Sunday, October 4, 2009

Soldiers and Nature

THE Indian Army’s heritage of valour on the battlefield is a byword in the annals of world military histories. But the Indian Army’s equally distinguished and scholarly heritage in the field of India’s Natural History, remains generally unknown and unsung."

Thus goes the opening para of J. C. Daniel and Lieut-Gen Baljit Singh’s book Natural History and the Indian Army, a quest to unveil this hidden heritage. The book is a compilation of 25 articles (each constituting one chapter) written by 19 Indian Army Officers, 16 of whom were Britishers and three Indians.

On the strength of expertise, 12 of them went on to establish paternity claims in their respective disciplines — an honour which was, and is, universally acknowledged in the world of natural history. So, Lieut-Col K.R. Kirtikar became the "father" of medicinal plants, Brigadier Evans of the butterflies, Brig-General Richard G. Burton of the Royal Bengal Tiger and so on.

The first chapter, which covers a period of 225 years (1778 to 2004), summarises the investigations into the field biology of birds, mammals, butterflies, reptiles, rodents, fish, natural photography and medicinal plants. It also looks at the doings of the principal trendsetters among the phalanx of Army officer-naturalists who pioneered the discovery of "Natural India". It was an incredible achievement considering every involvement was essentially in the manner of a hobby, pursued on the sidelines of their profession.

The book chooses the arrival of Thomas Hardwicke at Fort William, Calcutta, in 1778 as synonymous with the commencement of comprehensive scientific inquiry of India’s fauna, as a whole.

From being an artillery cadet in the Bengal Presidency Army, Hardwicke rose to the rank of a Major-General at the time of his retirement in 1823. No one knows what attracted him to natural history. But what we do know is that the British Museum of Natural History (BMNH), London, considered his "collection" matchless. So, when in 1820, they decided to have a permanent and exclusive display of the natural history of India, their unanimous choice was to pick from General Hardwicke’s collection that had been generously donated to them.

Measured by any yardstick, General Hardwicke was the colossus of Indian natural history. He had written the first scientific descriptions of several species of birds, mammals, rodents and reptiles. These descriptions were read at the meetings of the Linnaean Society, London, and he was accorded recognition for the claim — the blood pheasant in 1821, the grey goral in 1819, the Indian gerbille in 1803 and the Kashmir agama in 1820, to mention a few. For some inexplicable reason, his description of the red panda was deferred in presentation and someone else claimed the credit in the meanwhile.

Perhaps, it was unusual for a soldier to tread upon the scientist’s turf. So the recognition was slow in coming but it could not be denied. And the Latinised name Hardwickii was appended to the names of certain birds, mammals, rodents, butterflies and even one species of the teak tree.

But this dream of publishing a book was thwarted by the lack of finances. Nevertheless, the curator of the BMNH brought out in two volumes Illustrations of Indian Zoology: Chiefly From the Collection of Major-Gen Thomas Hardwicke in 1830-34. This became the first book on Indian natural history. Unfortunately only one damaged copy of Vol 2 exits in India with The Asiatic Society, Mumbai.

General Hardwicke and the officer-naturalists who followed shared two common traits. They were dedicated to the profession of Army first and foremost but seized every opportunity to pursue their passion for natural history. General Hardwicke was twice rewarded for valour on the battlefield (monetary grant in those days) even as he amassed his "collections".

All these books were published at Jerdon’s personal cost. When he died, his wife and two children had to move into a vicarage in the UK as they were rendered insolvent.

Lieut-Col J. H. Williams, affectionately known as "Elephant Bill", was an emergency commissioned officer during the Second World War. Besides rapid promotions, he was also awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Burma had a flourishing timber trade for which hundreds of elephants were employed. When the Japanese over-ran Burma in 1941, all these elephants wandered into the wild in search of food. Captain Williams took on the task of clandestinely contacting their old mahouts and gathered more than 60 working elephants. Field Marshall Sir William Slim in the foreword to the book Elephant Bill best relates what Williams and his elephants did for the war effort.

".......... the elephant held a special place in our esteem....... it was the elephants’ dignity and intelligence that gained our real respect. To watch an elephant building a bridge, to see the skill with which the great beast lifted the huge logs and the accuracy with which they were coaxed into position, was to realise that the trained elephant was not a mere transport animal, but indeed a skilled sapper". Helen of Troy may or may not actually have launched a thousand ships but the Asian Elephants of Colonel Williams certainly bridged scores of streams allowing the XIV Army the needed mobility to out flank, trap and destroy the Japanese at Meiktilla.

When Capt R.W.G. Hingston was appointed medical officer to the 1924 Everest expedition, he was bewildered as the highest mountain that he had ever climbed was the Snowdon in the UK (below 3,000 ft). Yet, on the sidelines of his job he collected, by his rough estimate nearly 5,000 "bugs" from the Everest region, which he said "will keep entomologists busy classifying them for years to come".

In the bargain, he also authored A Naturalist in the Himalayas and later A Naturalist in Hindustan. And of course, he created a record by going up to the North Col and back to the Everest base camp three times in two weeks to provide life-saving medical aid.

Brig-Gen R.G. Burton was not just a trigger-happy hunter but an authority on the tiger as his book The Story of the Tiger was to establish. More than that he was a cerebral soldier whose writings on military campaigns were much acclaimed. His book Napolean’s Military Campaigns in three volumes became an official text for promotion examinations in the Army.

Then there was Maj Frank Wall with the British Expeditionary Force to Iraq in the First World War, who is remembered as the "father" of Indian herpetology. His watercolours of snakes, which illustrated his texts, have never been excelled. The force had laid siege to Baghdad and during the long lull that followed, he pasted posters on date-palm trunks announcing a reward of one packet of cigarette for a dead snake or skin and two packets plus and tealeaf for every live snake. It was a roaring success and his collection was housed in a special niche at the Bombay Natural History Society’s premises in Mumbai.

Lieut-Col R.S.P. Bates of the First Royal Jat Regiment introduced bird photography in India and won international acclaim in the discipline. He went on to author the path-breaking book Breeding Birds of Kashmir in 1952 illustrated profusely with pictures clicked by him.

The book is a tribute to the remarkable personality of the Indian Army and its officer-cadre. For not only did the soldiers protect the country’s frontiers but its officer-naturalists also fought the battle to conserve India’s incomparable natural heritage spread over a vast geographical area, encompassing almost every type of climate met with in the world.

And last but not the least, Lieut-Colonel Burton provided a framework around which Nehru created the Indian Board for Wildlife in 1952; Lieut-Colonel Burton’s exposition forms the concluding chapter of the book.

The book bears testimony to an observation made by John Keay in his travelogue, India Discovered:

"The men who discovered India were amateurs; by profession they were soldiers and administrators. But they returned home as giants of scholarship." 

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