establishments and salaries
• Complaints and petitions
• Sickness and death

The first of two modules of digitised Factory Records was launched recently. It includes the Company trading posts in South and South-East Asia. Amongst these are the records for the Hugli Factory in the Bay of Bengal, 1663-1687.

IOR G 20 2 p.19IOR/G/20/2 part 2 pp.19-21 Rules for good behaviour December

In December 1679 the Agent and Council for the Coast of Coromandel and the Bay of Bengal composed a set of orders ‘’for advanceing the Honour of the English Nation and the preventing of Disorders’. All Company servants employed in the Bay of Bengal were instructed to –

• Stop lying, swearing, cursing, drunkenness, ‘uncleaness’, ‘profanation of the Lord’s Day’, and all other sinful practices.
• Be sure to be back inside the Company house or their lodgings at night.
• Say morning and evening prayers.

Penalties for infringement were specified.

• For staying out of the house all night without permission or being absent when the gates were shut at 9pm without a reasonable excuse – 10 rupees to be paid to the poor, or one whole day sitting publicly in the stocks.
• For every oath or curse, twelve pence to the poor, or three hours in the stocks.
• For lying - twelve pence to the poor.
• For drunkenness – five shillings to the poor or six hours in the stocks.
• For any Protestant in the Company’s house absent without a valid excuse from public prayers on weekday mornings and evenings - twelve pence to the poor or one week’s confinement in the house.
• For any Christian absent from morning and evening prayers on a Sunday - twelve pence to the poor.  If no payment was made, the money was to be raised by selling the offender’s goods, or he might be imprisoned.

If these penalties failed to ‘reclaim’ someone from these vices or if any man was found guilty of adultery, fornication, or ‘uncleaness’, or disturbed the peace of the factory by quarrelling or fighting, he was to be sent to Fort St George for punishment.  The orders were to be read publicly at the Factory twice a year so no-one could profess ignorance of them.

One of the Company officials who signed the regulations was Matthias Vincent. He was accused in India of corruption, immorality and extortion!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

The East India Company digital resource is available online from Adam Matthew and there is access in British Library Reading Rooms in London and Yorkshire.

 

06 March 2018

Like father, unlike son: James and Frank Bourdillon

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Although there are many examples within the India Office Records of sons following fathers and grandfathers into military or administrative careers in the sub-continent, today we shine the spotlight on a family where the opposite appears to have happened.

Civil servant c13441-10'A civilian going out' from Twenty four Plates illustrative of Hindoo and European Manners in Bengal. Drawn on the stone by A Colin from sketches by Mrs Belnos. (London, 1832?) Images Online Noc

James Dewar Bourdillon was the son of a Huntingdonshire clergyman who entered the East India College at Haileybury in 1828, and arrived to take up a post in the Madras Presidency civil service early in the following year. He seems to have spent the 1830s and 1840s in a variety of administrative and judicial posts in Trichinopoly, Salem, and Nellore, later rising to become secretary to the Board of Revenue. The summit of his career was probably reached in 1856, when as a member of the three-man Commission tasked with investigating the local system of public works he wrote its Report. Unfortunately a few years later he was obliged to retire and return to the U.K. because of ill health, but he retained sufficient interest in Indian affairs to publish A Short account of the measures proposed ... for the restoration of the Indian Exchanges in 1882 under the pseudonym 'An ex-Madras Civilian'. He died in Tunbridge Wells in the following year aged seventy two.
 
So far, so conventional - Bourdillon's life and achievements were not radically different from other early Victorian servants of the Raj. One of his children, however, was to travel down a very different path.

This was his son Francis Wright Bourdillon, known as Frank, who was born in Madras on 7 November 1851. He appears first to have tried his hand at earning a living as a coffee planter, but also being a talented amateur artist he decided to leave India and undergo training at the Slade School of Art in London, following this with some time in the centre of the contemporary painterly universe, Paris.

Bourdillon On Bideford Sands 'On Bideford Sands' by Frank Bourdillon from The art-journal March 1890 Noc

After returning to England he settled in Cornwall, where in 1887 he became a member of the Newlyn School, a colony of artists who were stimulated by the local scenery, residents, and light quality (not to say the cost of living). His style may well have been influenced by the example of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Thomas Cooper Gotch who was living in Newlyn at the same time, as can be discerned in works such as The Jubilee Hat, Duel on Bideford Sands and Aboard the 'Revenge'. We shall no doubt never know whether his artistic career was in some sense an act of rebellion against his upbringing, or if his family encouraged him in such endeavours.
 
There are two more twists and turns to record. In 1892 he all but abandoned art and went back to the land of his birth to work not as an administrator but as a Christian missionary. Eventually, however, he left India and died in the quintessentially English venue of Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, in 1924. 

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services 

Further reading: 
J.D. Bourdillon's application to Haileybury IOR/J/1/42/280-290, available on FindMyPast
F.W. Bourdillon's baptism IOR/N/2/30/568, available on FindMyPast
J.D. Bourdillon, First report of the Commissioners … digitised on Explore the British Library
J.D. Bourdillon, A Short account of the measures proposed ... for the restoration of the Indian Exchanges, London, 1882, shelfmark 8228.dd.22
 

27 February 2018

Papers of Charles and Charlotte Canning

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In 2013 the British Library acquired the papers of Charles Canning (1812-1862) and his wife Charlotte (1817-1861) together with the papers of Charles’s father George Canning (1770-1827), Britain’s shortest serving Prime Minister. Charles Canning held posts in successive British Governments of the 1840s and 1850s. But he is most well-known as Governor General and first Viceroy of India.

Charles-John-Canning-Earl-CanningCharles John Canning, Earl Canning by Henry Hering. From albumen carte-de-visite, late 1850s-early 1860s NPG x25261
© National Portrait Gallery, London CC NPG

Appointed in 1855, Charles Canning arrived in Calcutta on 29 February 1856 to succeed Lord Dalhousie. In a prophetic speech to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London, Canning had said “I wish for a peaceful time in office, but… We must not forget that in the sky of India, serene as it is, a cloud may arise, at first no bigger than a man’s hand, but which growing bigger and bigger, may at last threaten to overwhelm us with ruin” [Maclagan p.21]. He had been in India for a year when disturbances broke out amongst the Indian sepoys of the Bengal Army. This was the start of the uprising known as the’ Indian Mutiny’.

‘Clemency’ Canning was severely criticised both in Britain and in India for being too lenient in his punishment of those involved in the uprising, particularly sepoys not involved in violence. Canning refused to exact vengeance upon the general population.

The events of 1857-58 had profound consequences for the governance of India. In 1858, the rule of the East India Company was transferred directly to the Crown. Canning became India’s first Viceroy, acting as the British monarch’s representative.

MSS EUR F699-1-1-2-4-87Mss Eur F699/1/1/2/4 f.87

Canning’s period in office was one of reform. Indian finances were given an overhaul, with new taxes and a new paper currency. There was reform of the Executive and Legislative Councils in India, and the first Indian members were appointed to Council in 1861.

Wide reaching reforms were experienced by the Army too. Many European troops returned to Britain rather than transfer from Company to Crown, and in 1860 the East India Company’s European forces were amalgamated with those of the British Army.

MSS EUR F699 on shelvesMss Eur F699/1/1 Governor General’s Papers

The Canning papers have been catalogued and re-packaged to enable them to be used by researchers. They comprise 155 volumes, 222 boxes and 9 oversize portfolios. The bulk of the collection originated in India and relates to Canning’s time as Governor General, although the collection includes material relating to Charles Canning’s early career, and to the Canning family.

The Indian papers include letters between Canning and principal officers of Government in both India and England, as well as letters between Canning and Regional Governors. There are formal Minutes, day to day telegrams, and Miscellaneous Correspondence. A significant part of the collection comes from the offices of Canning’s Private Secretary and his Military Secretary, and these include day to day correspondence, telegrams, applications for positions, and subject papers. The papers also cover the Persian campaign of 1856-57 and the China Expedition of 1860, and there is material from Pegu and Rangoon.

Charlotte-Canning-ne-Stuart-Countess-CanningCharlotte Canning (née Stuart), Countess Canning by Henry Hering.  From albumen carte-de-visite, c.1860 NPG x45082 © National Portrait Gallery, London CC NPG

The collection also contains papers of Charlotte, Lady Canning, including family correspondence, and papers originating in India such as letters and diaries.  There is a noteworthy correspondence between Charlotte Canning and Queen Victoria, whom she served as a Lady of the Bedchamber (1842-55), and papers relating to Lady Canning's interests in nursing, education, and charity work. Charlotte Canning's papers will be explored in more detail in a future blog post. 

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer Modern Archives & Manuscripts

Further reading:
Mss Eur F699 Papers of Charles Canning and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning
M. Maclagan, ‘Clemency’ Canning: Charles John, 1st Earl Canning, Governor-General and Viceroy of India (London: Macmillan & Co., 1962)
William Gould, The Indian papers of the Rt. Hon. Charles John, Earl Canning: an introduction to the microfilm edition (Microform Academic Publishers, 2007)

 

22 February 2018

Mr Robertson and the Great Stupa at Amaravati

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In the British Museum’s Asahi Shimbun Gallery there is a permanent display of sculptures from Amaravati Stupa. These beautifully carved limestone sculptures originally surrounded a massive Buddhist monument in Andhra Pradesh, India. It was constructed between the 3rd Century BC and the 3rd Century AD. When Buddhism’s popularity in southern India went into decline, the Great Stupa at Amaravati became disused, and was eventually abandoned.

1 Asahi Shimbun GalleryThe recently reopened Asahi Shimbun Gallery in the British Museum. Noc

In 1816-17 a British survey team excavated Amaravati Stupa’s remains, and in 1859, 121 of the stupa’s sculpted stones were shipped to the British Museum. What few people realise is that some unusual things happened to these precious sculptures in the four decades between these two events.

 2a IMG_1743King standing with attendants -  in the Asahi Shimbun Gallery.Noc

2b WD1061f13largeKing standing with attendants - drawing taken during the 1816/17 excavation. WD1061, f.13.Noc

2c photo958 23b detailKing standing with attendants - photograph by Linnaeus Tripe taken at Madras in 1856, before it was sent to London. Photo 958/(23b). Noc

Francis W. Robertson was the East India Company’s Assistant Collector at Masulipatam from 1817 to 1819. Masulipatam was the closest seaport to Amaravati, and Robertson knew the man in charge of the stupa’s excavation in 1816-17. Together, they made plans to beautify Masulipatam’s market place by building a monument out of Amaravati sculptures.

The resulting monument, known locally as “Robertson’s Mound”, was probably completed in around 1819. It attracted virtually no outside attention until 1830, when the Governor of Madras, Sir Frederic Adam, paid a visit to Masulipatam. Adam wanted to establish a museum in Madras Presidency, and upon seeing Robertson’s Mound in the market place, he gave orders for it to be dismantled so the sculptures could be deposited in the new museum, once it was created.

3a IMG_1741Horse walking through gate - in the Asahi Shimbun Gallery. Noc

3b WD1061f28largeHorse walking through gate - drawing taken during the 1816/17 excavation. WD1061, f.28. Noc

3c photo958 32b detailHorse walking through gate - photograph by Linnaeus Tripe taken at Madras in 1856, before it was sent to London-  Photo 958/(32a). Noc

Over 20 years later, the Madras Government Museum was finally established. In 1854 the stones from Robertson’s Mound, along with some other sculptures from Amaravati, were sent to Madras. 121 of them were sent to the British Museum in 1859. By looking at drawings, photographs and other documentation in the British Library, one can identify which of the British Museum’s 121 Amaravati sculptures were part of Robertson’s Mound. One can also ascertain the condition of these sculptures before and after they were attached to this curious and short-lived monument.

4a IMG_1759Man and woman standing next to a horse - in the Asahi Shimbun Gallery. Noc

4b WD1061f31largeMan and woman standing next to a horse - drawing taken during the 1816/17 excavation. WD1061, f.31.Noc

4c photo958 31 detailMan and woman standing next to a horse - photograph by Linnaeus Tripe taken at Madras in 1856, before it was sent to London. Photo 958/(31). Noc

Jennifer Howes
Art Historian specialising in South Asia

Further reading:
Howes, Jennifer. “The Colonial History of Sculptures from Amaravati Stupa.”
In Hawkes, J. & Shimada, A. Buddhist Stupas in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Taylor, William. On the Elliot Marbles. Madras: 1856. (BL, V9700)
Tripe, Linnaeus. Photographs of the Elliot Marbles. Madras: 1858-9. (BL, Photo 958)

 

12 February 2018

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose: The man who became famous for his research on plants

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In the last blog post we left our fictional hero, the astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and his real-life counterpart, Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, on the fringes of Western sciences. The former fails to get international recognition for his discovery of the Little Prince’s asteroid because of his traditional Turkish clothes, the latter fails to get international recognition for his invention of a coherer that would enable wireless telegraphy because of his reluctance to patent his invention. It is now the year 1920, and things are about to change for both our heroes.

Eleven years after the astronomer’s disappointment at the International Astronomical Congress in 1909, a Turkish dictator passes a law that requires all Turkish citizens to dress in European clothes. So the astronomer returns to the congress in 1920 and repeats his demonstration, but this time “dressed with impressive style and elegance”; and this time round, “everybody accepted his report”. Also in 1920, Bose becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society. Eleven years after he was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention that paved the way for the radio, Bose has now arrived at the heart of Western scientific institutions.

Burlington_House_ILN_1873Burlington House, which housed the Royal Society 1873-1967. Via Wikimedia commons.

As Patrick Geddes writes, this “formal acceptance and recognition by his European peers” came to Bose as “the culmination of a series of discussions and incidents spread over two decades”. One such incident happened in 1901, when Bose presented his results on “Responses in the Living and Non-living”, which he published as a book in 1902, to the Royal Society. In his talk, Bose showed that external stimuli, such as poison or electricity, have a similar effect on living tissue, such as plants or muscle, and inorganic matter, such as iron oxide or tin. Bose recorded response curves for muscle, plant, and metal and was thus able to show comparable effects of external stimuli on animals, plants, and metals alike.

This was not only revolutionary, but also unacceptable to parts of his audience. Bose, the physicist, was crossing disciplinary boundaries to chemistry, biology, and physiology, and neither the chemists, nor the biologists nor, particularly, the physiologists were happy. He was asked to revise his paper and negate his own results about the electric response of plants, not because his experiments were scientifically unsound, but because Sir John Burdon Sanderson, a famous professor of physiology, did not believe what he had seen with his own eyes. After all, he had tried to obtain these results in his experiments, but never managed. How could a physicist from India possibly achieve what he had not?

PlantNice plant image, nothing to do with the text. Via the British Library Flickr Commons.

At this point of the story, it might come as no surprise that Bose refused to alter his paper, which was consequently not published in the Royal Society’s “Proceedings”. As before, Bose had to rely on time (and his colleagues) to catch up with him; and they did. Eventually. As Geddes writes about Bose’s award of the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1920: his experiments, which were “questioned and belittled in the first stage, have since added a marvellous new province to the empire of human knowledge”.

Christin Hoene

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent, and Researcher in Residence at the British Library