Kolkata’s Historic Botanic Garden

One of the lakes created in the centre of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta, during the 1880s, now known as the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden in Shibpur, Howrah

WHEN Colonel Robert Kyd proposed in 1786 that a botanic garden should be established in Calcutta (now Kolkata), he probably had little idea that it would still be on the same site and have the same essential form 230 years’ later. His foundation is one of the oldest botanic gardens outside Europe, and was for many years the world’s largest. An enduring feature is the great banyan, which predates the Garden and is often thought to be the largest tree in the world by area.

Kyd envisaged the Garden mainly as an economic enterprise. His original concept was for it to facilitate the introduction of new food and commercial crops. However, by calling it a ‘botanic garden’ he almost inevitably widened its scope. For botany is the scientific study of plants, and the word ‘garden’ has strong aesthetic associations. The story of most botanic gardens revolves around the interplay between their economic, scientific and aesthetic functions, and Calcutta was no exception. This article will trace the development of the Garden, showing how the landscape reflected varying policies and pressures during the colonial period.

Kyd had little chance to bring much of the 330 acre (133 hectare) area he had enclosed into cultivation before he died in 1793. It was his successor, William Roxburgh, who brought order to the Garden and expanded it. Unlike Kyd, who had a military background, Roxburgh was a medical officer and a talented and experienced botanist. He had already spent nearly 10 years supervising experimental plots in South India. He also had some knowledge of European botanic gardens, although Calcutta and other colonial botanic gardens developed their own particular characteristics and were never mere replicas of those in Europe.

Kyd had been able to appropriate a large area because the garden he established was about six kilometres downstream and on the opposite side of the River Hooghly to Calcutta. Proximity to the river meant that this was a marshy region and prone to erosion. Nevertheless, Roxburgh decided to live in the Garden and he built a large house by the river to accommodate his family. The house still exists, although dilapadated, and has acted as one of the focuses of the Garden.

During his 20 year superintendence Roxburgh experimented with many possible economic crops and became an active participant in the British Empire’s emerging botanical network. He classified a large number of plants previously unknown to European science. When he arrived there were some 300 different types of plants in the Botanic Garden, but by the time he left there were over 3,000. Roxburgh described these plants in numerous publications, thus earning the accolade ‘the father of botany in India’.

Roxburgh’s planting and experimentation provided hard evidence of the Garden’s scientific and economic purposes, but he also began to landscape the grounds. He thus met the expectations of early European visitors, some of whom published descriptions which invariably used aesthetic language. For instance, Maria Graham wrote in 1810, ‘I was delighted with the order and neatness of every part’ . The pressure for the Garden to appear attractive as well as scientific was a subtle but continuing one.

Roxburgh had enjoyed a good deal of independence, but during the time of his successor, Nathaniel Wallich, the government gradually began to articulate what it expected of the Garden. With official encouragement the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India was formed in 1820 to facilitate the introduction of new species and to transfer British farming skills to India. That left the Botanic Garden to focus on its more scientific functions and Wallich spent much of the 1820s investigating the plant resources of areas previously little known to the British. Despite the Garden’s achievements however, the government reduced its budget in 1829 as part of a retrenchment exercise.

Wallich had gone on leave to London the year before so was not able to defend the Garden. He took the Garden’s entire herbarium back with him and during his five year absence he demonstrated his strengths as a botanist and collector, working with other botanists to analyse his many finds. He built on Roxburgh’s earlier work by publishing his magnificent Plantae Asiaticae Rariores, and he did much to establish the Garden’s reputation in Europe as an important botanical institution.

Wallich also used the Garden as a means of encouraging an interest in Western-style gardening, and freely distributed many horticultural plants. In the 1830s he tried to counter the government’s view of the Garden as economically disappointing by closely involving it in the introduction of tea-growing in India in the 1830s. He also provided a large plot in the Garden for the Agricultural and Horticultural Society’s experimental work, thus further highlighting economic activity.

Wallich paid less attention the general landscaping of the Garden, although visitors continued to describe it as a beautiful place. In the 1820s Bishop Heber wrote, ‘The Botanic Garden is a very beautiful and well-managed institution’. It was evident by the 1830s, however, that Wallich had no clear vision for the Garden, and he came under increasing criticism from younger British botanists working in India.

By 1842 Wallich was suffering from ill-health and left India to spend two years recuperating in South Africa. One of his critics, William Griffith, became acting superintendent and initiated a wholesale reappraisal of the Garden’s work. Griffith felt that the Garden had been poorly maintained and he felled many trees. He planned to devote part of the Garden to ‘order beds’ where similar species would be planted together so that they could be studied more easily. He felt very strongly that there should be a more vigorous effort to investigate the Indian flora, and that the Garden’s commitment to science should be clearly reflected in the way that it was laid out.

Wallich returned briefly to India in 1844 and was horrified at the results of Griffith’s efforts. He wrote to William Hooker, the Director of Kew Gardens: ‘… for where is the stately, matchless garden that I left in 1842? Is this the same as that? Can it be? No – no – no! Day is not more different from night, than the state of the garden as it was, is from its present utterly ruined condition’.

Griffith died a few months later, but when Wallich finally left India Griffith’s collaborator, John McClelland, became acting superintendent and continued the attempts to reform the Garden. Landscaping however is a sensitive task and neither Griffith nor McClelland succeeded in creating a satisfactory environment. It was not easy to grow different orders of plants in rows or circles next to each other as they usually had different soil and irrigation requirements, and young trees often needed the shade of older ones, many of which had been felled.

When William Hooker’s son, Joseph, visited Calcutta in 1848 he was highly critical of what had been done, and wrote:  ‘The avenue of Sago-palms, once the admiration of all visitors ….., had been swept away by the same unsparing hand which had destroyed the teak, mahogany, clove, nutmeg and cinnamon groves’.

He not only realised that wholesale clearances did not work, but was also aware that botanical gardens must be attractive. They had to blend science and beauty harmoniously to retain official support.

New staff in the 1850s began to address these problems. Groves of bamboos and palms were planted for landscape effect, and the free distribution of horticultural plants was stopped so that garden staff could concentrate on scientific work and landscaping. Thomas Thomson, who was superintendent from 1855-61, suggested for the first time that the Garden could benefit the population of Calcutta by fulfilling the role of a Victorian public park. His argument that an attractive landscape brought health and aesthetic benefits was regularly repeated over the next 50 years. The Garden’s prestige was enhanced at this time when it was renamed The Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta.

Despite Thomson’s efforts his successor, Thomas Anderson, felt that the Garden had made little progress over the previous 25 years. When he arrived in 1861 he brought a new dynamism to its management and devised plans to improve all aspects of its work. The government was impressed by Anderson’s energy and provided additional resources. He was then able to recruit two extra staff who were competent botanists. They enabled the Garden to continue working effectively even when Anderson was spending a lot of his time establishing plantations in Sikkim to grow cinchona, the source of quinine. In Calcutta he reorganised and built up the herbarium. As a result the Garden gradually recovered its botanical science capability, which had been much diminished when Wallich removed the entire herbarium in 1828.

Anderson also thought carefully about the landscaping of the Garden and devised a comprehensive plan. He revived Griffith’s idea of having order beds and planting similar species near each other, but set about doing it in a more flexible way. Unfortunately his work was disrupted by two major cyclones in 1864 and 1867 which destroyed over half the trees in the Garden and flooded much of it. Shortly after, Anderson’s health broke down and he had to return to Britain. The cyclones contributed to British concern about the unhealthy and threatening aspects of the tropics, and to a loss of official faith in the Garden. There were doubts about whether it was in the right place, and concern that plans for improvements seemed always to be thwarted.

In the 1870s, however, confidence gradually returned, and the new superintendent, George King, inaugurated a period of stability. He continued Anderson’s work on cinchona growing, and carried on building up the herbarium collection. That enabled the Garden to provide vital support to Joseph Hooker at Kew. In the 1860s Hooker had started writing The Flora of British India, a comprehensive account of all the plants known to grow in India. It eventually ran to six large volumes and was not completed until 1897. This collaboration, which finally provided a proper scientific description of the Indian flora, increased the credibility of both botanic gardens.

King also thought very carefully about how the Calcutta Garden should present itself. He decided that it was impossible to inscribe the Garden’s scientific purpose on the landscape, and that species would have to be separated. Like most educated Victorians he also believed in the recreational possibilities of parks and built on the ideas first put forward by Thomson twenty years before. From the 1870s the aesthetic aspect prevailed and King focussed on making the Calcutta Garden an attractive place to visit.

To address the perennial drainage problems King laid out a series of interconnected lakes. Around these he established new walks and he planted avenues and groups of trees for shelter and for landscape effect. These trees proved effective in resisting the cyclones that still occasionally struck. As a result the tropicality of the Garden came to seem less threatening to the Victorian mind, and King satisfied officials by showing how British rule could ‘improve’ the tropical environment. A report in 1895 summed up the government’s satisfaction: ‘Dr King’s singular talent for landscape gardening has enabled him, during the 24 years he has been in charge, to add greatly to the beauty of the garden by skilful grouping of trees and shrubs …’.

Whilst aesthetic considerations came to predominate, the Garden’s scientific functions remained very important. Government officials who were imbued with the Victorian enthusiasm for natural history provided extra resources that enabled King to construct a large new herbarium building and plant-houses. With the abandonment of order beds science was less prominent in the landscape, but there was much scientific activity in the herbarium, and there was a big increase in the exchange of plant material with other botanic gardens; Calcutta became a major participant in the worldwide botanic network.

As part of his comprehensive approach King finally brought the whole Garden into cultivation, nearly a hundred years after it was first laid out. By building strong fences and embankments King also secured the Garden against marauding neighbours and scouring tides. The Garden thus became a secure and ordered place, in keeping with the priorities of the late 19th-century colonial regime.

The Garden continued to play an economic role. The government still hoped that new economic crops could be introduced to India and the Garden reserved an area for trying them out. Success was limited as India had long been a participant in world trade, and most useful plants that could grow there had already been introduced. King himself later wrote: ‘In fact, no small part of the benefits conferred on the country by the garden in its early days was the demonstration by practical experiment that certain natural    products, many of them of a most desirable kind, cannot be grown in Bengal’.

The Garden’s one major economic success was the production of anti-malaria drugs from the cinchona grown in Sikkim. King not only supervised the plantations but also set up the laboratory and factory. That was an unusual management arrangement but it worked successfully, and demonstrated how the Garden could do valuable practical work.

There was also some modest expansion. In the 1870s King argued that, ‘To be complete the botanical garden of an empire should contain representatives, if not of every species, at least of every genus indigenous within the limits of that empire.’ The Lieutenant Governor of Bengal agreed and a modest botanic garden was set up in Darjeeling to grow temperate plants.

That was Calcutta’s only subsidiary garden. The other botanic gardens in India were not controlled by Calcutta, but the Calcutta Garden was always the largest and best resourced so tended to act as primus inter pares. That situation was formalised when the Botanical Survey of India was set up in 1890, with the superintendent in Calcutta being given an advisory and guiding role. Because of the long relationship and the personal rapport between George King and Joseph Hooker, Calcutta was also the main conduit for India’s relations with Kew Gardens, which had by the 1870s assumed responsibility for coordinating botanical work throughout the British Empire.

The late 19th century was the high point for Calcutta Botanic Garden. The government admired the Garden’s achievements and King was awarded a well-deserved knighthood when he retired in 1898. By this time, however, the Victorian enthusiasm for natural history was beginning to decline. Educated people became more interested in understanding how biological systems functioned rather than taxonomy. Consequently officials began to question whether resources still needed to be devoted to cataloguing India’s plant life once The Flora of British India was completed.

King sensed the diminishing enthusiasm and in his last few years he began to highlight the Garden’s past achievements. He wrote a history of the Garden to mark its 100th anniversary. A few years later he commemorated all the important botanists who had contributed to cataloguing the Indian flora by naming paths and avenues in the Garden after them, and he made sure that the monuments to the early superintendents were prominent in the landscape.

By the beginning of the 20th century wider issues were also affecting the work of the Botanic Garden. Improved communications and the spread of English as a lingua franca brought people in India together. New all-India organisations such as Congress began to challenge the basis for British rule and ask why colonial science had done so little to improve agricultural productivity and control disease.

That led indirectly to the ending of the Garden’s economic role. Rapid progress in fields such as biochemistry, microbiology and mycology were leading to improvements in agricultural productivity in Europe and America. Applying this new knowledge in India required specialist skills that were beyond the capacity of a traditional botanic garden. Responding to the challenges to its effectiveness the government formed a new agricultural department. The Garden then ceased to have any real economic function and Andrew Gage, who became superintendent in 1905, had to accept a narrower remit, writing in 1907,   ‘… there is now generally speaking no necessity for the Garden to undertake economic experiments’. Instead, Gage made efforts to improve the landscape by planting according to regions of origin, and by opening out ‘vistas’ similar to those at Kew, but neither idea was fully implemented.

There was a further blow to the Garden in 1911, when the government announced that  the capital would be moved from Calcutta to Delhi. That meant that access to senior officials became more difficult and the Botanic Garden lost some of the justification for its primacy in India. The Garden was also slow to attract the first generation of Indians educated in Western science, but after 1913 they did begin to take on more prominent roles, leading to the appointment of the first Indian superintendent, Kalipada Biswas, in 1937. There was no drastic break with previous practice though: the landscape continued to be managed in a similar way, and the memorials were retained as significant landmarks in the Garden.

The Garden did some useful research to support the war effort in the 1940s. When Indian independence came in 1947 its royal title was dropped and it was renamed the Indian Botanic Garden. Since then the Garden has had a continuing role as an important contributor to the worldwide botanical network. The main development in the years since independence has been the erection of a large new building to house the India’s Central National Herbarium, providing an even larger indoor space for scientific work. The Garden was renamed again in 2009 and is now the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden. Outdoors, the landscape left by King has not changed greatly, and the Garden remains a valuable retreat from the noise and fumes of the city, renamed Kolkata in 2000.
BY ANDRIAN THOMAS