British and the Botanical Wealth of India

By National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

curated by Annamma Spudich, PhD., supported by National Centre for Biological Sciences

The British East India Company was established
with royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 for the specific purpose of
establishing trade with India. Besides the wealth to be accrued by trade in Indian
spices and commodities, the British were alarmed by Portuguese and Dutch
expansion into India. Charles D'Avenan, a proponent for British territorial expansion,
stated the importance of British presence in India thus: "But since Europe has tasted of this
luxury, since the customs of a hundred years has made their spices necessary to
the constitutions of all degrees of people, since their silks are pleasing
everywhere to the better sort, and since their calicoes are a useful wear at
home, and in our own plantations, and for the Spaniards in America, it can
never be advisable for England to quit this trade, and leave it to any other
nation" (Letter to The Most Honourable John Lord Marquis of
Normandy, The Avalon Project, Yale University).

Map of the East Indies and adjacent Countries (1715) by H. Moll (Geographer)Original Source: The Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection courtesy Stanford University Libraries

This map, done for the Directors of the British East India Company (ca.1715) by geographer/cartographer Herman Moll, is titled "A map of the East Indies and the adjacent Countries, with the settlements, factories and territories, explaining what belongs to England, France, Holland, Denmark, Portugal &c, with many remarks not extant in any other Map." On the section of India, regions rich in commodities of European trade; pepper, diamonds, and cotton cloth are highlighted. Insets in the map show major British trading centers in Asia.

Like the Portuguese and the Dutch, soon after their arrival, the British faced the reality of dealing with tropical diseases. Samuel Brown, a British physician at Fort St. George immediately set about to document regional medical therapies, and a series of seven reports of his findings were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, communicated by James Petiver, fellow of the Royal Society. In his introduction, Petiver states that these reports were “most valuable for they contained information on many valuable drugs, including ones used with much success by Epileptick, Covulsive, or Head Diseases.”

A cover addressed to "Hon. Elihu Yale, Esq, at Fort St. George in India" (1691)Original Source: Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University

Direct access to Indian commodities immensely enriched European traders and large fortunes were made by individual Europeans in India. Elihu Yale, the major founding donor of Yale University, was among them. During the twenty years he spent with the British East India Company in India, he traded in manufactured goods, spices, cotton, diamonds, and pearls from Tutucorin. The commodities Yale gifted to the newly founded Connecticut College were sold for a large sum, and the college was renamed Yale College, later Yale University.

A Selection of British Books on the Plant Wealth of India from the 18th and 19th centuries (18th and 19th centuries)Original Source: Peter Raven Library. Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO; Lane Medical Library, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA; and Private collection James and Annamma Spudich

Initially, British interest in Indian botany focused on therapeutic properties of plants, “not so much for financial savings as in the use of more serviceable drugs.” Soon after, as represented by selection of books shown here, study of the rich resources of Indian botany for commercial and horticultural purposes became a novel area of study. And collections of Indian plants and their cultivation details were sent to British colonies around the globe. However, the Indian scholars and practitioners who provided the knowledge were not acknowledged in British documents.

Plan for the Calcutta Botanical Garden (1895)Original Source: Archives, Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Boston

At the end of the 18th C, the British established botanical gardens in different regions of India to collect and document regional botany. One of the earliest botanical gardens, in Calcutta, was established in 1787 for the specific purpose of commercialization of India’s botanical resources. George King, the first Director of the Botanical Survey of India, stated the goal of the garden thus, “From the first foundation of the Garden, it was understood that it was to be made a source of (Indian) botanical information for the possessions of the company….” and “to assist in introducing indigenous Indian products to new markets. It was intended that it should not only be a botanical but also horticultural and agricultural garden.”

Flora of British IndiaOriginal Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library, St. Louis, MO, USA.

The British naturalist, J. D. Hooker published seven volumes on Indian botany, with information from diverse parts of India for agricultural, horticultural and medicinal purposes. Along with this elevation map, it was one of the most complete surveys of Indian botany to date. In his words, India is “what is perhaps the richest and is most certainly the most varied botanical area of the surface of the globe.” The volumes served as guides for the study of economic and horticultural botany throughout the world.

Illustration by Indian artist Vishnuprasad (circa early 19th century) by VishnuprasadOriginal Source: Peter Raven Library. Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis.

Detailed illustrations were essential tools for correct identification of plants for medicinal and commercial purposes and Indian artists trained in Indian regional painting traditions were recruited by the British to do illustrations. The resulting works combine the sensitive illustration traditions of Indian miniature paintings with descriptive details of European scientific illustrations. According to the art historian Stuart Cary Welch, these illustrations “are masterpieces of the genre.” Vishnuprasad at the Calcutta Botanical Garden was one of the few named Indian artists employed by the British.

Illustration by Indian artist Gorachaud (circa early 19th century) by GorachaudOriginal Source: Peter Raven Library. Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis.

Gorachaud was another artist in the employ of the Calcutta Botanical Garden. As in the case of Vishnuprasad, nothing is known about his background or training.

Rai Bahadur Kanny Lall Dey, (1896)Original Source: Lane Medical Library, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA.

Indian medicines continued to be documented by the British, and according to the British physician John Fleming, "for the gentlemen of the medical profession on their first arrival in India, to whom it must be desirable to know what articles of the Materia Medica of this country affords, and by what names they may find them" (Asiatick Researches, XI, 153, 1810). And in 1896, the Indigenous Drug Committee of the Government of British India, including Indian physician Rai Bahadur Kanny Lall Dey and British physicians, published "The indigenous drugs of India” in an attempt to integrate Indian traditional and European therapies.

A Singular Operation (on Rhinoplasty)Original Source: Wellcome Library, London

Along with botanical medical therapies, physical medical practices and surgical treatments practiced by specialists were part of Indian traditional medicine. One of the classical texts of Indian medicine, Susrutha Samhita, describes surgical procedures for the eye, ear and throat.

Due to cultural, social and religious reasons, surgical procedures were lost from mainstream traditional medicine but continued to be practiced by highly skilled folk specialists into the early 19th century.

A unique Indian surgical procedure, Rhinoplasty, to replace a man's nose, is recorded in this image from 1795 in the collection of the Wellcome Library. The text and schematic drawings included in this engraving provide details of the procedure as described by James Wells in 1795.

The Indian Spice Trade (Exhibit Chapterisation)National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

With the establishment of British medical colleges in India and the availability of single molecule drugs that could be manufactured in quantity in the laboratory, attempt at integration of traditional Indian medicines with European medicines failed, and European medicine became the dominant medical system in India. However, there is now revived interest in traditional Indian medical therapies for treatment of chronic diseases.

This exhibition is part of a series on the India Spice Trade. Do explore the other sections here:

1. India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

2. In Search of Knowledge and Riches: Communities in Indian Spice Trade

3. Europeans Enter Indian Spice Trade

4. Portuguese and Dutch Records of Indian Medicine

Visions of India in Early Modern Europe
Credits: Story

Curated by Annamma Spudich, PhD., supported by National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India.

Curation text © 2019 Annamma Spudich, PhD.

Images outside of NCBS collection courtesy to the respective institutions and collections who have given the permission. Some images are hosted via NCBS - the original sources are cited, and more information about the respective images can be reached by clicking on the image or image captions.

Explore all chapters of The India Spice Trade:

1. India: The Nexus of International Trade in the First Millennium

2. In Search of Knowledge and Riches: Communities in Indian Spice Trade

3. Europeans Enter Indian Spice Trade

4. Portuguese and Dutch Records of Indian Medicine

5. British and the Botanical Wealth of India

6. Visions of India in Early Modern Europe

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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