Plant Collectors In Kashmir


While studying Botany, students hardly spare a thought about the processes and the people who gave their lives to identify and name the plants that Kashmir grows. Exceptional botanist, Ralph R Stewart who push-biked into Kashmir more than a century earlier details the contributions that Western experts made to Kashmir taxonomy

A view of Botanical Garden in Srinagar

I must be Rogers McVaugh’s oldest pupil. I did not know him until I was 70 and about to retire from Gordon College, Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where I had worked from 1911 until 1960, except for occasional furloughs in this country. When Rogers took charge of the angiosperm herbarium in 1960, following the death of ‘Uncle’ Harley Bartlett, his distinguished predecessor, he found that he had a legacy of some 150,000 specimens in bales and bundles in various storerooms. Some of these specimens had been in storage for fifty years. As about 30,000 of these specimens were from India, McVaugh looked around to find someone with a knowledge of Indian plants. A friend told him that I was retiring from Gordon College and he wrote to inquire if I were available. As I did not want to move into an Old Folks Home we gladly moved to Ann Arbor.

Rogers may not have realized that I was his pupil but living and working in his herbarium, and watching the way he did things was an inspiration to me. I had been a lecturer and administrator in a missionary college and a plant collector in my free time and was glad to learn how things were done in a good herbarium.

A rare photograph of 1913 showing botanist Ralph Stewart with friends on bicycles in Kashmir. It took them five days to reach Kashmir from Rawalpindi.

Eighteen years have passed and I am still working in a far corner of his herbarium and he is about to follow me into official retirement. After coming to Ann Arbor I worked for two years getting the Indian specimens into the herbarium and when the National Science Foundation grant supporting me ran out I was advised to try for one of my own to work on the flora of Pakistan, and Kashmir. India had been divided in 1947 and the place where I lived had become part of Pakistan.

Rawalpindi was a good centre for a botanist. It is only ten miles from the Himalayan foothills. The Murree and Hazarahills which rise to 9000′ are within 40 miles. Students could be taken into the mountains by bus in a couple of hours and there were good places to collect within ten or twelve miles. The valley of Kashmir was only 200 miles away. The road was closed in 1947 but between 1911 and 1947,  I had spent many vacations in Kashmir and had built up a good collection of Kashmirplants.

Mrs and Mr Dr Ralph R Stewart, the last major botanist who immensely contributed to the taxonomy in Kashmir.

I worked for ten years on An Annotated Catalogue of the Plants of Pakistan and Kashmir which was published in Karachi at the expense of the US Department ofAgriculture in 1972. In preparing an appendix, giving a few facts about 394 collectors, I began to get interested in the collectors, especially those who had been the pioneers. I began to wonder what it was like to collect plants in the Punjab and Kashmir 150 years ago when the Sikhs were still ruling in the whole area before the British took over in 1849. What was it like when there were no good roads; when a good day’s march was from 12 to 15 miles; when there were no telephones, telegraphs, hospitals or modern medicine? What was it like when there were no cures for plague, smallpox, cholera or malaria? Travel was so unsafe that important people travelled with armed escorts and ordinary travellers had to wait for a caravan they could join in order to enjoy the security of numbers. In spite of all these difficulties and more, the pioneers and explorers came from a number of countries. It took months by sailing ship to reach India by the Cape of Good Hope route and the land route through Turkey and Persia and the Persian Gulf also took months. When the traveller wanting to go to Kashmir reached Bombay, he still had weeks and weeks of travel before him.

It was not until 1860 that the railroad reached Rawalpindi. In 1912, I was able to ride a pushbike to Kashmir in five days. Moorcroft, Falconer, and Jacquemont went on horseback but they could not go faster than their coolies and pack animals. They did not find rest houses at the end of each day’s march but had to take their own tents.

The only book which I found of much use in my search for data about those who had collected in India and Kashmir was IHBurkill’sChapters on the history of botany in India (Botanical Survey of India, Calcutta, 1965). The book is a mine of information but you have to dig hard for the ore, as the book is arranged in such a manner that the references to each person are scattered through the book, which does not deal with those who began work after 1900.

To obtain additional material which was not in Burkill, I spent a good deal of time in the Travels Room at Kew reading the books of the pioneers I was interested in. Almost all of them were authors and if they did not reach home, others used their notes or diaries.

As my contribution to the Festschrift of DrMcVaugh I would like to introduce to a modern audience some of the pioneers who reached the Punjab and Kashmir many years ago.

William Moorcroft

The very first person to do any collecting in Western Tibet and Kashmir was a veterinary surgeon. He was the first Englishman to have a degree in veterinary surgery and he was the first veterinarian to be employed by the East India Company.

In 1822, he made a visit to the Vale of Kashmir, after securing permission with much difficulty. In Kashmir, he was followed wherever he went.

 Apparently discouraged after a three-year delay he started to go to Punjab by the Jhelum Valley route. When the party arrived near Uri a petty Muslim chieftain demanded Rs15000 to let him pass. A rupee would buy a good deal in those days, more than ten times what it will buy today. Moorcroft offered Rs 500 to be allowed to pass. His offer was refused and the party returned to Srinagar and went to Punjab by another route. He crossed Afghanistan and reached Bokhara where he died. It is not certain whether he died from disease or whether he was murdered.

Before leaving Kashmir Moorcroft prepared a bundle of 23 specimens he had gathered and sent it to Wallich at Calcutta. Many of his specimens were new, including such well-known species as Gentianamoorcroftana and Salvia moorcroftana and so he is credited with being the first to collect in Ladak (Western Tibet) and Kashmir.

Victor Jacquemont

The first, or possibly the second, to collect in the Punjab and the first real botanist to collect in Kashmir was a young and very capable Frenchman who was sent by the National Museum of France to India to collect plants. He was a man of good family, named Victor Jacquemont. He first collected in the region of Pondicherry, a French possession, and then he worked north. He must have been an attractive person for he was welcomed by the British officials, high and low.

Victor Vincelas Jacquemont (1801-1832)

At that period there were a number of European soldiers of fortune in high positions under Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Maharaja, who ruled the Punjab and Kashmir. One of these was General Allard [for whom the genus Allarldia, now Waldheimia was named]. Word reached Allard that a fellow countryman was collecting plants in India and he wrote to him, suggesting that he come north and visit Punjab. The Maharaja agreed to the invitation as he had reports from his agents in India that Jacquemont was an unusually wise and capable person. At that time the British frontier was at the Sutlej and the Maharaja had his visitor met at the border as though he were an ambassador. He was brought to Lahore where he was wined, dined, and provided with dancing girls. This was in 1830 when he was allowed to make a collecting trip in the Salt Range, an interesting region just north of the Jhelum River. In this range, there are extensive salt mines, which have been mined for centuries. He was then given permission to collect in the Valley of Kashmir and surrounding mountains in 1831. All the time he was in the Punjab and Kashmir his expenses were met by Ranjit Singh.

Jacquemont, accompanied by a sizeable escort, went to Kashmir by the PirPanjal route, and although he was the guest of the ruler he met with many difficulties, the worst being an effort by an unhappy Hill raja to hold him as a hostage because the Maharajaowed him something. After making a large collection during the summer he left Kashmir by the eastern, i.e. the Banihal route. He moved as far south as Poona in the Bombay Presidency, and then went to Bombay where he is said to have died of malaria, though Burkill says “from his hard life”. His collections reached Paris safely and were studied by Cambessedes and Decaine.

Jolin Forbes Royle

The directors of the East India Company did not recruit people in Britain to fill the few botanical posts they maintained but picked out men they had already recruited for other posts, doctors, soldiers or civil servants who had demonstrated an interest and ability in botany.

(In) 1831 he sent collectors into Kashmir with the guidance of shawl dealers who were returning to Kashmir after selling their wares. It is said that when Jacquemont visited Saharanpur in 1830 on his way to Lahore, Royle was able to show him 100 living Kashmir plants which had been brought in by his collectors. Royle’s medical duties were such that he could not go to Kashmir in person, but he was able to help Jacquemont and his book, which he worked on at Kew on his first furlough, Illustrations of the botany and other branches of the natural history of the Himalayan Mts. and Cashmire” (2 vols, London, 1833-1840), was published before the posthumous volumes of Jacquemont. Royle’s book is illustrated with coloured plates and is an excellent piece of work.

When Royle retired he took his personal herbarium to Liverpool and gave his collection of 12,000 specimens to an obscure pharmaceutical museum in Liverpool, England, where it was lost sight of for 100 years. When it was discovered it was badly damaged. This can be cited as a good example of what not to do with a valuable collection.

Godfirey Thomas Vigne

Karl Alexander Anselm von Huegel

Soon after Maharaja Ranjit Singh had permitted Jacquemont to visit Kashmir he allowed two more pioneer wanderers to visit Kashmir in 1835. Vigne was an Englishman and von Huegel a German nobleman by birth, but an Austrian by adoption. Neither did much botanizing in Kashmir. The bundle of plants. which Vigneaccumulated in three years contained only about 90 specimens and they were not first-class. They were given to Royle, who named them.

Von Huegel knew a good deal about botany and made a collection in the Nilgiri Hills of South India but in his big four-volume work entitled Kaschmir und das Reich der Seik (Sikh) (Stuttgart, 1844), there is no botany. His collection of plants is in Vienna, Austria, and in 1845 Grisebach published GentiiianaIiuegelii from Kashmir which shows that he did collect and that his Kashmir specimens reached Vienna.

Vigne and von Huegel met in Kashmir and did some travelling in the valley together and then both returned to Punjab by the Hazara route. Von Huegel did not return to Kashmir but went on to Australia and Tasmania, but Vigne returned to Kashmir in

1836 and remained exploring for two years conducting rough surveys and paying special attention to the routes and the passes through the mountains. He must have thought that this kind of information might be required by the East India Company someday.

High Falconer

The second to collect in Baltistan was a very different sort of person from Vigne. He was no dilettante, but a thorough scientist. Although he was trained as a zoologist and palaeontologist he held important botanical positions, first as the successor to Royle in charge of the Saharanpur Garden, and then he succeeded Wallich at Calcutta.

While in charge at Saharanpur, Sir Alexander Burns was sent to Afghanistan on a Trade Mission, and Falconer was ordered to accompany him as a botanist. When the Mission arrived near the Afghan frontier they found that their Mission was not acceptable to the Afghans. On this trip Falconer had collected on his way and he is probably the first to have collected north of the Salt Range. When the Afghan trip was abandoned Falconer was directed to penetrate into the mountains to see what useful plants he could find. The botanical interest of the company was not in plants in general. Falconer tried to ascend the Indus but after three days the people at Darband would not let him proceed further so he entered Kashmir via Hazara. He wintered in Kashmir and in 1837 followed the Gilgit route, i.e. over the Rajdani Pass to the Kishenganga Valley and followed Vigne to the Indus. He met Vigne in Baltistan and as Vigne almost certainly did not do any collecting in Baltistan, Falconer deserves credit for being the first collector. He ascended the Shigar River as far as Askole. On going home on leave in 1841 he took 76 packages of plants and five tons of mammalian and other fossil bones collected in the Siwaliks.

Falconer’s chief claim to fame is his work on the remarkable mammalian fauna of the Siwaliks. He did not name his plant collections but they were left in India House in London where no one paid any attention to them. When Sir Joseph Hooker was starting to prepare his Flora of British India he rescued Falconer’s specimens but some of them were damaged.

John Martin Honigberger

Burkill credits Honigberger with being the first to do any collecting in Afghanistan and Jacquemont for being the first in the Punjab. Burkill does not seem to have read Honigberger’s book or to know that he had lived for fifteen years in Lahore, part of the time as a physician to the court.

John Martin Honigberger

Honigberger’s book, Thirty-five years in the East: Discoveries and sketches relating to the Punjab and Cashmire in connection with medicine, botany etc (2 vols, London), seems to be very rare but I found a copy at Kew which the doctor had given to Thomas Thomson. In the second volume, he lists 476 species, which he evidently knew well. He knew both the Latin and vernacular names. There are 31 plates and usually four illustrations per plate.

Honigberger’s book is so arranged that it is in places hard to figure out dates and there is no indication when his species were collected. None may have been collected before 1830 when Jacquemont visited the Salt Range. There is no doubt, however, that Honigberger did far more collecting in the Punjab than Jacquemont did and that he knew far more about what he was collecting. On page 53 he mentions meeting Jacquemont. Many of his plants were collected in Kashmir, probably in 1849 after, the British had defeated the Sikhs, for he states that he went there with the permission of Maharaja Gulab Singh and the British. The rest were from Punjab.

Honigberger’s specimens are in Vienna and someone told me that many of them were lying there unnamed. After 140 years Dr K HRechinger is using them as he prepares his FloraIranica.

Thomas Thomson

Like so many of the early British botanists in India Thomson was a doctor. He had studied botany under Sir William Jackson Hooker, who became the first Director at Kew, and he was the friend and classmate of Joseph Dalton Hooker, the son of Sir William who succeeded his father. During his first few years in India, he was assigned to medical posts but he collected plants wherever he was working. In 1847 the opportunity came for him to explore the unknown territory on the frontiers of Kashmir and into Tibet. The British had not yet taken over the Punjab and Kashmir, but they were anxious to know the course of the Indus and to fill in the numerous blank spaces on the map. A Kashmir Frontier Commission with Major Alex.Cunningham as its head, Thos. Thomson as doctor and botanist, and Capt. Henry Strachey as a surveyor was appointed. It has been called a Tibetan Boundary Commission but if the Tibetans were notified they did not turn up or meet this Commission.

Strachey surveyed the Upper Indus and did a little collecting. Cunningham and Thomson went to Leh, the capital of Ladak where they separated and Thomson began two years of travel, mostly in unknown territory.

Thomson went from Leh westward to Nubra and then descended the Shyok Valley through Baltistan to Skardo. He intended to return to Kashmir before winter closed the Zoji La but he did not start in time and had to winter in Skardo. The next year he travelled extensively, crossing the whole of Kashmir to the Chamba line and covered much the same ground that Vigne had covered about ten years before without collecting any plants. He explored Budrawah and Kishtwar and entered Western Tibet (Ladak) through Zanskar.

(This is an abridged version of Dr Ralph R Stewart’s write-up, The First Plant Collectors In Kashmir And The Punjab that appeared in Taxon in April 1979)


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