Notes on the Birds of Barrackpore Menagerie
The Institution for Promoting the Natural History of India was established by Governor-General Richard Wellesley at Barrackpore outside Calcutta in 1801. The aim was to increase Western scientific knowledge of the fauna of India, which Wellesley viewed as being ‘altogether unknown to the naturalists of Europe, or [which] have been imperfectly and inaccurately described’. The Institution was supervised initially by Dr Francis Buchanan (later Buchanan Hamilton), an East India Company surgeon and accomplished naturalist, and then by William Lloyd Gibbons, an assistant at the Calcutta Orphan School and member of the Bengal Asiatic Society. Animals and birds were collected and sent to Barrackpore for scientific study, the process of which included making descriptive notes and commissioning drawings, often from Indian artists. The Institution itself was short-lived, receiving little advocacy or financial support from the East India Company. Barrackpore Menagerie survived as a public attraction until 1878, when the animals and birds were transferred to Alipore, to what later became Calcutta Zoo.
Copies of many of the notes and drawings produced at Barrackpore are held at the British Library. Some were deposited directly with the East India Company by Buchanan Hamilton, others sent to London by Gibbons, and still others ended up at East India House via intermediaries such as Nathanial Wallich and Dr John Fleming. Drawings, notes, and physical specimens were housed as part of the India Museum, and many were worked on by Thomas Horsfield and Frederick Moore for their Catalogue of the birds in the Museum of the Honourable East India Company (London, 1854-58).
Two volumes of scientific notes made at Barrackpore Menagerie are in India Office Records and Private Papers, the first of which (Mss Eur D541) deals exclusively with birds. The notes were unbound, (or possibly dis-bound), which made it easier to consult the scientific writings alongside the drawings for identification purposes. Unfortunately, this did historically make it easier for items to stray, so when the notes were eventually bound, nine of the descriptions – nos. 1-7 and 90-92 – were lacking. Thankfully, the descriptions were numbered and with some research we have recently identified a small collection of bird descriptions relating to five birds of prey and two herons in the Colin Mackenzie Miscellaneous collection as being seven of the Buchanan Hamilton/Gibbons descriptions.
Our Visual Arts Department holds the drawings, and they are exquisitely detailed. They were drawn and painted by Indian artists such as Guru Dayal, Haludar, Mahangu Lal and Bishnu Prasad. East India Company librarians and curators in the 19th century gave each of the natural history drawings in their care a running number in red ink. The drawings that relate to birds of Barrackpore, as described in Mss Eur D541, are NHD2/186-284, otherwise known as the G & B (Gibbons & Buchanan) Collection. Additional bird, mammal, and reptile drawings by Buchanan Hamilton are found in NHD3/311-536, the Buchanan Collection, and these relate to descriptions held in the second volume of notes from the Barrackpore Menagerie (Mss Eur D94).
The British Library’s newly opened exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound includes an important volume of watercolours of Gangetic fish, commissioned by Buchanan Hamilton and made by the artist Haludar. These were published in An Account of the Fishes found in the river Ganges and its branches, etc. (Edinburgh, 1822), which remains a seminal work on Indian fish species.
Cataloguer, India Office Records
India Office Records and Private Papers - Dr Francis Buchanan Hamilton papers, including Journals of his Deputation from Bengal to Ava [Burma], 1795-1798; Observations on Nepal, 1802; Natural history observations and drawings made at the Barrackpore Menagerie; Notes, descriptions and natural history illustrations in preparation for Fishes of the Ganges; Catalogue of Dried Plants presented to the East India Company Museum; Reports, statistics, drawings and vocabularies produced during the Survey of Bengal (1807-1814). These have various references, including Mss Eur C12-14; Mss Eur D70-98; Mss Eur E68-73; Mss Eur G10-25.
Mss Eur D541: Description of Birds and Animals in the Barrackpore Menagerie, Volume I
Mss Eur D94: Description of Birds and Animals in the Barrackpore Menagerie, Volume II
Mss Eur D487: Description by Dr F Hamilton (formerly Buchanan) of Birds, Quadrupeds and Tortoises
Mss Eur D562/21: Lists of Drawings Birds & Quadrupeds, 1817-1820
NHD2/186-284: The 'G & B' (Gibbons & Buchanan) Collection. Ninety-nine drawings in laid down in an album of birds from India and the East Indies, in a collection formed under the supervision of Francis Buchanan (afterwards Buchanan-Hamilton) and William Lloyd-Gibbons
NHD3/311-536: Two hundred and twenty-six drawings in watercolour and pencil depicting 169 birds (151 separate drawings and 18 duplicates), 38 mammals and 19 reptilia from India and the East Indies
Thomas Horsfield and Frederic Moore, A catalogue of the birds in the Museum of the Hon. East-India Company (London, 1854-58)
Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library (London, 1962)
Sally Walker ‘Zoological Gardens of India’, Chapter 8 in Zoo and aquarium history: ancient animal collections to zoological gardens by Vernon N Kisling, Jr. (ed) (Boca Raton, Florida : CRC Press, 2001)
Salim Ali ‘Bird Study in India: Its History and its Important’, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol 6., No. 2 (April 1927), pp.127-139