From the late eighteenth and through much of the nineteenth centuries, scientific investigation in India fell under the remit of the Indian Medical Service. Surgeon-botanists carried out studies into the botanical products of India with a view to their use in trade, medicine or improved agricultural practice as a way of alleviating famine.
One example is Whitelaw Ainslie, Superintending Surgeon at Trichinopoly, who in September 1810 sent to the Court of Directors of the East India Company a catalogue prepared by him of the edible vegetables of India, which he intended to eventually form part of an appendix to a medical work on the climate and diseases of the region.
In the letter he sent with the catalogue, he explained his reasons for compiling it: “Having long thought that in a Country like this, so great a part of whose Inhabitants eat no animal food, it might be interesting (as connected with an important branch of the Materia Medica) to ascertain, and bring under one head, the numerous Vegetable Productions which are in consequence used as Diets.”
Admitting that the list was not perfect, Dr Ainslie believed it was at the same time: “…the fullest that has yet been made of such matters. It contains many things hitherto not much noticed by Europeans, and is altogether of such a nature as I hope may render it acceptable to you, as an Indian Agricultural and Horticultural Document.”
He also suggested that some of the pulses and grains listed in the catalogue would thrive in sheltered situations in the south of England, and recommended that experiments be carried out.
The catalogue, which is available in the India Office Records at the British Library, is in tabular form, and divided into the following sections:
- Corns and small grains
- Garden stuffs, large beans and small pulses, many of which have no English names
- Fruits and nuts
- Greens and teas
- Hot seeds, spices, seasoners, and oils
Each section gives a products native name, English name, botanical name where known, and general remarks on, for example, value as foodstuff or as materia medica, on cultivation, and on alternative names. At the end of the catalogue, there is a note on betel leaf and betel nut, which were chewed for their flavour, and then spit out, and a memorandum by Dr Ainslie on the different methods for the cultivation of dry and wet grains in India.
In the section on garden stuffs, Dr Ainslie lists red pumpkin, known in Malabar as Poosnika, on which he remarks: “There is a variety of the Poosnika called Caliana Poosnika, which from old custom, and I believe religious right, must make a dish at every Malabar marriage dinner – it is supposed to ensure prosperity to the wedded pair”. Perhaps a little more obviously, he noted that the onion and garlic were constant ingredients in the curries of the Malabars.
This type of botanical investigation was valuable in documenting the exchange of different commodities around the globe. For instance, in his catalogue Dr Ainslie comments that: “Carrots appear to be indigenous in many parts of the Mahratta Country, and have their distinct names, but in the Southern Provinces of the Peninsula they are not indigenous, tho’ introduced by Europeans by means of seed brought from the Cape and Europe”.
More information regarding records relating to Botany in British India can be found on the British Library website.
- A catalogue of the edible vegetable productions of India, consisting of Corns, Small Grains, Garden Stuffs, Pulses, Large Beans, Roots, Fruits, Nuts, Greens, Teas, Hot Seeds, Spices and Oils by Whitelaw Ainslie, Assistant Surgeon, dated 12th September 1810, British Library reference: IOR/F/4/379/9495
- Science and the Changing Environment in India 1780-1920 by Richard Axelby and Savithri Preetha Nair (London: British Library, 2010)