Botany in British India

Logo for the Botany in British India project featuring a sketch of a leaf

In the age of European expansion, an enthusiasm for investigating ‘exotic’ plants in faraway lands, especially in India, developed into a richly-documented scientific discipline: botany. These archives show botany’s importance to medicine, business, peoples, states and economies. They are part of the India Office Records and broadly cover the period 1800 to 1850.

About the collection

Pioneering Botanists

Highly motivated surgeon-naturalists were at the centre of this intense and pioneering activity. They included Robert Kyd, William Roxburgh, William Griffith and Robert Wight.

Interaction: Indians and British Newcomers

In these archives, you can also find out how the British and the indigenous Indian population interacted and exchanged knowledge.

Activity and Network

The activities documented in the archives include: the creation and operation of a network of botanical gardens in India (at Bangalore, Saharanpur, Dapuri, Ootacamund, Madras, Samulcotta and Darjeeling); plant-collecting expeditions to Assam, the Coromandel Coast and the Spice Islands; and the use of plants as foodstuffs, industrial products and medicines.

Subjects of Research in addition to Botany

The archives are also of interest to anyone studying:

  • history of science, nature and the environment
  • sociology and cultural studies (e.g. social uses of botany, gardens as pleasure grounds)
  • colonial history (including the interaction between imperial and indigenous populations)
  • intellectual curiosity, administration and the world-wide exchange of products and ideas

What is available online?

The digitised materials are available through Digitised Manuscripts and can be located by searching for the document references. 

To identify references the search term 'Botany in British India' can be used in the Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue, or the  Botany in British India Material list can be consulted which gives details of all the selected materials.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The India Office Records and Private Papers can be viewed in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room, and the catalogues are searchable online using Explore Archives and Manuscripts. There are also printed catalogues, guides to the collections and open access reference books in the A&AS Reading Room. The reading room PCs give free access to a number of useful sites, such as Find My Past and Nineteenth Century Collections Online.

What is available in other organisations?

The archive at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, contains private papers of some botanists operating in India, such as Charles Clarke, William Griffith, and Joseph Hooker. The institutional archives also contain correspondence with the East India Company and India Office on botanical matters.

Further information

Science and the Changing Environment in India 1780-1920 by Richard Axelby and Savithri Preetha Nair (London: British Library, 2010)

This project was made possible by the generous support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).