Among other things, I am currently reading the Crest magazine, a weekly edition from the Times of India house. The Crest is published in a news paper format with articles that give perspectives on current affairs and matters of general interest.
Two editions ago, the Crest commissioned an article on Charles Darwin’s – the naturalist – connection with India to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the writing of Darwin’s famous book the Origin of Species. I found the article most blog worthy.
Though Darwin never visited India, it didn’t prevent him from benefiting from the rich biodiversity available in India – for his thesis on Origin of Species. Darwin never had to come to India to find access to India's natural wealth because there were many collaborators primed to supply the naturalist with information on India; India was a British colony then and Darwin was a British. One such collaborator was Edward Blyth.
Blyth’s story is interesting as it typifies the hurdles naturalists had to face then, especially the ones who were not born to wealth and privilege. They had to earn their livelihood and also pursue their study of nature – because being a naturalist wasn’t a well-paying profession and the professional establishments were so exclusive that they usually didn’t allow the entry of people outside the circle of scholars into the profession. And how, despite the hardships, driven by their abiding love for their work, the naturalists carried on undeterred.
However, unlike many of his ilk, Blyth, who was a self-trained zoologist, worked as a curator at the Asiatic Society.
Edward Blyth was from a poor family who managed to scrape together money for his schooling and educated himself by spending long hours in library.
Darwin who was from a wealthy family of Industrialists was quite the opposite: the Origin originator always had family wealth to fund his pursuit and never had to work to make ends meet.
Blyth found three references in the Origin book for information sent by him to Darwin on Indian cattle, on wild assess of Kutch and cross-breed geese. Darwin and Blyth exchanged correspondence but never met.
Although Darwin never met his India correspondent, he met Indians in Maurituis who were exiled by the British Government in India for various offences. About them Darwin said: “Before seeing the people I had no idea that the inhabitants of India were such noble looking figures.” Particularly struck by the contrast between their dark skin and white beard of older men, he observed, “this together with the fire of their expression gave them a most imposing aspect.”
Joseph Hooker, a botanist, was also among Darwin’s informers. Joseph travelled extensively in the Himalayas to gather his data and was among closest friends and supporters of Darwin’s.
But, as the article says, no one among his informants stands out like Edward Blyth. Blyth died a forgotten man in a mental asylum in 1873.
And, while the Asiatic Society commemorated the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species last month, Edward Blyth, the Origin’s chief contributor, remained a forgotten man.