Untold lives blog

10 March 2014

Francis Hamilton’s fish from the Ganges

When Francis Hamilton was born (as Francis Buchanan) on 15 February 1762 on the estate of Bardowie in the county Sterling in Central Scotland no one would have guessed that he would later in his life play an outstanding role in the natural sciences as a pioneer in the study of the flora and fauna of India and Nepal.  After graduating at Glasgow University in 1779 at the age of 17, Francis studied medicine in Edinburgh and obtained his degree in 1783.  He joined the East India Company in 1794, a decision that had a major influence on his life and his career as naturalist.

In zoological circles he is famous for his monograph on the fishes of the Ganges, published in 1822 and based on the fishes he collected during his service with the East India Company in India and Nepal.  This big, two-volume opus contains the scientific descriptions of 271 species of fishes, mostly from fresh waters, and coloured illustrations of 97 of them that were made for him by local artists.  These drawings are among the most detailed and accurate fish illustrations of his time and his monograph is still considered one of the two most important works ever published on the Indian fish fauna.  Hamilton had originally a much larger number of his Gangetic fishes drawn while in India, but a substantial portion of these drawings were taken from him when he returned to Britain.  They remained in India where they were housed in the Royal Botanical Garden in Calcutta.

Because Hamilton’s work is the first comprehensive study of Indian fishes, a large number of the species he described are still valid today and his work is still of the same scientific importance as it was when it was published.  The identification of a large number of fishes from this area of the world relies to a significant extent on colour pattern and colouration in addition to anatomical characters.  While the pattern of markings is represented in Hamilton’s published monochrome plates, the actual colouration of the different species is not.  But it is, of course, represented in his original drawings.  Uncertainty about several of Hamilton’s species could be resolved with reference to the original colour drawings.  The British Library is in the fortunate position of having a set of original water colour drawings from Hamilton that show 103 species of his Gangetic fishes. Even a cursory look at the colouration of one of his illustrated species, the snakehead fish Ophiocephalus auranticaus, demonstrates the scientific importance of these coloured drawings.

  Snakehead fish
Ophiocephalus aurantiacus   Noc

Hamilton’s auranticaus is currently considered the same species as another of his snakehead species, O. gachua.  A comparison of the illustrations of the two, however, shows that auranticaus is a fish that is very different from gachua.

Fish - Ophiocephalus gachua
Ophiocephalus gachua Noc

Without doubt many more problems of this kind can be resolved with Hamilton’s original colour plates. There is currently a project under way to reprint Hamilton’s original colour plates and to make this important source available to the scientific community.

Ralf Britz
Fish Researcher, The Natural History Museum


Further reading:

Francis Hamilton, An Account of the Fishes found in the river Ganges and its branches, etc. (Edinburgh, 1822)

IOPP/Mss Eur E72 - 144 drawings in an album, depicting Gangetic fish. By an Indian artist supervised by Hamilton. 1798 - 1814



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