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Western Science in India before 1850

Author(s): H. J. C. Larwood
Source: The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1/2
(Apr., 1962), pp. 62-76
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE i8$o
By H. J. C. Larwood
The establishment and consolidation of the British Empire in
India occurred at a time of expanding interest and achievement
in science in Europe. In India there was certainly an appreciation
of the importance of this European science, for the growtli of
science education there in the early nineteenth century * compares
not unfavourably with that in England. But what kind of scientific
interests and activities were to be found in India up to about 1850,
and who were the men who pursued them ? 2
One may conveniently start the account in the seventeenth
century but the journals of four men, Manucci, Marshall, Ta vernier,
and Fryer, all of whom were in India in the latter part of that
century, raises the question what shall be called science ? The
observations and description of the last two, Tavernier3 and
Fryer,4 seem informed and objective and may not unreasonably
be called scientific, however discursive and lacking in precision
when compared with scientific writing of to-day. It could certainly
be maintained that Tavernier, who was principally interested in
jewels, and refers only incidentally to diverse natural history topics?
such as elephants, monkeys, snakes, and to natural products like
indigo, cinnamon, saltpetre, borax, and salammoniac, does not
deserve inclusion in a list of scientists. Yet his journal, like that of
his contemporary Fryer, who wrote on similar subjects in rather
more detail, was fully reviewed in Philosophical Transactions and
this may justify acceptance of these journals as scientific works.
Fryer was a fellow of the Royal Society. Their acceptance as
scientists is not unimportant since much that I have called scientific
work may by others be classed as mere reporting.
The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society is not only
a criterion of what may be called science, before 1780 it was an
important medium of publication for European writers in India.
Their contributions were mostly descriptions of unusual phenomena
1 H. J. C. Larwood, 1958. Brit. J. Educ. Studies, 7, 36.
* One detailed study is H. Stansfield, 1957. The Missionary Botanists of
Tranquebar, Liverpool Libraries, Museums, and Arts Committee Bulletin, 6,19, which
stemmed from the discovery of some of Klein's and Bottler's plants in Liverpool.
8 J. B. Tavernier, 1692. Les six voyages de Tavernier en Turquie, en Perse, et
aux Indes.
4 John Fryer. A new account of East India and Persia, being nine years* travel*,
1672-1681. London, Hakluyt Society, 1909-1915.

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WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850 63

or processes, or even customs and beliefs, like the earlier diaries,


but condensed and with the travel narrative omitted. The same
accounts of curiosities continue: of elephants, serpents, coral,
cinnamon, tobacco, borax, precious stones, burning rocks (petro
leum ?), earthquakes, and the like. But there were also more
detailed descriptions of unknown quadrupeds, and several references,
the first before the end of the seventeenth century, to collections of
molluscs. Plant collectors, too, were active, and a succession of
papers about 1700 listing the plants was sent home from Madras
by Surgeon Sam Brown to James Pctiver. Apart from the notes on
Indian ways of making paper, mortar, and ice, there were occasional
medical references, for example to the Bengal method of inoculation
against smallpox (in 1768), and many papers on astronomy,
including a few commentaries on aspects of Hindu astronomy,
which was then being revealed to the west. Several give the results
of new observations. William Saunderson observed a comet with
his " 6 foot glass " at Bombay in 1723, and the Rev. William Hirst
described his observations of the transit of Venus over the sun at
Madras in 1761. Two years later he described two eclipses seen
from Calcutta. The transit of Venus of 1769 was observed at
Dinapur by Capt. Degloss and at Muradabad by Capt. Rofe, and
accounts appeared in volume 60.
Briefly such was the original work published in the Philosophical
Transactions before 1780, though notes and reviews in the same
journal give hints of other scientific activity. There appeared partial
histories of Indian scientific endeavour. Wight and Walker-Arnott,1
for example, give a list of some of India's earlier botanists : Henry
van Rheede, who inspired the compilation of Hortus Indicus Mala
baricus (1678-1693); John Burmann, who worked in Ceylon, and
his son Nicholas, who produced Flora Indica (1768); and J. E.
Konig who landed in India in 1768 as surgeon to the Tranquebar
Mission but who, being a good pupil of Linnaeus, achieved greater
distinction as the initiator of a new period of systematic botany.
Hooker and Thomson 2 add further detail to Wight and Arnott's
work but say nothing new about the period before 1780. The
historical material collected by Sandes 3 likewise begins about the
1 U. Wight and G. A. Walker-Arnott, 1834. Prodromus Florae Peninsulae
lndiae Orientalis. London.
2 J. D. Hooker and Thomas Thomson, 1855. Introductory Essay to the Flora
Indica. London.
3 K. W. C. Sandes, 1033. The Military Engineer in India. Chatham.

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64 WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850

same date though there is a reference to the granting of a patent


for making a water-lift to a Madras merchant called John Coventry
in 1695. A note on Dr. Bulkley in Crawford's History of the Indian
Medical Servicel can be linked to other pieces of information.
Dr. Edward Bulkley was surgeon and coroner at Fort St. George
in 1692 (he performed a post-mortem examination on a patient
accidently poisoned by Sam Brown the plant collector) who, as we
learn from his funeral sermon in 1714,2 spent his time in the study
of nature. The direction which this study took is shown by the
references to the specimens he collected round Madras, which are
included in Woodward's collection of foreign fossils.3 Such an
instance shows little more than that there were Englishmen in India
prior to the British Empire who were interested in natural history.
Further and more restricted inquiry would probably bring to light
much interesting material.
From about 1780 more material is available because more British
were going to India, and there was an increasing number of societies
and variety of journals through which their doings could be recorded
and made known to others.
In the Philosophical Transactions of 1758 a plan was proposed by
Taylor White in Ceylon " to form a society for the carrying on a
General Natural History, to try proper experiments . . ." but
nothing seems to have come of it, so that the first important society
in India was the Asiatic Society of Bengal, inaugurated in 1784
by Sir William Jones. Its aims was not so much to communicate
western knowledge to India, but rather the reverse. In the case of
science, however, although many took an interest in Hindu mathe
matics and astronomy, the majority were more concerned with the
application of western ideas to the Indian scene. Enough members
shared this interest for the activities of the society to be divided
in 1808 into two sections, one for " Natural History, Philosophy,
Medicine, Improvements in the Arts, and whatever is comprehended
in the general term of Physics " and the other for literature. The
division fell into abeyance, but was revived later.
In Western India the Bombay Literary Society was started in
D. G. Crawford, 1914. A History of the Indian Medical Service, 1600-1913.
London.
1 W. Stevenson, 1715. A sermon preach'd on the death of Mr. Edward Bulkley.
London.
* J. Woodward, 1729. An attempt towards a natural history of the fossils of England.
Vol. 2 : A catalogue of foreign fossils. London.

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WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850 65

1804 and later became the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic
Society with aims and activities similar to those of the Bengal
Society. It, too, encouraged scientific activity?and even possessed
an observatory and astronomical equipment?as did its southern
Indian counterpart the Madras Literary Society and Auxiliary of
the Royal Asiatic Society founded twenty years after.
These three and other later societies took a wide purview of
knowledge, including science,1 and correspond to British societies
like the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (founded
1781). Other societies were started with narrower aims. The Medical
and Physical Societies of Calcutta and Bombay, instituted respec
tively in the 1820's and 1830's, had as their objects the study of
diseases and the Indian environment. There were Agricultural
societies in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, and Meerut, the first being
inspired by the missionary-botanist William Carey in 1820.
All these societies, as well as others, encouraged what I have
called science, not only in facilitating the interchange of ideas,
but also by making the publication of articles possible in India.
The Asiatic Society of Bengal began publishing Asiatick Researches
in 1788 and twenty volumes appeared in the next fifty years (the
last three were in two parts, scientific and literary, and the same
division was preserved in most issues of the Journal which replaced
the Researches). The Bombay Society started its publications in
1804 and the Madras Society in 1827. The Scientific and Medical
Societies issued regular periodicals with articles of general scientific
interest and the Agricultural Societies afforded opportunities for
botanical writers. Yet in the early years of the nineteenth century
there were more writers than there was space to print their articles.
Some published in British journals, but many were discouraged
then, as now, by the long delay in the appearance of papers. To
meet this need there arose three periodicals, unconnected with
societies. The first of these, started by Captain Herbert, the Deputy
Surveyor-General, in 1829, was called Gleanings in Science. The
original intention of this monthly periodical was to present
" digests " of European articles but this aim was defeated by the
flood of contributions from authors in India. The same was true of
1 The contributions of the societies to the growth of science is made clear by
P. N. Bosc in Centenary Review of the. Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1784-1883, part III,
and K. li. Kirtikar in Centenary Memorial Volume, ./. BhmImuj Br. R. A. S.,
1905, part V. Sec also L. L. Fcrmor, 1935. Proc. Nal. Iivit. Sciences of India, 1, 10,
and 1935, Yearbook of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1, 9.

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66 WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850

two other journals. The India Review and Journal of Foreign


Science and the Arts was issued from 1837 by Dr. Corbyn, and first
published paraphrases and extracts of European articles but as time
passed more space was given to writers in India. Four years later
Dr. McClelland started the Calcutta Journal of Natural History
for those with biological tastes. He, too, mixed reprints and extracts
of European papers?often very solid fare?with original contribu
tions. None of these journals survived longer than eight years,
no doubt on account of the cost, although Gleanings in Science
continued to exist in a modified form as the Journal of the Asiatic
Society of Bengal.
The main body of Indian scientific writing appeared in these
periodicals but the new scientific societies instituted in Britain
during the period also published journals which accepted papers
from India. Philosophical Transactions continued to include such
articles and there were new journals of which I have searched the
following for Indian contributions up to 1850 : Transactions of the
Royal Society of Edinburgh ; Transactions of the Linnean Society ;
Memoirs of the Wernenan Natural History Society ; Transactions of
the Geological Society; Quarterly Journal of Science; Transactions
of the Zoological Society of London ; Edinburgh Philosophical Journal,
and the New Philosophical Journal; Annals and Magazine of
Natural History, and the Philosophical Magazine. In all of these
there is a steady if not broad stream of contributions from India.
Altogether I have noted several hundred articles but it would be
laborious to give an exact figure because some journals, particularly
the last three, reprinted papers originally published elsewhere. Most
of the reprinted articles were from learned journals but there is
a number from more popular periodicals * such as the Calcutta
Sporting Magazine, the Asiatic Journal, and the Bombay Gazette.
One other British publication has to be mentioned, the Journal
of the Royal Asiatic Society. The Society was founded in 1825
and some years later began to publish its Transactions, replaced
soon afterwards by its Journal, which contains a good proportion
of scientific articles by writers who were still in India or who had
recently returned from that country. H. T. Colebrooke said in his
address at the Society's first meeting that England wished to repay

1 I have been able so far only to glance at a few of such publications but in so
far as they tbrow light upon the interests and activities of the Anglo-Indian general
public of the time a more systematic study of these would be useful.

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WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850 67

the debt owed by the rest of the world to Asia " returning in an
improved state what was received in a ruder form. . . . But im
provement, to be efficient, must be adapted to the actual condition
of things : and hence a necessity for exact information of all that
is there known, which belongs to science, and all that is there
practised, which appertains to arts ". So, although the aims of this
Society, like its Indian predecessors, was to foster the study of
Asia, Colebrookc added : " It (the Society) will tend to an object
first in importance : the increase of knowledge in Asia, by diffusion
of European science...."
That Colebrooke's views were shared by other members is indi
cated by the Society's publications. The first volume of the Trans
actions, for example, contains an article on the animals of Ladakh,
one on the Banyan tree, three papers on geology, and one on
elephantiasis with the local drugs used for treatment, and some
meteorological records. This list is typical though perhaps geology,
popular as it was with Anglo-Indians, is too well represented. Above
all, the kind of paper was common to all journals with emphasis
upon soils and agriculture, the occurrence of iron, copper, tin, slate,
limestone, and such useful materials, the economic possibilities of
the Purik sheep, and the need for investigating the materia medica
of India. The stress is upon utility and many of the papers can be
classified as dealing with vegetable, animal, and mineral products.
The vegetable products most written about were tea, cotton,
caoutchouc, and timber, but there was a very wide range of topics :
sugar, tobacco, indigo, coconut, paper manufacture, dyes, dis
tilling attar of roses. Occasional notes on frankincense, cardamon,
and the curious tabashcer bridge the gap to medical botany, which
received much attention.
The range of useful animals and animal products was narrower,
but snakes and their toxins and the " lac " insect form the subject
of a score of papers. Elephants, fishes, and isinglass, wool, silk,
cochineal all aroused a good measure of interest.
Of minerals, coal and iron were each the subject of a dozen
papers?the Indian steel called " wootz " particularly attracted
attention?while diamonds and other precious stones were popular
subjects. The occurrence of other metals and methods of mining
them were noted, and accounts of saltpetre, petroleum, naphtha,
sulphur, graphite, corundum, borax, and gypsum were common.
Many general articles covered a broad range, especially accounts

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68 WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850

of a tour or expedition. As a good example, Dr. Saunders who


accompanied Capt. Samuel Turner to Tibet in 1783-4 reveals in
his accountl a remarkable knowledge of plant and mineral products.
Then there are Lieut. TickelPs survey of Hodcsum (AMNII., 1842,
8, 153), and Benjamin Hcyne's collection of papers Tracts, Historical
and Statistical on India, London, 1814.
Articles of this kind often revealed no creative effort (though
some small-scale experimental investigations were reported), and
they were frequently little more than descriptions of processes
carried out in India with suggestions for their improvement. Yet
perhaps such reporting may be called science, since such descriptive
accounts fill learned journals before 1800. Philosophical Transactions
was full of them. It is remarkable to see how clearly the British
practical interest in science and comparative neglect of theory show
up when transplanted to a foreign soil.
The descriptive article stressing economic importance continued
to appear until the middle of the nineteenth century, though with
declining frequency. For a time the Royal Asiatic Society of Great
Britain revived the interest in such accounts. It proposed to have
collections of useful plants made, with observations of men on the
spot, to have models of Indian machinery prepared so that experts
(from the Mechanic's Institutes) could suggest improvements, and
later it turned its attention to astronomy, geology, and mineralogy.
Sheets of instructions were to be prepared for the guidance of
novices in tlie various sciences 2 and for a few years there was active
discussion and correspondence about the same topics listed above,
but in 1841 the Committee fell into abeyance owing to lack of money
and because its prime mover, Professor Royle,3 had been appointed
to direct a new department with similar aims set up by the East
India Company.
As descriptive and utilitarian articles grew less common, purely
botanical, zoological, and geological papers became more popular.
In botany the general en^hasis was upon collecting, describing,
and classifying plants, a continuation of a tradition begun long

1 Philosophical Transactions, 1789, 79, 79.


1 Sir Alexander Burncs acknowledged his indebtedness to these on his travels.
JRAS., 1835, 2, 203.
1 Royle's desire to improve the cultivation of useful Indian plants is well shown
by his book Essay on the Productive Resources of India, London, 1840. But he
understood that the application of botany must be based on a firm foundation of
systematic and physiological theory (see JRAS., 1836, 3).

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WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850 69
before. Early in the field, in the 1770's, were the Tranquebar
missionaries C. S. John, J. P. Rottler, J. 6. Klein, and later Benjamin
Heyne, who worked as a group under the inspiration of J. 6. Konig.
Roxburgh, who was a capable and accurate field observer as well
as a practical man keen to develop useful plants, began a little later.
He was followed in Bengal by Wallich, a prodigious collector,
Francis Hamilton, and William Griffith, " the ablest botanist who
ever visited India," who was the only one to make significant
contributions outside the field of taxonomic botany. Robert Wight,
in Southern India, and J. D. Hooker complete this brief list of the
most eminent names in Indian botany, Wight and Arnott, and
Hooker and Thomson (sec p. 63) have emphasized the confusion
existent in plant systematics before Hooker's monumental efforts
in the second half of the century.
Medical botany was in the minds of most botanists?even
Hooker's. Before 1785 Konig in Madras planned a work on medicinal
plants which Ruqsell continued. Later, in the same city, Sir
Whitelaw Ainslie published his Materia Medica of Hindustan in
1813, but this had been preceded by John Fleming's Catalogue of
Indian medicinal plants and drugs. In northern India Dr. Adam
of the Medical Board pointed out in 1831 the need for a materia
medica and this led to the compilation of a catalogue of plants
useful in medicine by J. Forbes Royle, who also cultivated indi
genous drugs at the Saharunpore botanic garden which he supplied
to Calcutta hospitals. Sir W. B. O'Shaughnessy (Professor of
Chemistry at the Calcutta Medical College and also first Director
General of Telegraphs) investigated the nature of these drugs, and
himself produced the Bengal Dispensatory (1842) and the Bengal
Pharmacopoeia (1844).
Descriptive zoological papers, most dealing with birds and
mammals, began early, and increased after 1780. Patrick Russel
wrote An account of Indian serpents (London, 1796), and began a
substantial work on fishes. Hamilton's Indian publications started
with papers on a mollusc and some bats and later he wrote on the
fishes of the Ganges.1 Roxburgh also wrote a few zoological papers
on useful insects and a new Cetacean, and about the same time

1 Hamilton, though mainly a botanist, also wrote on zoology, geology, geography,


and antiquities (see D. Prain, 1905. A sketch of the life of Francis Hamilton (once
Buchanan), Ann. Roy. Bot. Garden Calcutta, 10. In vol. 5 of Ike same journal
is " A brief memoir on William Roxburgh ").

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70 WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850

(1800) Major-General Thomas Hardwickc 1 began his long list of


publications largely on birds and mammals with a few on insects.
Dr. John Davy?Sir Humphrey's brother?wrote on the urinary
organs of amphibia and upon leeches and other creatures of Ceylon.
From now onwards it becomes difficult to select individuals for
mention since the journals arc full of notes on collectors and collec
tions : all over India men were engaged in collecting animals great
and small for dispatch to " specialists". Some of the main
specialities and the most prominent workers may be listed, though
each seldom dealt with only one group?Sponges: Dr. H. J.
Carter; Molluscs: W. H. Benson, using material collected by
himself and his many friends particularly Dr. J. F. Bacon ; Insects :
Capt. T. Hutton, Capt. Daldorff, and Capt. W. J. Boys; Fish :
Russel, Hamilton, Sykcs, Cantor, and McClelland; Reptiles:
Dr. T. Cantor.
As for birds and mammals, most zoologists like Dr. Jerdon and
Sir Walter Elliot in southern India tended to be interested in both
classes. Lieut.-Col. AV. II. Sykcs,2 a few years earlier had catalogued
the birds and mammals of the Deccan. In Calcutta Edward Blyth,
in return for a small stipend as curator of the Asiatic Society's
Museum, worked with devotion on these classes. His papers arc
informed and critical and justify Gould's description of him as one
of the first zoologists of his time and founder of that science in
India. The last of the great names is that of B. II. Hodgson 3 who
spent some thirty years, from 1820, in Nepal. He wrote prolifically

1 Hardwicke was a great collector and assembled a private museum at his house
at Dum Dum. See H. Hebcr, 1828: Narrative of a journey through the Upper
Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay, 1824-1825, London. Heber, Bishop
of Calcutta, gives a few sidelights on contemporary science.
* Sykes wrote forty-five papers on a wide range of topics and is one of tho most
endearing of Anglo-Indians. He was in India from 1803 to 1831 and when he
returned to England he continued to take a vital interest in Indian affairs (he was
a Director of the East India Company and Chairman for one year). He was a
member of many scientific societies and whenever ho attended a meeting he never
seemed to be at a loss for something amiable to say. His name occurs frequently
in reports of meetings, his best achievement being recorded in the reports of the
1835 British Association meetings when he addressed four different sections in as
many days. He was one of those like Dr. Horsfield who acted as unofficial" agents "
in London for men working in the field.
In spite of his contributions to zoology and his reports on the language,
ethnology and geography of Nepal, and in spite of his notable political services
(C. R. Markham, 1870, Narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibet), Hodgson
is one of the many Indian scientists whose names are missing from the Dictionary
of National Biography.

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WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA JtEFORE 1850 71

on the higher vertebrates of that region with knowledge and enthu


siasm. Like Cantor, who had called for a study of the distribution
and habits of animals rather than a searching for new species,
Hodgson was dissatisfied with the zoology of his time. He remarked
that Indian zoology (JRAS., 1836, 3, lxxvii) was carried on either
by men who knew the animals but were " inexpert in science ", or
by those " rapid passengers " who had no time to observe creatures,
but worked up their accounts afterwards. What was needed, he
implied, was a closer association between zoologist and field worker.
Geology attracted many workers in India not only from its
practical value but also perhaps because of its sudden advance at
the time. It is to this science that Indian field-workers contributed
most significantly. As in biology, the earlier papers were descrip
tive, the result usually of some tour or expedition^ and amount to
little more than over-confident identification of types of rocks.
So popular was the subject that twelve out of sixteen papers in the
eighteenth volume of Asiatick Researches are geological or minera
logical. Excluding the journals of geographic explorers 1 have
collected notes of articles on geology by fifty authors and there may
be more, but the number of partial surveys of work done make
a detailed account unnecessary. A paper by Sykes in 1836 (Trans.
Geol. Soe., 4 (2), 409) refers to many of the observations made up
to that date and Crawford and Sandes1 each provide historical
material. The summary given in the centenary volume l of A.S.B.
is also useful, though in this, several important names are missing.
The occasional references to Indian work made by Presidents of the
Geological Society are also valuable. In 1837, for example, Lycll
presented the Wollaston Medals to Capt. (later Sir) Proby Cautley
and Dr. Hugh Falconer and spoke of their researches in the Siwalik
fossils; and other Presidents either in their annual reviews or in
obituary notices provide material for a history of Indian geology.
Whewell in 1838 remarked on the strength of work by Grant,
McClelland, Malcolmson, Cautley, Falconer?and he might have
added Newbold?when he said " It is among the favourable omens
for the Geology of India, of which we now see so many, that a
temperate spirit of generalization has recently been applied to the
examination of her soil . . .".
In geology, as in botany and zoology, the simple descriptive
account was vanishing by 1850, India lagging a decade or two
1 op. cit.

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72 WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850

behind Europe. What of the sciences that had reached a more


" theoretical" stage in the west: mathematics and astronomy,
physics and chemistry ?
Very little work on physics and chemistry was undertaken in
India. In the first decade of the nineteenth century John Warren
made some experimental inquiries into the oscillation of a pendulum
at Madras, and on the refraction of light in air, and his friend Henry
Kater interested himself in hygromctry. Katcr's pendulum was
used about 1820 for making further observations by Goldingham,
who also made some measurements on the velocity of sound. Then
there were some trivial experiments such as Major Boilcau's on the
bending and fracture of sandstone. Boileau investigated torrestrial
magnetism at the Simla observatory, and Buist at the Bombay
observatory. James Prinsep, Assay Master at the Benares and
Calcutta mints, wrote some of his many papers on physical science
topics: e.g. on hygrometry and pyrometric alloys, and he made
chemical analyses of natural waters and rocks. Apart from Prinsep,
J. Middleton, author of some work on fluorine in bones, is almost
the only chemist of the period in India, but this is perhaps scarcely
surprising. Chemistry, like physics, had in Europe reached what
might be called a " professional " stage. To extend the boundaries
of knowledge specialized training was needed, as well as ample
time for experimentation and above all proper laboratories and
equipment. All were then lacking in India.
Finally there are astronomy and mathematics, the most advanced
sciences in the eighteenth century. Saundcrson's and Hirst's
observations have been mentioned and it appears that there was a
quite widespread interest in astronomy: telescopes and other
instruments were by no means rare, nor were men who could use
them. In his transit of Venus paper, Hirst includes observations
made using Governor Piggot's and Mr. Call's as well as his own
telescope while Pearse (Asiatick Researches, vol. 1) deals with his
own observations and those of three friends. This impression that
making astronomical observations was a skill possessed by any
educated man, is well conveyed by Capt. Rofe (Phil. Trans., 1770)
who says casually that having obtained a telescope and stopwatch
he was now able to make observations of the 1769 transit of Venus.
Although astronomy soon became subordinated to useful ends there
was one disinterested inquirer, Capt. W. S. Jacob, who made
valuable observations on double stars.

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WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850 73

The first application of astronomy was to the survey of southern


India begun by Michael Topping about 1790. His task was to fix
the latitude and longitude of the principal coastal towns and in
this he was assisted by Goldingham, who made observations " at
a private observatory leased from a Mr. William Petrie ". Golding
ham wrote on various topics but was primarily an astronomer who
built up two volumes of observations including eight years' work
on Jupiter's satellites. Soon after this Reuben Burrow was com
missioned to determine the exact position of places in northern
India and R. H. Colebrookc was doing the same in Mysore. The
functional nature of this kind of applied astronomy as a basis for
map-making is obvious, though Colonel Lambton who was assisted
by Warren and Katcr in setting up the longest arc ever to be
measured on this globe as a base for the triangulation of southern
India, was well aware of the bearing his astronomical observations
had upon speculations about the precise form of the earth. There
were also men engaged in establishing the position of places in the
far north where there were many expeditions in the Himalayas.
Lieut. AVebb was determining the positions and heights of mountains
before 1810 and later Capt. Hodgson, on his own and with Capt. J. D.
Herbert, produced a great many records for the same area (As. Res.,
1822, 14). Lieut. Patrick Gerard made astronomical readings in a
neighbouring part of the mountains. These are the most eminent
of the men who under conditions of hardship and danger assembled
a remarkable body of data, but there were many others who added
their smaller weight to the general mass as a glance at the later
volumes of Asiatick Researches will show.
One other point: an immense effort was devoted to the making
of meteorological observations. A score of the men named above
published at one time or another a set of meteorological records
and there were many others whose scientific activity went no
further. It was said of John Caldecott, astronomer to the Rajah
of Travancore about 1830 that he was seduced from his more
valuable astronomical work by the attention he paid to meteorology.
Yet such data were of sufficient general interest to be specifically
requested at the first meeting of the British Association, and in some
ways had theoretical implications. Tlie diurnal variation cf the
barometer was a recurring theme for Indian observers, being noticed
first by Francis Balfour before 1800. John Horsburgh, a sea captain

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74 WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850

(who also made microscopical observations), Col. Wright in Ceylon,


and Col. Sykes all contributed material.
Up to 1850 scientific work was carried on by Europeans, and very
few papers by Indians appeared until later. Among the British
the proportion of Scots was remarkably high, half of the medical
men being born or educated north of the border. They may have
been more ready to go abroad and Scottish schools and universities
paid earlier attention to training in science.
The scientists may be grouped according to the occupations
which took them to India, and except for men like G. T. Vignc,
a professional traveller with " some knowledge of science ", and
Thomas Lobb, who collected plants for an English nurseryman, the
majority fall into a few vocational classes. In the following classifica
tion I include only men with at least two papers of reasonable size
to their credit.

(Membership of
Agri. Hort. Soc, 1839)
Medical men . 34 40
Soldiers ... 21) 69
Civil Servants . . 10 118
Clergymen 8 9
Merchants, etc. . . 2 85
(-f agriculturalists 89)
Unclassified 14 14

These numbers in themselves mean nothing, being based upon an


arbitrary classification, but the proportion is interesting. That
doctors and soldiers produced the bulk of scientific work is scarcely
surprising since these belonged to professions which demanded some
scientific background, and next in order come the civil servants,
judges, district officers, writers, etc., and the clergy and missionaries
who made no inconsiderable contribution to Indian science. The
group numerically the largest, the merchants, showed the least
scientific activity; the membership figures of the Agricultural and
Horticultural Society I give for 1839 l show, that merchants and
planters were there well represented?but their membership
demanded only interest, not creative effort. The unclassified group
includes a few men whose work I have been unable to find, but it
contains also the few professional scientists there were: Blyth,
Caldecott, Goldingham, and James Prinsep.

1 Given in J. F. Royle, 1840. Essay on the Productive Resources of India. London,


p. 372.

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WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850 75
There appears a tendency for the doctors to be interested in
botany and zoology and for the soldiers to write on astronomy and
surveying, with geology as a study common to both groups. Although
there was considerable overlap, this tendency suggests a kind of
professionalism in the work done and of course compiling materia
medica was a professional activity just as surveying was part of
the work of many military officers. The great body of work was,
however, the reverse of professional. The result was that much of it
was of slight value. Collections were made, expeditions described,
and papers written by men who pretended only to modest scientific
backgrounds. Many examples could be given but Vicary l speaks
for them all when he says " I trust that my slender geological
knowledge will be a sufficient apology for all errors in the above
notes. The little I know has been learned in this country, and for
the most part in the field of nature. If these rough notes add ever
so little to the geological history of our globe, I shall be delighted,
and seek no better reward ". Though such amateurism incurred
the disdain of the professional Jacquemont,2 it was in the tradition
of the Royal Society and was inevitable in a country whoso1 foreign
residents all had their daily work and could give to science only
their leisure hours. It is surprising that with so much to occupy
them and in a climate exacting and often dangerous so much was
accomplished. To compensate for a lack of depth in their work many
of them had an enormous range of interest. Had they confined
themselves more narrowly, some at least?Hamilton, B. H. Hodgson,
James Prinsep, and H. T. Colebrooke?might have achieved more
renown in the history of science. And there is this to be said, too :
amateurish and superficial as much of their work was, men took
the trouble to learn. The guides to field work were not unused and
more than one when on home leave improved his scientific know
ledge. Although many writers complained of the smallness of their
libraries, their awareness of recent work, in distant parts, is
surprising.
The name of Jacquemont is a reminder that there were continental
scientists in India. Jacquemont, who went to India in 1828 and died
there four years later, was given every help at home and in India,3
1 N. Vicary, 1847. Q. J. Geol. Soe., 3, 349.
2 G. Smith, 1889. Stephen Ilislop, Pioneer Missionary and Naturalist in Central
India. London, p. 212.
a Letters from India describing a journey in the ftriHaft dominions of India, Tibet,
Lahore, and Cashmere, during the years 1828, 1829, 1830, 1831, undertaken by order

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76 WESTERN SCIENCE IN INDIA BEFORE 1850

and for other foreigners, too, the common interest in science secured
amicable relationships. Many of the names already mentioned
were non-British: Konig, Klein, John, Rottler, AVallich, and
Daldorff, but they were all closely associated with British India.
The others, because of the French settlement at Pondicherry, were
largely French, one of the earliest being Le Gentil who went there
to observe the transit of Arenus in 1769 and to make observations
on the oscillation of the pendulum. In the same place in later years
Duvaucel and Leschenault la Tour, director of the Botanic Garden,
contributed to various branches of natural history. Dr. Hoffmeister,
physician to Prince AAraldemar of Prussia, was knowledgeable about
insects, and collected plants in Nepal before being killed at the battle
of Ferozeshah, Sundevall collected and wrote on the birds of
Calcutta, while Konigberger l had a general interest in all nature.
The establishment of the empire, however, meant that it was
mainly the British who introduced AArestern ideas of science into
India, and it is not surprising that these show English characteristics.
Amateurism and motivation by practical needs are the keynotes
of the activities sketched above. It cannot be denied that much
that was written was of little permanent value nor that it was largely
confined to the observational sciences, yet the enthusiasm with
which scientific interests were pursued and the bulk of work pro
duced was remarkable. AVhen we remember that there was scant
opportunity for an education in science in the years of which I have
written, and that only a fraction of the small Anglo-Indian population
might be expected to have intellectual as opposed to commercial
interests, the achievements in science are by no means contemptible.

of the French Government by Victor Jacquemont, travelling naturalist to the museum


of natural history, Paris. London, 1834. These letters do not deal with the scientific
results of his expedition.
1 J. M. Konigberger, 1852. Thirty five years in the East. London. This book is
interesting less for its natural history, and for the materia medica it contains, than
for the light it throws upon medicine in India. He describes and discusses opera
tions carried out under chloroform and ether in 1848-9 (only a year or two after
its first use in Edinburgh), and gives some information about Dr. Esdaile who, by
virtue of his use of mesmerism in major operations, should be recognized as a
pioneer of some importance. (See also Crawford, op. cit., p. 153 et seq.)

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