Untold lives blog

101 posts categorized "Science and environment"

11 June 2020

Strange News for Strange Times

We might feel like we’re living through a surreal period of strange news at the moment, but that’s nothing compared to some of the stories reported in news pamphlets of the early 17th century.  During this period reports of freak weather, unearthly sightings of ghosts, monstrous births and more were frequent.  The question is, did people living in the 17th century think these reports were as strange as we do today?

In 1616, news broke of three dead bodies rising from their graves in a town in Germany.  In the aftermath of a ‘tempest’, the townspeople believed they saw three corpses rising from the graveyard to preach a terrible warning about God’s wrath.  Rumours of this spread, pamphlets were printed across Europe and news of it eventually reached Edward Allde in London, where he printed this account.

Cover of Miraculous Newes featuring three skeletonsMiraculous newes, from the cittie of Holdt, in the Lord-ship of Munster (in Germany) the twentieth of September last past, 1616. Where there were plainly beheld three dead bodyes rise out of their graves, admonishing the people of judgements to come. London: Printed [by E. Allde] for John Barnyes, 1616. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As you can see, 'Miraculous Newes' is splashed across the half-title page, just as any sensational headline would be today, and a fantastic woodcut of the three skeletons is emblazoned below.  This incident may seem surreal to us today but then it would have been only too believable.  People in the early modern period were accustomed to interpreting strange sightings and weird phenomena as signs of divine judgement or wrath.  This was the only way they could interpret them.

So did people always believe these strange news reports?  Well, in 1620, Nathaniel Butter published a news report translated out of Italian about a vision seen over the Prophet Mohammad’s tomb in ‘Arabia’ and an account of the skies raining blood in Rome.

Cover of Good Newes to Christendome showing skies raining bloodCortano, Ludovico. Good newes to Christendome. Sent to a Venetian in Ligorne, from a merchant in Alexandria, Discovering a wonderfull and strange apparition, visibly seene for many dayes…with many other notable accidents. London: Printed for Nathaniel Butter, 1620. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In the preface, the translator writes that he found it hard to believe this account.  After all, other recent strange reports, such as the 'Sussex Serpent, the German Ghosts' (a reference to the pamphlet described above?) and a great army marching in the sky, all 'came out of the shop of invention'.  But he apparently realised his mistake and is now convinced that this vision isn’t fake news. This one is definitely true, and if it’s true, then it has to be a sign from God.

It wasn’t just ghosts and visions that were divine interventions either.  Extreme weather was also a likely sign from God.  This pamphlet is a 'true relation' of a storm and severe flooding in Barcelona and the surrounding area in November 1617.  The woodcut depicts people drowning in the floods.  It was only with much prayer and dipping of the Holy Cross into the water that the storm eventually abated.  The pamphlet ends with a reminder of God’s 'chastisements and warnings' and a warning to serve him with 'more truth and sinceritie'.

Cover of Newes from Spain showing people drowning in the floods

Rejaule, V. A true relation of the lamentable accidents, caused by the inundation and rising of Ebro, Lobregat, Cinca, and Segre, rivers of Spaine. Together with a narration of a fearefull storme, which happened the third of November, in the yeare 1617. In the haven and port of Barcelona. London: printed for William Blackwall, 1618.  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

These strange news reports that today we would brush off as fake news were in fact serious matters in the early modern period.  Whilst people may not have believed every incredible story, they were wary enough of divine judgement to certainly believe some.  Strange news reports like these became more prevalent in times of upheaval, anxiety and uncertainty, such as in the build-up to the English Civil War, as people didn’t know what to believe.  Surreal times generated surreal headlines, and we can certainly empathise with that.

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Sir Hans Sloane as a collector of “strange news”

23 April 2020

The rocky beginnings of Eddystone Lighthouse

Perched on the treacherous Eddystone Rocks 20 kilometres off Plymouth stands a lighthouse, the fourth to be built there. This extraordinary print measuring one metre is an etching of the first lighthouse by its designer, engineer Henry Winstanley.

Eddystone Lighthouse Edystone Light-house; etching, engraving and stipple by Henry Winstanley, 1699-1702. Shelfmark K.Top.11.114.a.2 TAB. Images Online Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


Winstanley (c.1644-1703), of Littlebury near Saffron Walden, had shares in a ship which, like many others, was wrecked on these rocks. He submitted to London’s Trinity House a design for the first offshore lighthouse in the world. It was accepted and supported by the Admiralty – hence the dedication to the Lord High Admiral of England in the allegorical cartouche at top left.

Next to it is the fascinating history of building the lighthouse between 1696 and 1699. Work could only progress during summer, and even then was often halted for weeks because of storm-force winds and waves up to 200 feet high. The builders were often stranded and nearly ran out of provisions on several occasions. At this time the Nine Years’ War was being waged, and the description omits an incident from 1697 when the crew of a French privateer vessel destroyed what had been built of the lighthouse, captured Winstanley and his companions, and transported them to France. They were later released by the orders of King Louis XIV, who announced: ‘We are at war with England, not with humanity’.

Text in an open book at top right provides navigational information for ships. The key underneath describes various parts of the building. Galleries were used to retrieve goods from boats below by using cranes, and for signalling to ships. A bedroom/dining room above the kitchen in the cupola contained lockers for storing candles. Inside the lantern a large hanging lamp and sixty additional burning candles provided the light. On the outside, there were wooden ornamental candlesticks on iron supports, and Winstanley recommended propping ladders against them when cleaning the windows! He even thought of including a chute for rolling stones at intruders to defend the landing place.

According to the inscription at the bottom of the sheet, Winstanley sold the print and showed a model of his lighthouse to visitors at his ‘Waterworks’ – a Water Theatre at Piccadilly he invented for the entertainment of a paying public, with water displays and fireworks.

Eddystone lighthouse blog  Image 2Edystone Light-house; etching, engraving and stipple by Henry Winstanley, 1699-1702, later state; detail showing text added to the original print after Winstanley‘s death in 1703. Nouveau Theatre de la Grande Bretagne,  Supplement volume, Plate LIV, London, 1728. Shelfmark 191.g.10-14. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


A later version of the print was published in the Supplement volume of Nouveau Theatre de la Grande Bretagne (1728). Here the previously blank leaf of the book at top right carries an inscription, telling us that the lighthouse was destroyed in a storm on 27 November 1703. Winstanley, who was supervising repairs on the structure, was swept away by the sea and never found.

Volume IV of Nouveau Theatre contains a print of the second Eddystone lighthouse, designed by John Rudyerd and completed in 1709. This lighthouse also came to a sad end: it was destroyed by fire on 2 December 1755. One of the three lighthouse keepers, Henry Hall aged 94, died from ingesting molten lead from the burning roof of the lantern.

John Smeaton’s third lighthouse from 1759 had to be dismantled after 120 years because the rocks below cracked. The present one by James Douglass was completed on an adjacent rock in 1882. All four lighthouses have fulfilled their function of keeping ships safe and preserving precious lives.

Marianne Yule
Curator of Prints and Drawings, British Library Western Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Biographical entry for Henry Winstanley in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Eddystone Lighthouse 
Winstanley’s Light

 

11 March 2020

Within a hair’s breadth of failure: John Houghton and the climate change report

This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020.

Among the papers of the climate scientist Sir John Houghton, (Add MS 89409) is a record of one of the most significant moments in either Houghton’s career or the history of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body set up by the United Nations in order to observe and respond to changes in the world’s climate.  It is a transcript of a meeting in Madrid, in late 1995, of Working Group I, the IPCC’s division for assessing the ‘physical science of climate change’.

At the time, the IPCC was preparing its second major report.  The contribution of Working Group I already existed in draft form, but its summary still needed finalising.  Did its phrasing – especially in its central assertion, that human activity is affecting the climate – reflect the scientific evidence?  As co-Chairman, Houghton was to oversee this fine-tuning, and, if possible, to guide the meeting towards a consensus.  This could never come at the cost of scientific integrity, but it seemed within reach, and worth striving for.

Transcript of the IPCC discussion, Madrid 1995Transcript of the IPCC discussion, Madrid 1995. (Add MS 89409/4/23), Copyright 2020 The British Library.

Houghton was prepared for robust debate, but admits that he had not anticipated the direction actually taken by the discussion, which the transcript records in a 238-page slab of twelve-point text (Add MS 89409/4/23).  On the first day, Houghton noticed a representative of the Global Climate Coalition, one of the invited non-governmental organisations, engaging certain delegates in conversation.  That this organisation was generally critical of the IPCC’s conclusions was not in itself a problem, but its being backed by ‘powerful parts of the US and international energy industry’ suggested certain non-scientific interests.  The next day, Houghton found that some of these delegates ‘wanted to weaken the statements about the extent of climate change’ and emphasise the ‘uncertainties about [its] causes’.

Houghton was frustrated because it was clear to him that their motives were political, not scientific.  Indeed, one main representative was not a scientist but a lawyer.  Time was ticking on, objections were now being raised over individual words, and he was being cast in the role of a political negotiator.  Could some concessions be made in exchange for others? ‘I’m keeping no score sheet,’ he insisted.  The science could not be bartered.

John Houghton speaking at a conference 2005John Houghton speaking at a conference in High Wycombe, UK, 2005. Photo credit: Kaihsu Tai. Reproduced under the terms of Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0, (cropped and lightened).

The third afternoon wore on.  Time was running out.  The planned evening meal was abandoned; at 9 pm the translators left.  The meeting agreed to continue without them, and Houghton pressed on.  Only at twenty past midnight, minutes before the building closed, did they finish.  But a consensus, albeit sobering, had been reached: ‘The balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate’.

Houghton has written that if it had not been for the last-minute success of this meeting, the major Kyoto Protocol climate treaty would not have been adopted two years afterwards.  He has also observed that all the opposition actually resulted in a better, stronger document.  ‘It was a stimulating and exciting time’, he reflected later, ‘but we had come within a hair’s breadth of failure’.

Dominic Newman
Manuscripts Cataloguer

The Papers of John Houghton were gifted to the British Library in 2015.  At present a single series ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’ consisting of correspondence, notes, offprints and published material, is available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 89409/4.

The British Library would like to thank the American Institute of Physics (AIP) for their generous support in enabling the cataloguing of this material.

Further reading:
John Houghton, ‘Madrid 1995: Diagnosing climate change’, Nature, 455 (2008), 737-738
John Houghton et al. (eds.), 'Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
John Houghton, with Gill Tavner, In the Eye of the Storm: the autobiography of Sir John Houghton. (Oxford, Lion, 2013)

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30 January 2020

Heartbroken on St Helena: the naturalist William John Burchell - Part Two

We left William Burchell, probably the best naturalist you've never heard of, in early 1808 on the island of St Helena, teaching school, tending a nascent botanic garden, and carrying out botanical and geological surveys of the island.

St Helena - Terrace KnollTerrace Knoll : A view in St. Helena. 'In looking inland you have this view and turning towards the sea you have the view of the Friar. This was drawn and coloured on the spot and is very correct. In the winter the hills are much greener. The bamboo is not finished but correctly shows its growth. The yams grow along a stream of water.' William Burchell's Saint Helena Journal 1806-1810 – Dated 16 February 1807 © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

All was looking well.  A minute of the East India Company Court of Directors dated 4 November 1807 recorded the decision 'That Miss Lucia Green be permitted to proceed to her Uncle at St Helena'.  In December Lucia set sail to join Burchell in the East India Company ship Walmer Castle.

Bond for Lucia Green providing surety for her travel to St Helena.Bond for Lucia Green providing surety for her travel to St Helena. IOR/O/1/234 no.2088, signed by Matthew Burchell and Robert Holt Butcher, vicar of Wandsworth. Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

By the time the ship arrived in St Helena in April 1808, Lucia had struck up a relationship with Captain Luke Dodds.  She announced to Burchell that she no longer wanted to marry him.  His St Helena journal and correspondence from that time record his devastation at the betrayal.  Burchell had to watch as Lucia sailed away to a life with Captain Dodds.

Burchell's business partnership also failed and was dissolved.  Moreover the East India Company was pressing Burchell for research of economic rather than scientific benefit ‘in the hope that something valuable for the purposes of commerce or manufacture might be brought to light’, and so reduce the expenses of the Island.  Burchell felt frustrated.  He wrote: “not having been employed in a manner useful to the Honourable Company, I feel that I could not conscientiously receive the salary”.  By April 1810 he had resigned as Company naturalist, having previously given up his position as schoolmaster.  His last few months on St Helena were mired in arguments with the churchwardens over payment of rent.  One cannot help but view Burchell's later experiences on St Helena as having been tainted by his personal anguish. 

He left the island on 16 October 1810, and travelled to Cape Town, where he undertook a remarkable four-year expedition into the interior of Southern Africa, through Cape Colony and Bechuanaland. His Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa was published in two volumes in 1822 and 1824; an expected third volume was never completed. 

The Rock Fountain in the country of the BushmanTravels in the Interior of Southern Africa Vol 1 p. 294: 'The Rock Fountain in the country of the Bushman' Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

10. IMG_20191219_093018 Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa Vol 1 p.325: 'A Hottentot Krall on the banks of the Gariep' Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

 

11. IMG_20191219_093737Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa Vol 2 p.360: 'View on entering the town of Litakun' Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Burchell was travelling again by 1825, this time to Brazil.  He collected widely over a period of five years, including in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, São Paulo, Goiás, Tocantins, and Pará, ending up in the town of Belém.  He returned to England in March 1830 laden with the fruits of his collecting labours.

William John Burchell by Thomas Herbert MaguireWilliam John Burchell by Thomas Herbert Maguire-  lithograph, 1854 NPG D32394 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Burchell did not produce a narrative of his expedition to Brazil.  Indeed, the rest of his life was spent cataloguing his enormous collection of specimens, which he guarded rather jealously.  The task was not finished until 1860.  Burchell slowly withdrew from his friends and fellow scientists, including William Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. He published few of his findings and drew little public acclaim.  William Burchell committed suicide at the family home in Fulham on 23 March 1863.

Today William Burchell is seen as a pioneer for his meticulous field work in recording the date and precise location where he collected his specimens, and for his myriad talents in botany, geology, art and illustration, geography, and what we would now call environmentalism.  His name deserves to be more widely known.

And how did life turn out for Burchell's fiancée Lucia Green and her Captain Luke Dodds? That’s another story

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Heartbroken on St Helena: the naturalist William John Burchell - Part One

A Ship-Board Romance: Lucia Green and Captain Luke Dodds

 

23 January 2020

Heartbroken on St Helena: the naturalist William John Burchell - Part One

Imagine you’d left your home in London to establish a new life on the island of St Helena.  You begin a trading partnership with your fiancée’s uncle, and the Governor writes to the East India Company’s Directors singing your praises.   As a result, you become the island’s schoolmaster, and later the Company’s naturalist. You send out to England for your fiancée to join you and eagerly await her arrival…. only to find that she has transferred her affections to the ship's Captain and no longer intends to marry you.

This unfortunate turn of events happened to the naturalist and explorer William John Burchell (1781-1863).  During his time on St Helena (1805-10), his travels across South Africa (1810-15), and his expedition to Brazil via Portugal, Madeira and Tenerife (1825-30), he collected tens of thousands of animal, plant, and insect specimens and a variety of ethnographic material.  A talented artist, he made many drawings and paintings, including landscapes, specimens, and the people he encountered.  Burchell has a zebra, several birds, a lizard, fish, butterflies, a plant genus, and even the army ant Eciton burchellii named after him, yet he is not generally well known.

Portrait of William John BurchellWilliam John Burchell by Mary Dawson Turner (née Palgrave), after John Sell Cotman etching (1816) NPG D7805 ©National Portrait Gallery, London

William was born in Fulham in 1781 to the nurseryman Matthew Burchell and his wife Jane.  His early life was surrounded by plants from all over the world, and he came into contact with many of the day's leading botanists.  He worked for a while at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and by 1803 had been elected a fellow of the Linnean Society.  However in August 1805 we find Burchell signed up as 4th mate on the East India Company ship Northumberland.  What made Burchell leave his blossoming botanical career in London?  The answer seems to be a young woman named Lucia Green.  Burchell’s family objected to the match, presumably making him determined to succeed on his own terms.  He arranged a trading partnership with Lucia’s uncle William Balcombe, who had permission ‘to proceed to St Helena for the purpose of exercising the business of an Auctioneer and Appraiser, to the said Island’.

List of the ship's company on the NorthumberlandIOR/L/MAR/B/141 O List of the ship's company on the Northumberland Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

How Burchell was able to join the Northumberland is not clear.  He did not have the required maritime experience, so perhaps there was a friendship with Captain George Raincock, or a connection with one of the ship’s principal managing owners, Henry Hounsom, William Masson or William Sims.  The ship arrived at St Helena on 13 December 1805.  The ship’s journal notes that Burchell “Left sick at St Helena 28 Jan 1806”, but the presumption is that he never intended to travel further.

 View of Diana's Ridge, from the summit of Sugar Loaf. from Burchell's Saint Helena Journal  View of Diana's Ridge, from the summit of Sugar Loaf. Saint Helena Journal 1806-1810. Dated 8 December 1807 © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Burchell was appointed schoolmaster in June 1806 and asked to focus on educating the young men of the island in the light of Company regulations for cadets.  In November 1806 it was proposed that Burchell develop and look after a botanic garden in James’s Valley.  In 1808 Burchell was appointed as the Company’s naturalist, to “ascertain and investigate the natural productions of the Island… in the hope that something valuable for the purposes of commerce or manufacture might be brought to light”.  He was asked to send back samples of “coloured earths” and “sea fowl guano”, to look after plants destined for England, and investigate the cultivation of cotton. 

Sketch of Mr. Burchell directing Charles - St Helena JournalSketch of Mr. Burchell directing Charles: Burchell - 'There's a famous big one down there Charles; Charles - Yes Sir, I'll soon have that down'. Saint Helena Journal 1806-1810 – Dated 8 December 1807 © Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

And all the while, he awaited the arrival of his fiancée Lucia Green.

To be continued…

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/141 O: Journal of the Northumberland
IOR/L/MAR/B/181 F: Journal of the Walmer Castle
IOR/G/32/70-75: St Helena Consultations
IOR/G/32/136-138: St Helena: Original Letters &c from St Helena to the Court
IOR/B/141, 146 Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors
Susan Buchanan, Burchell’s Travels. The Life, Art and Journeys of William John Burchell, 1781-1863 (Cape Town, 2015)
William J. Burchell, Travels in the Interior of southern Africa  (London, 1822-1824)
Buchell’s St Helena drawings, and his manuscript notes on the flora and fauna of St Helena (together with other archival material) are held by the Library, Art & Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Burchell’s original St Helena diary, together with other papers and correspondence, is held at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.  It has been published by Robin Castell in William John Burchell (1781-1863) [on] St. Helena (1805-1810) (St Helena: Castell Collection, 2011). The diary is quoted in Buchanan, op. cit.
Other Burchell papers, and papers relating to Burchell can be found at the Linnean Society (Correspondence with William Swainston), and the William Cullen Library, University of Witwatersrand (including copies of material at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the papers of Helen Millar McKay in connection with her research on Burchell). Further drawings and paintings by Burchell can be found in the collections of Museum Africa in Johannesburg.

Heartbroken on St Helena: the naturalist William John Burchell - Part Two

 

10 October 2019

Dr Johann Helfer and the curious case of an unexplained footnote

There is a reference to Dr Johann Wilhelm Helfer in C R Low's three-volume A History of the Indian Navy 1613-1863. The reference itself relates to Helfer's role as naturalist to Francis Rawdon Chesney's Euphrates Expedition in 1836; however it is a footnote next to his name which is most intriguing:

“Dr. Helfer, while on a scientific expedition for the Indian Government, was murdered at the Andaman Islands on the 31st January 1840, when his heroic wife shot the assassin dead with her pistol, an act worthy the niece of Field-Marshall Von Bulow”.

Page from C R Low, History of the Indian NavyC R Low, History of the Indian Navy, 1613-1863, Volume 2, p. 36, via the Qatar Digital Library

Being intrigued by the notion of his wife Pauline des Granges, later Countess von Nostitz, (who was apparently a niece of Field-Marshall Baron von Bülow) having avenged her husband’s death I decided to look in more detail at this story.

In 1878 The Countess published an account of her life and travels with her husband Dr. Helfer, which included a chapter on his death in the Andaman Islands in January 1840.

This account however revealed that not only had the Countess not shot and killed her husband’s assassin, she had not even accompanied him on his expedition, having chosen to remain at their estates in Mergui, Burma.

Pauline, Countess von NostitzCountess von Nostitz

Where this strange reference to such a tall tale came from is unfortunately a mystery.

Dr. Johann Wilhelm Helfer (1810-1840) was a naturalist employed by the East India Company who was also an avid collector of ornithological and botanical specimens which he donated to various institutions across the world.

The Helfers were avid travellers and were passing through Syria when they were asked to assist Colonel Chesney and accompany the Euphrates Expedition to Bussora. Helfer was subsequently appointed in 1837 as a Naturalist in Mergui and Tenasserim and was instructed to undertake surveys and reports on the natural resources there. His reports being approved of his employ was extended in March 1838, and by January 1840 he had written four lengthy reports on the resources he had discovered. Official letters following his death, describe his work as follows:

“These documents are equal in interest and value to the former reports of this intelligent and enterprising naturalist whose melancholy fate in prosecution of his researches we greatly lament”. [IOR/F/4/1852/78316]

Extract from Mathilde Pauline Nostitz's bookMathilde Pauline Nostitz, Travels of a Doctor and Madame Helfer in Syria, Mesopotamia, Burmah and other lands, (London: 1878)

According to Mrs Helfer, her husband’s expedition to the Andaman Islands had been to try and learn more of the resources and items for trade with some of the occupants of the smaller islands and it was in the pursuit of this that he was killed. Her account states that he had encountered a small number of locals and was keen to see their wares so had followed them across the beach towards the treeline where his party were ambushed. They fled back to their boat, attempting to dodge arrows laced with poison, but Dr. Helfer was struck in the back of the head whilst in the water and was reported to have sunk beneath the waves, with his colleagues and servants unable to recover his body. His was the only casualty. According to one obituary he was the first scientist to have reached these smaller parts of the Andaman Islands.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:

Travels of Doctor and Madame Helfer in Syria, Mesopotamia, Burmah and other lands, narrated by Pauline, Countess Nostitz (formerly Madame Helfer), and rendered into English by Mrs George Sturge, in two volumes. London (1878)

IOR/F/4/1735/70256 - Employment on a survey of the natural resources of Tenasserim, including his printed account of Amherst District

IOR/F/4/1608/64733 - Appointment as Naturalist at Tenasserim for 6 months, includes account of his journey from India -

IOR/F/4/1593/64583 - Appointed as Naturalist in Mergui, 1837.

IOR/F/4/1852/78316 - Letters regarding Dr Helfer’s 4th reports on resources of Tenasserim and his murder on 30 Jan 1840 

IOR/F/4/1896/80506 - Employment of Dr. Helfer, and news of his death

IOR/F/4/1926/86249 - Transmission of a Report by the late Dr. Helfer on the Islands of the Mergui Archipelago (includes diary kept Jan 1838-Jan 1839).

Diaries of Dr. Helfers's Voyages in the Mergui Archipelago and Andaman Islands, 1838-40 

26 February 2019

Trying to grow Syrian tobacco in Bombay

In 1841 seeds from Syrian tobacco plants were acquired by the Bombay Presidency.  Seeds were distributed to twelve collectorates or botanic gardens throughout Bombay Presidency with instructions to undertake experiments to see if the correct soil and climate conditions for growing the plants could be found.

Tobacco plantTobacco plant from p.37 of The Making of Virginia and the Middle Colonies. 1578-1701. 9605.c.18. BL flickr Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On 10 July 1843 the Bombay Revenue Department submitted a letter reporting on the results of these experiments to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London. The experiments had very mixed results.

In the collectorates of Ahmedabad, Khandesh, Ratnagiri, Surat and Thane the experiments failed completely as the plants either did not vegetate or died shortly after they appeared above the ground.

In Kaira [Kheda] the seeds sprang up well but most were washed away in heavy rain.  Those that survived produced a very small yield of an inferior quality to the local tobacco grown and were therefore considered a failure.

In Pune two of the three experiments failed, and the third although successful was not harvested in time and became a victim of the strong winds in that region.  As some seeds from the successful experiment had been preserved, it was decided that future experiments should be conducted by the Botanic Gardens there.

In Ahmednagar and Solapur one or two plants grew successfully and produced leaves of a good quality; seeds from these plants were preserved to be sown again the following year.

Dharwar was considered to be the most successful province as the first attempt sprung up and was growing well, but was a victim of the strong winds that follow the monsoon.  A second attempt was made to plant the seeds much earlier, however none of these vegetated so on the third attempt they were again planted later in the year.  This attempt was successful with good healthy plants and good quality leaves, but the plants received considerable injury from insects.  The seeds from these plants were preserved with the intention of trying again the following season and of sending them to other collectorates such as Thane to see if they would be successful there too.

The Botanic Gardens at Dapurie attempted the experiments on a much larger scale and they were successful in obtaining a good quantity tobacco from their plants.  They even sent samples of the product to London for the Court of Directors to test and give their opinions.

Extract from report by Dr Gibson of the Botanic Gardens at Dapurie on the experiments on the Syrian tobacco seedsExtract from report by Dr Gibson of the Botanic Gardens at Dapurie on the experiments on the Syrian tobacco seeds IOR/F/4/2808/91724 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The report concluded however that Syrian tobacco had not generally adapted to the soil and climate of Bombay Presidency.  There had however been requests for fresh seeds to do more experiments and that request had been sent to the Company’s agent in Egypt.  They hoped that some of the collectorates that had seen some success would be able to replicate it on a larger scale in the future.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further reading:
IOR/F/4/2808/91724 experiments introduced in the several collectorates of the Bombay Presidency with a view of proving the adaptation of the soil and climate to the production of Syrian tobacco

 

06 December 2018

Who repaired the pavements in London?

In 1764 the London Commission of Sewers and Pavements produced a report into the state of the city’s pavements and roads.  The report inventoried the impediments it found to walking and traffic throughout the city.  These included defective pavements, rubbish, unloading wagons, parcels, craftsmen working in the streets, shop signs and rainspouts.  The report concluded that London roads were 'defective, even in the principal streets' and the Commission set about trying to resolve as many of the impediments as they reasonably could.  Many were on the site of properties which the City of London leased to various companies and individuals.  The leases for these properties included clauses regarding responsibility for maintaining pavements and roads within properties boundaries in good working order.

One such lease was between the City of London and the East India Company and was for warehouses on Leadenhall Street, which had been leased by the Company since 1741.

Plan of warehouses on Leadenhall Street leased to the East India Company 1760Plan of warehouses on Leadenhall Street leased to the East India Company enclosed with the lease renewal of 31 October 1759. IOR/L/L/2/293 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

On 31 July 1764 the Court of Directors of the East India Company received a letter from the Commissioners of Sewers and Pavements for the City of London.  The letter concerned the state of disrepair of the pavement in front the Company’s warehouse at Leadenhall Street and requested that 'The Court will cause the said pavement to be forthwith effectually repaired'.

The letter was read at the next session of the Court of Directors on 1 August 1764, and the minutes of this meeting record the Court instructing the immediate repair of the pavement in question. The 1764 report was also responsible for the creation in London, in 1765, of the world’s first kerbed sidewalks, a feature which would subsequently be copied by other cities and can be found the world over today.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records

Further Reading:
IOR/E/1/46, f 507 Letter 252, John Smith, Clerk to the Commissioners of Sewers and Pavements to Robert James, Secretary to the Court of Directors of the East India Company, 31 July 1764
IOR/B/80, Court Minutes, 1 August 1764.
IOR/L/L/2/293 Renewal of lease 31 October 1759 from City of London to East India Company for warehouses on Leadenhall Street.

 

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