Untold lives blog

121 posts categorized "Science and environment"

12 September 2023

How to smuggle an elephant

The British government benefitted greatly from a number of structures and processes already in place in the region of South Asia.  An important but not very celebrated one was the use of elephants as a hybrid of machinery and workforce.  Not only did they serve to transport products, they were also essential in routine industrial work like loading and unloading ships.

Photograph of elephants at work in Rangoon, moving stone blocksElephants at work in Rangoon. Photographer Philip Adolphe  Klier (1845-1911) British Library Photo 88/1(22) 

Elephants at work in India, moving heavy objects

Elephants at work from Annie Brassey, The Last Voyage - to India and Australia, in the ‘Sunbeam’, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1889, pp.131 (W51/1046)


Because of their crucial function in the carrying out of human plans, elephants were highly valued.  That made interest and research in those animals flourish and even encouraged the development of vaccines.  However, the knowledge produced was highly focused on productivity and disregarded most local knowledge.

Drawings of four elephants showing their diseasesElephants and their diseases: a treatise on elephants. British Library Or 13916 (f.2r)

The importance of elephants made them vulnerable not only to exploitation but also to smuggling and fraud.  A file in the India Office Records holds correspondence associated with the case of Mr Dalrymple-Clark, Superintendent of the Government kheddas, enclosures to tame and keep wild elephants.

Military officers supervising the rounding up of elephants in Ceylon Capturing elephants in Ceylon. c.1825. Military officers supervising the rounding up of elephants. British Library WD2096 

Ian Hew Warrender Clark was born in Chelsea on 1 December 1853, the son of Colonel John Clark and Charlotte Sophia Dalrymple.  He later changed his surname to Dalrymple-Clark.  On 26 November 1873 Dalrymple-Clark joined the Bengal Police Department.  He was promoted to District Superintendent in July 1886, and then appointed Superintendent of Kheddas in Burma in October 1902, a position of responsibility.  However Dalrymple-Clark apparently profited from selling government elephants privately under the name of a Mr Green.  Dalrymple-Clark was said to have reported that an outbreak of anthrax had killed 26 elephants, giving him cover to sell them to private companies in the region himself.  That resulted in him being chased in India and London by deputy superintendent Mr Soord.  Having retired to England, he was arrested in London in December 1909 under the Fugitive Offenders Act and prosecuted for breach of trust and falsification of accounts.

Letter concerning enquiry into Dalrymple-Clark - first page Letter concerning enquiry into Dalrymple-Clark - second pageEnquiry regarding Dalrymple-Clark IOR/L/PJ/6/504, File 456


In early 1910, Dalrymple-Clark returned to face trial in Rangoon.  In July, after a trial involving an elephant identity parade, he was found not guilty of criminal breach of trust.  In February 1911 he was cleared of falsifying elephant returns.  His assistant superintendent, John Briscoe Birch, and two Indian members of staff, Mukerji and Gupta, were convicted of criminal breach of trust and sentenced to five years in prison.

The India Office Records holds published and manuscript material from circa 1600 to 1948 and relating to the British experience in India, including both official and private papers.  The Legal Adviser’s Records (IOR/L/L) hold the records of cases of legal dispute in British territory in South Asia.  That material is invaluable in providing interesting insights into local entanglements between human, animal and environmental agents.

Bianca Miranda Cardoso
Manuscripts Cataloguer

Further reading:
IOR/L/L/8/178 Correspondence associated with the case of Dalrymple-Clarke, prosecuted for breach of trust and falsification of accounts regarding Government elephants and arrested in London under the Fugitive Offenders Act, Dec 1909-Oct 1911.
IOR/L/PJ/6/1061, File 432 - Allowances for Mr Soord while on deputation to England in connection with the criminal prosecution of Mr Dalrymple-Clark.
British Newspaper Archive- many articles on the ‘Kheddah cases’
Colonizing elephants: animal agency, undead capital and imperial science in British Burma | BJHS Themes | Cambridge Core 2, 169-189. 
Saha, J. (2021). Vital Resources. In Colonizing Animals (pp. 51-82). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
How to ship your elephant 

 

21 February 2023

Well-being and living conditions in tropical climates

The India Office Economic Department series of annual files contains much interesting material, for example IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 of 1920: ‘Research bearing upon the well-being and conditions of lives of natives and residents of the United Kingdom in the tropical climates’.  The file includes correspondence between departments and the conclusions of the research ‘Note on Housing in the Tropics’ by Andrew Balfour and ‘Notes on Tropical Climate and Health’ by Leonard Hill, 20 March 1920.

The research notes demonstrate that there are already strategies in place that the locals use to cope with the heat and humidity such as sirdabs or tykhanas, i.e. underground chambers.  However, they are ‘not bearable to the European’ because the air remains stagnated unless there is an electric operating punkah, a ceiling cloth fan.

Mrs Gladstone Lingham reading under a punkah in a comfortably furnished room at Berhampore.Mrs Gladstone Lingham reading under a punkah in a comfortably furnished room at Berhampore WD2904 (1863) British Library Images Online

Therefore, the goal of the document is to look for the best choices in house orientation, design, construction and hygiene.  The authors make clear that regional variations should be taken into consideration when implementing the suggestions, mostly regarding proximity to the Equator, proximity to the sea and humidity.

The recommendations involve having a good water and food supply, effective waste disposal and choosing light colours.  In terms of construction, it is important to bear in mind the direction of prevailing winds and how close the building needs to be to other buildings and settlements.  The building should sit in permeable and clean soil, if possible it should be elevated and have good natural drainage, good circulation of air and plenty of light, and far from large bodies of water to avoid excessive humidity.

Andrew Balfour compares the existing construction materials and presents the available advantages and disadvantages of concrete and cement in comparison with wood and the common mixture of mud and manure. He suggests ‘double walls’ with thin inner and outer layers made of cement with the space between filled with sand or asphalt to be heat and vermin proof.

He stresses the importance of shades and verandas, of high ceilings with openings to release the hot air and to leave some space between the roof and the ceiling that is ventilated and has screened openings to avoid vermin.

He also sees the benefit of sleeping in hammocks on the roof for the early risers.

Section of report about the benefit of sleeping in hammocks on the roofIOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 - Report, p.5.

Leonard Hill notes call attention to the importance of health to cope with the climate.

Notes on the dangers of mosquitoes  IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 - The dangers of mosquitoes, Hill's notes, p. 1.

He points out the importance of appropriate clothing, diet and exercise, since the weather might influence metabolism.

Notes on a tropical dietIOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 - tropical diet, Hill's notes, p.1.

The subject of alcohol consumption is brought up both in the report and notes as ‘club life’ might become a problem.

Notes on club life IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 - club life, Hill's notes, p.6.

He also advocates for the health benefits of a good tan.

Notes on the benefits of a sun tan IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1274 - sun tan, Hill's notes, p.6.

Although the reports present interesting ideas, both for mitigating tropical infectious diseases and for a better adaptation of people, European or otherwise, to tropical climate, the Medical Adviser disregarded the documents saying ‘there is nothing here which promises to be of any assistance to India’.

Extract from the Medical Adviser's report  15 May 1920. IOR/L/E/7/996, File 1264 - Medical Adviser's report, 15 May 1920.

Bianca Miranda Cardoso
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further reading:
The IOR/L/E/7 collection consists of 1567 volumes that bind the Annual Files of the Departments of:
• Revenue, Statistics and Commerce, 1882-1887
• Revenue and Statistics, 1887-1921
• Commerce and Revenue, 1921-1924; Economic and Overseas, 1924-1929.

Adaptation to different climate conditions has been mentioned in previous Untold Lives blog posts -
Severe weather hits Britain in January 1763 

Indian soldiers’ views of England during World War I sharing natives of India’s comments on the mostly wet and cloudy British weather.

 

01 September 2022

Percy Bysshe Shelley encounters the mountains of West Wales

A man of great personal charisma and thorough-going radicalism, Percy Bysshe Shelley – sleep-walker, hallucinator, someone who believed his own father had contemplated committing him to an asylum – may have been a hypochondriac living on his nerves.  But he was also a thinker and activist trying to bear witness to a new kind of environmentalist morality.  His ethics, often insufficiently recognised as such, engaged with the entirety of the natural world and viewed humankind as part of that whole.

Head and shoulders portrait of Percy Bysshe ShelleyPercy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) from Joseph Gostwick, English poets. Twelve essays ... With twelve portraits (London, 1876) British Library Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

While shifting focus from human relationships ran the risk of personal unreliability, it created space for the radical, pacifist vegetarianism Shelley first articulated in the Notes to Queen Mab (1813).  This dismisses even cooking as ‘screening… the horrors of the shambles’ : the register suggests visceral disgust, and his argument links a carnivorous diet to violence, criminality and war.  Formed by a Christian upbringing despite the atheism he embraced, Shelley revisits the Christian symbolism of man who ‘slays the lamb that looks him in the face’ in the accompanying poem, and implies the killing of any animal is a kind of moral cannibalism.

Over the next nine years, culminating in his unfinished ‘The Triumph of Life’, Shelley developed a poetics capable of rendering the quality of aliveness.  The famous invocation in ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1819) – ‘Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; /Destroyer and preserver’ – celebrates change as the agent of both life and death.  The idea of mutability as loss recurs in ‘Mutability’ and ‘Ozymandias’, for example.  But in poems of celebration like the Ode, ‘Mont Blanc’ and ‘Letter to Maria Gisborne’, flux becomes revolutionary life force.  Here, Shelley’s all-one-breath lines tend not to pause for sentence endings, but keep rushing onward through his em-dashes.  We sense the attempt to capture animation itself.

Cwm Elan House set in a grassy valley under mountainsCwm Elan from R. Eustace Tickell, The Vale of Nangwilt - a submerged valley (London, 1894)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

There’s a sense too that clustered ideas are themselves already always in motion: social and political revolution, the new experimental scientific sense of a natural, not supernatural, animating life force, the personal quest for meaning.  In reality of course these developed by stages.  The poet’s schoolboy chemistry is well-known.  Arguably less familiar is his encounter with the landscape of the Elenydd in west Wales, which I’ve explored while researching the original radicalism of the Romantic encounter with the natural world.  Sent down from Oxford for atheism, in July 1811 Shelley went to stay on an uncle’s estate, Cwm Elan, in the ‘highly romantic’ Cambrian mountains. Five years before his first trip to the Alps, letters show him grappling with this experience.  On 26 July he wrote to Elizabeth Hitchener:

Rocks piled on each other to tremendous heights, rivers formed into cataracts by their projections, & valleys clothed with woods, present an appearance of enchantment— but why do they enchant, why is it more affecting than a plain, it cannot be innate, is it acquired?

Atheism may have entailed his desire to locate meaning.  But the sense that it could be found either within or outside human observers implicates them in the natural world and its goings-on.  This interactive sense of being alive within the living world is a key Romantic step: the same one being taken a little earlier, in Germany, by Romantic Idealist philosophies.  As Shelley would articulate this five years later, in ‘Mont Blanc’:

The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves…

‘Rapid waves’ indeed.  By 1904, as if to illustrate Shelleyian mutability, both Cwm Elan and nearby Nantgwyllt, to which Shelley brought his new wife in 1812, had vanished under Birmingham Corporation’s controversial reservoirs.

Cwm Elan House in the Elan Valley with the rising waters of the Caban Coch reservoir very close to the front of the houseCwm Elan House in the Elan Valley in a postcard view of 1903 with the rising waters of the Caban Coch reservoir very close to the front of the house. © Powys County Archives Office 2022 People's Collection Wales

 

Professor Fiona Sampson
Fiona Sampson’s new book is Starlight Wood: walking back to the Romantic countryside (Little, Brown, September 2022).

Further reading:
Percy Bysshe Shelley biography
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley's A Vindication of the Natural Diet

 

09 August 2022

Sanitary technology at East India House and the India Office

In a previous post, we looked at issues of sanitation at the Fort William Garrison in Bengal, which included a description and plan for new urinals.  This is not the only reference to urinals in the India Office Records and Private Papers.  The East India Company was also concerned with improvements in sanitation closer to home.  In 1851, the Company headquarters was East India House in Leadenhall Street in the City of London, a building that had been remodelled and extended at the end of the 18th century.  By 1851, in light of new sanitary technology, improvements were required.  A report from the Clerk of Works recommended that the urinals near the General Court Room be upgraded.  They needed to be enlarged and fitted 'with enamelled slate Partitions, with the doors acting to throw a jet of water each time it is used'.  The Clerk had done his research, having viewed the urinals at the House of Lords and at the City of London Club House, but in his opinion by far the best design was those in use at the South Eastern Railway Station (London Bridge) and these he proposed be replicated at East India House.  The bill for the works, presented at a Finance and Home Committee Meeting on 18 February 1852, was for £64 16s.

Plan A - diagram for fitting up urinalsPlan A included in IOR/L/SUR/6/6, ff.259-265: Account submitted for fitting up 2 sets of urinals 25 April 1884 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 1858 the India Office took over from the East India Company, and the newly formed Government department moved in 1867 into a purpose built building in Whitehall designed by George Gilbert Scott.  By 1883, plans were put forward to improve the sanitary fittings, and approval was sought for initial works to be carried out on urinals in both the basement and on the second floor, as an ‘experiment’.  It was agreed that the basement was problematic, being the area 'where there is the most difficulty in securing careful usage', and as such required urinals proposed in Plan A, with a continuous water flow.  For the second floor urinals, where 'sufficient care and cleanliness in the use of the urinals can be depended on', plan B was to be used which employed an overflow system into a slate channel.  Again, the Clerk of the Works had done his homework, and Plan B was based on a similar system employed at the Bank of England.  The refurbishment was considered 'a great improvement as to cleanliness, and that [the urinals]… can more easily be kept in order and in good repair', and as such funds were authorised for works to be extended throughout the building.  In 1885, the total costs of the project were reported as £473 5s 9d compared to the original estimate of £450.

Plan B - diagram for fitting up urinalsPlan B included in IOR/L/SUR/6/6, ff.259-265: Account submitted for fitting up 2 sets of urinals 25 April 1884 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

It is interesting to note that the sanitation works at the India Office included improvements in water re-use.  Waste water from the hydraulic lift system was stored in a cistern and was used for flushing both WCs and urinals.  But when the lifts were used frequently, the cistern achieved capacity and the excess water literally went down the drain at Charles Street.  Changes to the pipes and plumbing were put in place to move more of the waste water around the building and so use more of it for flushing.

On a final note, for anyone interested in researching sanitation and sanitary conditions in our records, it is always useful to search using a variety of contemporary terms.  Think ‘lavatories’ and ‘privies’ as well as ‘urinals’.  You never know what you might find.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further Reading:
IOR/L/SUR/1/1, ff.117-118: Finance & Home Committee 16 April 1851. Alterations to Urinals.
IOR/L/SUR/1/1, f.157: Finance & Home Committee 18 February 1852: New urinals.
IOR/L/SUR/6/6, ff.259-265: Account submitted for fitting up 2 sets of Urinals for the India Office and recommendations for fitting up others, 25 April 1884, includes plan A and plan B.
IOR/L/SUR/6/7, ff.5-6: Accounts submitted for fitting up urinals and altering supply pipes to Lavatory basins in the India Office 16 March 1885.

 

04 August 2022

Soldiers’ gardens in India

There were two kinds of soldiers’ gardens in British India: regimental and company.  Regimental gardens were worked by the men for fixed rates of pay, or by local people under supervision, and they supplied vegetables for the military commissariat department or the local market.  They were situated at a convenient distance from the barracks.  Company gardens were worked solely by the soldiers for their own amusement and benefit, and they were located in the immediate vicinity of the barracks.

Plan of proposed site for a soldiers’ garden at Rangoon 1850s

Plan of proposed site for a soldiers’ garden at Rangoon, surveyed by John Richard Magrath, Madras Artillery, 1850s - British Library IOR/W/F/4/2648/172549 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

All proceeds from the sale of produce from a regimental garden were paid into a fund managed by a committee of three officers.  Working expenses were drawn from the fund – repair of tools, well gear, or walls and fences; seeds; pay for Indians to work the well.  The balance was divided between the soldiers working in the garden in proportion to their skill and industry, and the produce of their labour.  Annual accounts were accompanied by a statement giving full information about the working of the garden, the number of men employed, and the effect on their character.

The military works services ensured a sufficient water supply to irrigate the gardens.  Cattle were used to work the wells.  The ordnance department supplied garden implements at set rates.

Commanding officers submitted annual requisitions for flower and vegetable seeds to the superintendents of botanical gardens at Saharanpur, Calcutta, and Poona.  The superintendents made notes on the cover of each package of seeds – name, quantity, month for sowing.  Seed potatoes were supplied free of charge by the army commissariat.

Cash prizes for soldiers’ gardens were awarded by the government according to a scale laid down in army regulations.  The distribution was treated as a fête and a holiday for the men.  A band played and the regimental school’s children attended.  Officers were told to make a point of being present at the distribution of prizes.

When new troops moved into the barracks, regimental and company gardens were inspected, and the cost of any necessary repairs to surrounding walls, fences or tools was paid from the garden fund.  The incoming corps had to purchase the fruit trees and any crops in the ground.  One week before the march of regiment, the commissariat officer employed native gardeners to keep up the gardens.  The gardeners were discharged a week after the arrival of the new corps.

Full instructions for the cultivation of gardens in India, both in the hills and on the plains, were contained in a pamphlet written by the superintendent of the government botanical garden at Saharanpur.  Commanding officers could buy the pamphlet at the cost of one rupee per copy.

Gardens for native troops might also be sanctioned at newly occupied trans-frontier stations and remote places lacking local supplies of fresh vegetables.  In these cases, the government gave a grant of money to purchase land, tools, stock the garden with seed, and pay the wages of a mali for one year.  Commanding officers were responsible for these gardens being managed as self-supporting after the first year.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
British Library, IOR/L/MIL/17/5/633 Army Regulations India Vol XII Barracks (1900)

 

14 July 2022

Sanitation at the Fort William Garrison

The Garrison at Fort William was not a particularly healthy place in 1860.  The proportion of its inhabitants sick in hospital was the highest for any station in Bengal, save for Dum Dum.  ‘Offensive smells’ were rife, and living quarters below rampart level were particularly noxious in the hot and rainy seasons due to poor air circulation.  A Sanitation Committee, which included the Deputy Inspector General of the Hospital, the Garrison Surgeon, and the Garrison Surveyor, had been looking at the issues for a number of years.  Fort William suffered from a number of structural problems due in part to an insufficient fall in elevation for drainage.  The privies leaked, the drains mainly opened into the ‘cunette’ or wet ditch, which had a propensity to silt up (but not with silt), and the Fort’s water supply was insufficient. 

View of the interior of Fort William Calcutta looking east across the courtyard towards Chowringhee Gate and Chowringhee Road View of the interior of Fort William Calcutta looking east across the courtyard towards Chowringhee Gate and Chowringhee Road by William Wood, William (1828) Shelfmark: WD3755 British Library Online Gallery Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Committee also viewed the behaviour of the men themselves as a problem – there were too many ways in which alcohol could be brought into the Fort, and too many ways in which the men could sneak out to the local grog shops at Hastings and Kidderpore Bridges.  The Medical Officers were of the opinion ‘… that almost every fatal case of cholera has been immediately traced to intemperance…’.

Dalhousie Barracks & Fort William in CalcuttaPhotograph of Dalhousie Barracks & Fort William, c 1859. Photo 147/1(49) part 1 Images Online

Number one on the suggested list of improvements were the privies.  A new standard plan for privies was to be introduced in the various barracks, the hospital, and places in the Garrison such as the arsenal.  In addition,  a new type of urinal was to be installed; unfortunately, a fully enamelled version could not be sourced in India, and would have to requisitioned from England.  In the meantime, a patented portable urinal could be purchased from Mr Lazarus of Cossitollah.  ‘The upper circular receiving basin is enamelled ware and empties into a strong iron Cylinder below.  Rings at the sides enable the whole to be carried away by means of a pole passing through them.  The main objection to this urinal is that the lower Cylinder – not being enamelled, rapidly corrodes.  It is however well adapted to meet the present requirements, and accordingly 100 are now being supplied for the use of the Barrack floors. Privies etc. in the Fort’.

Plan of patented urinalsPlan of patented urinals - Mss Eur F699/1/3/2/30, item 473 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Additionally, gutter-shaped glazed tiles from Doulton and Co. of London were to be installed in the privies and urinals ‘generally wherever the offensive matter is likely to come into contact with the ground’ as they were ‘guaranteed to stand the action of the most powerful acids’.  The Committee were also keen to increase the supply of disinfectants, suggesting liberal use of both charcoal and chloride of lime.

As for excessive drinking of liquor within and without the Garrison, a carrot and stick approach was taken.  There was to be greater enforcement of the Regulations of 1850, which limited each man to two drams of spirits per day, and the number of regimental canteens supplying alcohol was to be reduced.  Gate searches were to be increased.  To prevent soldiers sneaking out, more sentries were to be posted and repairs made to the ramparts to prevent climbing; in addition glass was to be set in mortar ‘at the top of the escarp’.  There was to be investment in ‘works connected with the amusement and instruction of the soldiers in the Garrison’.  These included the provision of skittle alleys, a gymnasium, a theatre, and a Garrison library.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Mss Eur F699/1/3/2/30, item 460: Proceedings of a Committee Held at Fort William by order of His Excellency Hugh Rose, G.C.B. Commander in Chief, to report on the Sanitary Condition of the Hospital and of the Fort. 13 Jun 1860.
Mss Eur F699/1/3/2/30, item 461: Statement of the work accomplished or under orders of the Fort William Special Committee, 2 Jun 1860. Prepared by Major R H Sankey, Officiating Garrison Engineer
Mss Eur F699/1/3/2/30, item 473: Letter by Major R H Sankey, Garrison Engineer, to Brigadier M Smith, Commanding Fort William, 16 Jul 1860
IOR/E/4/852, p.957: Despatches to India and Bengal, Jun-Jul 1858. Opinion of authorities as to the necessity of privies.
Army Medical Department. Statistical, Sanitary and Medical Reports for the year 1862 (London: Harrison & Sons, 1864) 

 

21 June 2022

The Cost of Living Crisis, Part 3: The Price of Whale Oil

For hundreds of years the British hunted whales for their oil, blubber and bone.  Whales provided lubricant for machinery during the industrial revolution, fuel for lamps, and their baleen could be used as parts for everyday items such as corsets and umbrellas.  Traditionally the British whaling grounds lay to the north where Northern Right whales and Bowhead whale were hunted, but the prized sperm whale oil called ‘spermaceti’ would see the expansion of the trade into the southern seas.

Ink drawing of a sperm whaleInk drawing of a sperm whale from ‘A Voyage for Whaling and Discovery’ by James Colnett, f.141, Add MS 30369

The expansion of British whaling grounds is intimately tied up with the history of Empire and oil prices were often impacted by the gains and losses of colonies.  The eruption of the American Revolutionary War had a massive effect on the British whale oil trade, depleting output and raising prices.  Much of the whale oil trade had come out of the British colonies in North America, but with the advent of the war this was almost completely shut down.  At the end of the war the British wanted to create more self-sufficiency in terms of oil supply.  The American trade bounced back and the British wanted to compete in a buoyant market, so Britain imposed import duties on US oil and created the Southern Fisheries trade, focusing British whaling on the mid and south Atlantic, the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Accounts of Imports and Exports of Whale Oil showing a heavy trade deficit at the beginning of the Southern Fisheries TradeAccounts of Imports and Exports of Whale Oil showing a heavy trade deficit at the beginning of the Southern Fisheries Trade, Add MS 38352, f.123.

Notes on Acts of Parliament passed to encourage the expansion of whaling in the South SeasNotes on Acts of Parliament passed to encourage the expansion of whaling in the South Seas, 1791. Add MS 38350, f.262.

British Guiana, Madras, South Africa and Australia in the early 1800s further contributed to the whale oil trade.  They introduced landing points for ships working along the tropical latitudes pursuing the more lucrative sperm whale with its more valuable oil.  British whaling became a global enterprise and those staffing whaling ships were multinational and multi-ethnic.  Crews encompassed employed and indentured sailors, as well as enslaved and free African men.  Given the arduousness of the work, employers could not afford to refuse whalers whatever their background, therefore whaling ships were a popular destination from those escaping or freed from slavery during the 18th century.

However the War of 1812 interrupted the trade and temporarily sent the price of whale oil upwards again.  It was not until the end of the war that whaling returned without obstacles.  Production sky-rocketed to the point of over-supply, causing a glut and a fall in its value in the late 1830s.  The home-grown British whaling trade started to decline as more and more colonial oil was bought in from Australia and the government decided against further propping up the London-based trade.

Newpaper clipping describing the sale of whale oil at its highest price ever  4 September 1813Newspaper clipping describing the sale of whale oil at its highest price ever, 4 September 1813, Leeds Mercury, British Newspaper Archive, Image © The British Library Board.

A combination of free-trade policy with the Americans and the colonies decreased investors' interest in British-based whaling, and, as well as this, whale stocks were failing after hundreds of years of hunting.  The British began to import the majority of oil and so were liable to market shocks in America, such as that caused by the American Civil War.

Extract from letter from Charles Enderby to Robert Peel lamenting the decline of the Southern Whale Fisheries and the dominance of the American industry  1846Extract from letter from Charles Enderby to Robert Peel lamenting the decline of the Southern Whale Fisheries and the dominance of the American industry, 1846, Add MS 40458, f.307.

British whaling would return in the 20th century and a global, mass-commercialised whaling would cause far more devastation to whale stocks than the London and Nantucket-based industries of previous centuries.

A second ink drawing of a sperm whale Ink Drawing of a Sperm Whale from ‘A Voyage for Whaling and Discovery’ by James Colnett, f.142, Add MS 30369

Jessica Gregory
Project Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

This blog post follows on from -
The cost of living crisis - part 1: Bread in 1795
The Cost of Living Crisis, Part 2: Inflation in 1800

Further Reading:
‘An Overview of the British Southern Whale Fishery’, Bruce Chatwin, 2016, British Southern Whale Fishery
IOR/G/32/163 East India Company papers on the Southern Whale Fishery
IOR/F/4/1373/54697 Establishment of a whale fishery by the inhabitants of St Helena, 1833

 

16 June 2022

Birds, Landscapes, and Letters: Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds in Madras

In 1802, Mary Symonds wrote to her sister Hester James from Madras (now Chennai), 'I hope now we are settled that I shall be able to send something for the curious by every opportunity'.

Painting of the coast near Madras showing the beach with small wooden boatsMary Symonds, Coast Near Madras, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album PIC106.78

Mary had accompanied her sister, the talented ornithologist and painter Elizabeth Gwillim, and Elizabeth's husband Henry Gwillim, a judge in the new Supreme Court of Madras.   The materials the sisters sent home provide a uniquely detailed picture of their work and lives between 1801 and 1808.  In the British Library, four thick volumes contain the sisters' 77 long letters; at McGill University, 164 zoological and botanical paintings represent their scientific work; at the South Asia Collection in Norwich, 78 landscapes and portraits depict their surroundings.

Ink sketch of Elizabeth Gwillim at her writing deskElizabeth Gwillim at her writing desk, sketch in a letter to Hester James, 7 February 1802 Mss.Eur.C.240/1, ff. 33r-38v, f. 36v.

Elizabeth Gwillim was the first to record the avian life of Madras in detail.  Decades before John James Audubon, she painted birds from life and to scale, even the large birds of prey and waterbirds which dominate her collection.  Mary's descriptions and paintings document Elizabeth's artistic process and reveal the crucial role of the Indian bird-catchers who secured the living birds.  Elizabeth's paintings pay unusual attention to the placement of the bird's features and reveal a taxonomical rather than purely artistic interest.  A similar attention to detail is evident in the watercolours of fish, most by Mary Symonds.  The fish paintings reveal a collaborative process of information gathering and several are inscribed with the fishes’ local names.

Two Indian birdcatchersMary Symonds, Birdcatchers, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album, PIC 106.66

Black StorkElizabeth Gwillim, Black Stork Ciconia nigra (Linnaeus 1758) McGill University Library, CA RBD Gwillim-1-010

Painting of Moon wrasse fishMary Symonds, Thalassoma lunare (Moon wrasse, labelled Julis lunaris), McGill University Library, CA RBD Gwillim-2-5

In 1805, Elizabeth wrote 'without some little knowledge of Botany it is impossible to read the Hindoo languages'.  Like her contemporary, William Jones, Elizabeth regarded linguistic and botanical studies as intertwined.  Elizabeth studied Telugu, translating a local temple legend.  She was part of the circle of missionary and medical botanists who linked Madras and the Danish settlement of Tranquebar and she sent plants and seeds back to a nursery garden in Brompton where several grew and were depicted in Curtis' Botanical Magazine.  One of her most detailed botanical images, of the Magnolia coco, remains in the Linnean Society herbarium. 

Magnolia coco'Gwillimia Indica' (Magnolia coco) by Elizabeth Gwillim, Linnean Society Herbarium (LINN-HS 981.10. Magnolia indet. (Herb Smith)), by permission of the Linnean Society of London

Apart from their scientific pursuits, the sisters' letters and paintings provide a wealth of details about food, clothing, and the lives of Madras' inhabitants, from Governor Edward Clive to Elizabeth's maidservant, whose biography she relates in detail.

A Lady’s Maid - an Indian woman dressed in white carrying a basketMary Symonds, A Lady’s Maid, A Pariah Woman, The South Asia Collection, Norwich, Madras and Environs Album, PIC106.75


The early 19th century was a turning point in the East India Company's regime in India.  The Company was completing its conquest of Mysore, the Carnatic, and the Thanjavur Maratha kingdom.  However, the tenuous nature of British rule was dramatically highlighted by the uprising at Vellore in July 1807, in which Indian soldiers killed their British commanders and took over the fort, raising the flag of Mysore before the uprising was brutally repressed.  Elizabeth and Mary collected first-hand accounts of the event, for which they blamed Company policy.  By the time of Elizabeth's death in 1807, the Gwillim household had been drawn into conflict with the Company regime in Madras, which Henry Gwillim denounced as 'despotic'.  This prompted Henry's recall to Britain, where he and Mary made new lives.  The story of their time in Madras has remained largely untold until now.

Anna Winterbottom
McGill University

To learn more:

• See the exhibition 'A Different Idea of India: Two Sisters Painting Southern India, 1801-1808', opening on 15 June at the South Asia Collection.  
• Visit the Gwillim Project website for transcriptions, case studies, webinars, and more.
• Read the original letters in the British Library manuscript India Office Private Papers Mss Eur C240/1-4.
• Read more about Elizabeth's botanical work on Kew's blog.
• Look out for the forthcoming book, Anna Winterbottom, Victoria Dickenson, Ben Cartwright, and Lauren Williams eds., Women, Environment and Networks of Empire: Elizabeth Gwillim and Mary Symonds in Madras (McGill Queen's University Press, 2023).

 

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