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Calcutta Botanic Garden


Calcutta Botanic Garden was founded in 1787. The official name of the Garden during the Company's rule was 'The Hon'ble Company's Botanic Garden, Calcutta', subsequently, it was renamed 'The Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta' in the early 1860s. At present, it is officially called 'Indian Botanic Garden, Howrah', but is known generally as the 'Calcutta Botanic Garden' in India and abroad.

The credit for the foundation of the Garden is generally given to Colonel Robert Kyd (1746-1793), a Secretary to the Board in the Military Department of Fort William who was also an amateur botanist. In a letter dated 1st June, 1786, Kyd proposed the establishment of a 'Botanical Garden' which would prove economically beneficial to the inhabitants of Calcutta and to British commerce. In this letter he proposed cultivating Cinnamon, Dacca cotton, indigo, tobacco, Coffee, Sandalwood, Pepper, tea, etc. The Court of Directors was sufficiently impressed by Kyd's economic arguments and enthusiastic support was given to it by Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the founding father of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, and President of the Royal Society (1778-1820). A site adjacent to Kyd's own private garden at Shalimar, across the river Hoogly was selected for the purpose. Preparatory works for the Garden started in April 1787. In May of that year Kyd was made its Superintendent.

Many of the early schemes of Kyd such as the introduction of trees yielding nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, pepper vines, etc failed because the climate was quite unsuited to these equatorial spices. Equatorial fruits were also tried but met the same fate as did temperate fruits of Europe. Nevertheless, Kyd went on to introduce a large number of plants into the Garden, and transferred seeds and plants to other botanical establishments of the Company. In Roxburgh's Hortus Bengalensis, it is noted that Kyd introduced some 300 species of plants into the Garden.

Kyd's successor, william roxburgh (1751-1815) was undoubtedly the most accomplished botanist to have served the Company. He took charge of the Garden on 29 November 1793. In the same year Christopher Smith was appointed to the post of Gardener. Roxburgh began to collect plants systematically from India, South East Asia, and the Far East, and set up a herbarium. Cinnamon cultivation received his special attention. Smith went to Malacca for Nutmeg and Clove plants. Roxburgh started experiments with the cultivation of various fibrous plants, including hemp and flax. From April 1798 to July 1799 Roxburgh was in the Cape of Good Hope to collect plants.

Roxburgh introduced the Mahogany tree into the Garden from West Indian seeds sent by the court of directors in 1794-95. It has been claimed that every Mahogany tree in the region was essentially derived from these imports. Similarly, teak was first planted in the Calcutta Botanic Garden, and plantations were later established at several other places in the Bengal Presidency. Teak plantations, however, were not successful in Bengal. Roxburgh's experiments with fibrous plants were more successful, as he was able to produce a number of Indian substitutes for hemp as well as flax.

Both at Samalkot and Calcutta, Roxburgh trained a group of native artists in the European tradition of botanical drawings. Thus he was able to produce several thousand drawings of Indian plants. It was on Roxburgh's material and drawings that the famous books on Indian botany were based; Plants of the Coast of Coromandel (published by the Company in 1795, 1802 and 1819), Hortus Bengalensis or A Catalogue of the Plants growing in the Honourable East India Company's Botanic Garden at Calcutta (serampore, 1814), and the famous Flora Indica. Until the year 1872 when publication of the Flora of British India was begun by the distinguished botanist Sir Joseph Hooker, Roxburgh's Flora Indica was the only book through which knowledge of Indian plants could be acquired.

francis buchanan (afterwards Buchanan Hamilton), the successor of Roxburgh, held office only for a short spell of time (November 1814 to February 1815). Buchanan Hamilton is chiefly remembered for two surveys he conducted, the first of Mysore in 1800 and the second of Bengal in 1807-14. In 1804, he was in charge of the newly founded 'Institution for Promoting the Natural History of India' at Barrackpore. Buchanan's collections of plant materials enriched the Herbarium of the Garden considerably.

After Buchanan's departure in 1815, Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854), a Danish surgeon became the officiating Superintendent of the Garden. He occupied the post till 1846.

As Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, Wallich made periodic expeditions to India's northern and eastern frontiers, and visited the neighbouring kingdoms. In fact, Wallich collected abundant plants during 1817-1828 through his own efforts as well as from contributions made by botanists and collectors throughout the country.

Wallich finally retired to Europe in April 1846. Before his successor Hugh Falconer arrived in 1848, the Garden was temporarily in charge of John McClelland (1805-85) a geologist with botanical interests and editor of the Calcutta Journal of Natural History (1841-47). McClelland started the Garden School to produce qualified malees (gardeners). In February 1848 Hugh Falconer (1808-65), a palaeontologist and botanist, joined the Garden as its Superintendent and the Calcutta Medical College as Professor of Botany. His contribution of plants specimens to the Garden collected in Tenasserim enriched its Herbarium. In 1854 he produced an account of the state of the Teak plantations in the Bengal Presidency, started by Roxburgh. He retired from the Garden in 1855.

Thomas Thomson (1817-1878) took charge of the Garden on 17th April 1855. In 1856 he produced a 'Report on the Hon'ble Company's Botanic Garden', and the 'Notes on the Herbarium of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, with especial reference to the completion of the Flora Indica' where he reviewed the progress of the Garden and gave concrete suggestions for improvement of its scientific status. During his tenure the Indian collections made by JD Hooker and Thomson himself in 1841-51 (known in Europe as the great Indian Herbarium) were transferred to the Calcutta Botanic Garden to enrich its Herbarium. His successor, Thomas Anderson (1832-1870) appointed Wilhelm Sulpiz Kruz (1833-1878), a German, as the Curator of the Herbarium in February 1864. The Library of the Garden was enriched by the purchase of Thomson's personal library. Since the early 1860s the epithet 'Royal' was attached to the name of the Garden. The restorative works suffered serious setbacks because of two successive cyclones of extraordinary violence in October 1864 and in November 1867 which destroyed 1761 trees of the Garden. Meanwhile, Anderson successfully introduced Cinchona cultivation in darjeeling. In 1864 Anderson was appointed the Conservator of Forests in Bengal. He and his successors were also given the additional charge of Superintendent of Cinchona Plantations in Bengal.

George King (1840-1909) was appointed the Superintendent in 1871. With the restoration in 1872 of the ground formerly occupied by the Agri-Horticultural Society of India, the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta, expanded to just over 270 acres. The whole area of the Garden was treated for landscape effects. New roads and footpaths were made. Building for the Herbarium and a number of Conservatories made of iron structure covered by a thin thatch of glass for delicate living plants were erected. A fireproof Herbarium was built to house a rapidly growing collection of specimens (some half a million by 1890). Nursery buildings were put up and comfortable houses were made for the Garden staff. In 1878, 40 acres of land were acquired at Darjeeling to form a botanic garden (The Lloyd Botanic Garden) as a distant annexe of the Calcutta Garden. In 1887, King started the publication of Annals of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta, a series of profusely illustrated botanical monographs. Since 1891 onwards the name 'Superintendent' was dropped and King and his successors were declared as 'Director'. King also became the Director of the Botanical Survey of India in 1887. Calcutta Garden became the headquarters of the Survey and was given regional responsibility for Bengal, Assam, North East, Burma, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

David Prain (1857-1944), Curator of the Calcutta herbarium and famous for his Bengal Plants (1903), succeeded King in 1897. Prain became Director of the Kew Gardens in 1905. Andrew Thomas Gage (1871-1945), a travelling botanist and Curator since 1897 succeeded him in 1905 and held the post till 1923. His successor, Charles Cumming Calder (1884-1962), Professor of Botany at the University of Calcutta, was the last European to become its Director. He was succeeded in 1937 by the well-known Bengali botanist, Kalipada Biswas, who was the first Indian Director of the Garden as well as the Botanical Survey of India. In the following year, the 150th anniversary of the Garden was held. It was renamed as the Indian Botanic Garden in 1950. [Abhijit Mukherjee]