The East India Company and Natural History Collecting

Written by Rachel Petts, Curatorial Assistant Zoology (part time), Manchester Museum.

Manchester Museum is currently undergoing an exciting transformation, building two new galleries, a South Asia Gallery and the Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery. This sparked interest and further research into our natural history collections from Asia.

Manchester Museum has a large collection of 18,000 bird skins; including many specimens from the former British Empire. Further study of the collection has identified over 100 birds linked to the East India Company Museum.

Figure 1: B.2574 Psittacula alexandri fasciata (Statius Muller, 1776) Red-breasted Parakeet, Andaman Islands, South Asia. Presented by the India Museum, London. © Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester

A Brief History of the East India Company Museum

The East India Company was established in 1600 by a royal charter signed by Queen Elizabeth I. It gave the company the monopoly on trade in South Asia for over 250 years. The museum was established in 1798, as an ‘Oriental Repository’ to exhibit the returns of the East India Company’s commerce. It was known as the India Museum, and was housed in the company’s headquarters at India House, Leadenhall Street, London. Company servants were encouraged to expand their knowledge of South Asia in order to advance the company’s commercial and territorial ambitions.

Figure 2: East India House by Thomas Malton the Younger (1748-1804), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Modelled on the Royal Society of London, the Asiatic Society of Bengal was formed in 1784 by a number of East India Company employees in Calcutta. The aim of the society was to carry out research into the history, arts, literature and Natural History of Asia. The Asiatic Society was closely associated with the India Museum in London. Charles Wilkins one of the founding members of the Asiatic Society would go on to propose the formation of the East India Company Museum in London and would become its first curator. The Indian Museum in Calcutta was established in 1814 with the founding collections from the Asiatic Society.

As the East India Company’s power grew, so did the museum’s collections. Natural history collecting became a key part of expanding knowledge about new territories. Many of the collections were acquired as a result of trade missions, military campaigns or administrative surveys. The collection at India House became one of the largest collections of natural history, arts and sciences of Asia, in Europe.

Some of the early natural history collections were donated by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and Thomas Horsfield. Both men were stationed in Java, Raffles was the Lieutenant Governor and Horsfield was an American naturalist and surgeon. Encouraged by Raffles, Horsfield studied and collected the islands wildlife at a time when there was little information available on the region in Britain. In 1819, Horsfield came to London, and worked on cataloguing and publishing on the extensive natural history collections, including a two volume catalogue describing the birds in the India Museum collections. Horsfield became the curator in 1836 and held the role until his death in 1859. Unfortunately, many of his specimens perished.

The Government of India Act (1858) called for the liquidation of the British East India Company, and led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India. In 1863 the company’s headquarters at India House were demolished and a new government department was formed: the India Office. In 1861 the museum temporarily moved to Fife House near Embankment.

Once the East India Company was disbanded, the museum relocated to inadequate space in the new India Office in Whitehall, reopening to the public in 1870. But there was not enough space for the extensive collections; in 1875 rooms were rented from the South Kensington museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Dispersal of the India Museum’s collections

In 1879, the decision was made to close the museum and disperse the collections, as neither the Indian or British governments were willing to accept the costs of a purpose built museum. The botanical specimens were transferred to Kew Gardens and zoology specimens were taken by the British Museum of Natural History (BMNH). Other collections were shared between the British Museum and the South Kensington Museum. Some of the duplicate bird specimens were transferred to Manchester Museum in 1895.

It has been possible to identify more of the India Museum birds in the Manchester Museum collections by studying the specimen labels; many still have the old British Museum registration numbers. More provenance information has been determined by searching for the registration numbers in the BMNH catalogue.

Figure 3: Bird specimen labels showing British Museum registration numbers.
© Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester

India Museum birds at Manchester Museum

So far a total of 121 bird specimens linked to the India Museum have been identified within the Manchester Museum collections (see figure 4).

Figure 4: A table showing the scope of the collection at Manchester Museum.

 

Birds presented by the East India Company

4

Birds from the India Museum collection

99

Birds presented by the Indian Museum, Calcutta

18

   

Total number of bird specimens at Manchester Museum  121

The collection at Manchester Museum contains 101 different species, the birds were collected from a wide geographic range across Western, South and South East Asia (see figure 5). Notably there are 18 specimens from Malacca, Malaysia. This corresponds with the East India Company’s expansion and formation of new trade links in the Malay Peninsula. From 1820 – 1850s, the India Museum collections grew as specimens where transported back to London. Many of the early 19th century bird collectors in India were employed the British East India Company; they were often medical men or army officers. Collecting and transporting natural history specimens was an important part of ‘scientific imperialism’ gaining scientific knowledge in order to expand foreign trade and rule.

The India Museum contributed to many of the international exhibitions that took place during the 19th century, including the Great Exhibition in London (1851). These exhibitions provided the opportunity to display the wealth of natural and industrial products of India. A small number of birds now in the Manchester Museum collection were exhibited at the international exhibition in Paris.

Figure 5: A map showing the geographic distribution of the India Museum bird specimens within the Manchester Museum collection.
More detail can be seen on Google Earth https://earth.google.com/earth/d/1sErltQ32orfGlL1uLRQjiezbrQ6zqTvQ?usp=sharing

Some of the largest collections of birds donated to the India Museum were amassed by Theodore Cantor and Brian Houghton Hodgson. Cantor was a Danish physician employed by the East India Company. Manchester Museum has a small number of Cantor’s birds from Penang and Malacca, Malaysia.

Figure 5: B.1318 Ceyx erithacus (Linnaeus, 1758) Black-backed Kingfisher, from Penang, Malaysia collected by Cantor.

Hodgson studied at the East India Company College, also known as the Fort William College in Calcutta. He first travelled to India in 1818 at the age of 17, and he was based in Nepal and Sikkim. He retired to Darjeeling after his long career serving the East India Company. Hodgson devoted many years of study to the natural history of the Himalayan regions, describing many new species. Manchester Museum has a small number of Hodgson’s birds from Nepal.

As the India Museum collections grew, a considerable number of duplicate specimens were acquired. During the 1820s and 1830s mammal and bird specimens were donated to the British Museum, the Geneva Museum, the Zoological Society of London and the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge. On the 17th of November 1879, the remaining India Museum zoological collections were formally transferred to the British Museum, the collection included 6,409 bird specimens. Duplicate specimens were also offered to museums in Calcutta, Dublin, Maidstone, the Indian institute in Oxford and the Philosophical Society of Scarborough. Surplus specimens were distributed widely; there might be more specimens in collections throughout Europe that we don’t know of.

Do you have any natural history specimens from the India Museum in your collections? If so, we would love to hear from you.

Manchester Museum’s collection is available for research; please get in touch if you would like to access the collection.

Further reading

Blanford, W. T. (1888) The fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma. London, Taylor & Francis.

Desmond, R. (1982) The India Museum, 1801-1879. HM Stationery Office.

Downes, M.E., Strachey, G. and Tytler, C. (1873) The Zoological Collections in The India House. Nature.

Horsfield, T. (1821) XIV. Systematic Arrangement and Description of Birds from the Island of Java. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 13: 133-200.

Horsfield, T. and Moore F. (1854) A catalogue of the birds in the Museum of the Honorable East India Company. vol.1.

Horsfield, T. and Moore F. (1858) A catalogue of the birds in the Museum of the Honorable East India Company. vol.2.

Ohnesorge, M. (2019) Structuring Imperial Knowledge about India at the Great Exhibition of 1851. [Online] [Accessed on 12th November 2020]

Ratcliff, J. (2016) The East India Company, the Company’s Museum, and the Political Economy of Natural History in the Early Nineteenth Century. Isis, 107(3), pp.495-517.

Sharpe, R.B. (1906) The History of the Collections contained in the Natural History Departments of the British Museum. vol.2. p.395-396.

Victoria and Albert Museum. (2018) Guide to records in the V&A Archive relating to the India Museum and Indian objects. Victoria and Albert Museum. [Online] [Accessed on 24th February 2021]

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