Thursday, June 29, 2006

India: 'Oriental Memoirs'

"During the first year of work in Bharuch as Collector of Revenues, Forbes had a 'most interesting' excursion to Turcaseer, 'a small Mahratta town which gives name to ruined districts once populous and cultivated'. Here he had a wonderful opportunity to observe all sorts of wildlife, both flora and fauna. 'Green pigeons... and the usual variety of songsters, animated the woods of Turcaseer...The bird in the plate is represented about half the natural size; it is of beautiful plumage and high flavoured. These pigeons are met with in most parts of Hindostan and particularly abound with Banian Trees, whose fruit forms their principal food. The Cur-Champah grows to a large tree, with a rich foliage and at most seasons is covered with white flowers, which emit a delicate fragrance to a considerable distance.' "

"Forbes spent seven years in a beautiful villa with extensive gardens on the banks of the Narmada while at Bharuch and at the Governor's Mansion with its courts and gardens when stationed at Dhaboi. His orange and lime trees were filled with peacocks, doves and bulbuls; monkeys and squirrels feasted on his pomegranates and custard apples. Of the squirrels he writes: 'There are larger squirrels in India, more like those in Europe; but the little beauty here delineated is common in every town and village throughout Hindostan; perfectly familiar in the houses and gardens of natives and Europeans: the stripes are sometimes of a darker brown. The Tamarind leaves and blossoms are of the usual standard; the fruit is shorter than is generally seen, on account of the size of the plate.' "

"During Forbes' residence in Bharuch as Collector, he often went out on sporting excursions with the English Chief in the neighbouring districts. However he wrote: 'not that I had any pleasure in those diversions' but that his tent was pitched in 'unfrequented forests and savage tracts, little known to Europeans'. Since a sporting camp was formed during the first year of his residence at Bharuch, Forbes had an opportunity to explore the rich wildlife of Turcaseer, a ruined town but 'once populous and cultivated'. Here, the 'woods and forests abounded with tigers, hyenas, wolves, ...and a variety of small game'including the floriken, a much hunted bird of the Bustard family. 'The Florican, or Curmoor, exceeds all the Indian wild fowl in delicacy of flavour; its varied plumage, lofty carriage and tuft of black feathers make him one of the most elegant birds in India.' "

"Forbes was a keen observer of nature, often making drawings of every interesting plant or animal he came across during his travels in India. Forbes wrote, 'These water lilies were drawn and coloured from Nature...they almost cover the Indian Lakes. When gently agitated by the breeze, they give them a beauty and freshness not easily conceived by the inhabitants of a colder climate.' "

"The subject of this plate is the 'exotic' plant known as the Fragrant Screwpine, Barbadoes Aloe, Kewra(Hindi) and Kewoda(Gujarati), is found wild in South India, and cultivated in Bengal. The fruits of the Pandanus are particularly beautiful and look similar to a pineapple. Forbes was interested in lithography, a fairly new method of producing images during his times and some of his natural historical studies such as this one was such an experiment."

"In January 1784, Forbes set sail for England halting briefly at Goa, Malabar and St. Helena. When sailing from St. Helena to Ascension, another island on the route, Forbes saw and studied interesting sea-animals like the Medusa or the 'Portuguese Man of War'. Describing it Forbes wrote: It'is the usual appellation to this beautiful product of Nature, which expands its light transparent sail at pleasure, and with thousands of its comrades scuds before a light breeze, and enlivens the surface of the ocean in the tropical latitudes.' "

"[Again,] when sailing from St. Helena to Ascension another island on the route, Forbes saw the 'most interesting scene of animated nature in the ocean, in the shoals of flying-fish abounding in particular lattitudes...This unfortunate inhabitant of the ocean was drawn of the natural size size and colours, from one which alighted on the deck of the ship, in its flight from its watery foes, and pursued by the sea-fowl hovering over the shoal from which it separated. When the oceanic flying-fish first emerges from the water, it is of the most beautiful silvery hues, softening the vivid shades of purple and blue.' "

" Of the mantis he wrote: 'There is as great a variety of plants cultivated for the oil which is expressed from their seeds as there is of the Mantis tribe of insects, in Guzerat. The plant here delineated is one of the most delicate of its kind; and the mantis, or Soothsayer, a singular variety among the creeping-leaves, begging-flies, and other insects of the mantis tribe.' "

"[Forbes] had an occasion to witness a flight of locusts 'extending above a mile in length, and half as much in a black cloud, cast an awful gloom like that of an eclipse over the garden, and caused a noise like the rushing of a torrent, they were near on an hour in passing over our little territory.' The locusts were known not only to cause famine in one place but also in the areas near the sea where they eventually drowned. Of the Faggot Caterpillar he wrote, 'The baubul tree (Acacia) afforded a curious specimen of insect sagacity in the Caterpillar's nests, suspended by thousands to the branches. This little animal, conscious of its approaching change...instinctively provides itself a strong mansion during that metamorphosis.

" 'These...grains...nutritive and valuable...were all drawn and coloured from nature; and when fully ripe, clothe the fertile pergunnas with the most luxuriant and varied beauty, in a province deservedly named the Paradise of Nations.' "

"Forbes, a keen observer of the manners and customs of the local inhabitants and the wandering 'holy men' described many in his letters to friends. The huge banyan on the island in the river Narmada was the favourite haunt of many of these 'holy men'.To quote Forbes: 'I beheld...reposing under the friendly banian-tree, the Gosanee in a state of nudity, and the Yogee with a lark or paroquet, his sole companion for a thousand miles: the Guroo, of the first rank in the brahminical hierarchy, travelling with oriental pageantry to visit the temple and superintend the seminars, meeting the brahmacharee (pupil), with a covered mouth and nostrils, that he may not inhale an animacule; and a soft broom to sweep the ground that he may not tread on an insect.' "

"James Forbes was born in London to a Scotch Protestant family. In 1765, he first traveled to Bombay as a writer for the East India Company, and spent most of the years until 1784 in residence there. He filled 52,000 manuscript pages with notes on all aspects of Indian life and culture, including descriptions of wildlife and personal encounters with the people. After returning to England, he married and thereafter traveled extensively on the European continent.

His life in India later formed the basis of the four-volume 'Oriental Memoirs', described in its subtitle as “selected and abridged from a series of familiar letters written during seventeen years residence in India: including observations on parts of Africa and South America, and a narrative of occurrences in four India voyages.” This work remains a valued document of the natural history and culture of late 18th century India, by both Western and Indian scholars. Forbes also published a work in 1810 advocating the conversion of the Hindus to Christianity."

The drawings made by Forbes were translated into engravings by William Hooker and the series was published in 1813. There are 9 thumbnail pages of images available of 'Oriental Memoirs' at the collectbritain website of the British Library [put 'oriental memoirs' into the search box]

**Also, within the new Collectbritain 'Front Page' (newspaper) exhibition, there are more than 50 years worth of the 'Penny Illustrated Paper' available. [via: Resourceshelf]

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