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In search of a South Asian climate: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

In search of a South Asian climate: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew

This is part of a series of reports from Harvard students who have traveled to South Asia with support from a SAI grant.

By Joshua Ehrlich, PhD Candidate, Department of History

A summer research grant from the South Asia Institute took me recently to a handful of archives across the UK: three in Scotland and one in London. The research was primarily in English and Indo-Persian source materials connected with my dissertation, “The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge.” These materials ranged from the mundane to the mystical; from the collections and correspondence of administrators to the poems and petitions of scholars. My project aims to give a new account of the political and ideological uses of knowledge in South Asia, in the eventful decades around 1800. Such materials are its evidentiary bread and butter.

At the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, I consulted the papers of George Bogle, who was commissioned in 1774 to establish a trade route between Bengal, Bhutan, and Tibet. The mission was not only commercial, but diplomatic and scholarly in character: Bogle was tasked with assessing the “government, revenue, and manners” of the places he visited. At Mount Stuart, on the Isle of Bute, meanwhile, I looked at several collections connected with the Company’s administration and education policy in the early 1800s, including correspondence between past and contemporary governors-general. The University of Glasgow and Royal Asiatic Society in London held other papers of interest in understanding the complex interactions of ideology, patronage, and scholarship.

One of the intellectual challenges of a transmarine project like mine is to trace the often forgotten connections between distant peoples, languages, and political idioms. But the archival work required to do so also entails physical and logistical challenges. Splitting the past year between India and the UK, travelling around most of the time in each, I was rarely able to adjust to a given place—or even fully move out of a suitcase. The British summer this year was sunnier than normal, but still made for an incongruous backdrop to some of my researches. It takes a greater-than-normal effort of the imagination to travel from a manor house library on a Scottish island to a desert outpost in the Deccan. Of course, London, and to a lesser extent Glasgow, have sizeable populations of South Asian ancestry, with attendant cultural and culinary benefits. Spend enough time in Delhi, however, and you become something of a snob about chole batura or Mughal miniatures. (The same goes for Kolkata and mishti doi etc.).

One of the best cures I found for my “culture shock”—or, as I’ve started calling it, “latitude sickness”—was a visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Linked from the time of my research to gardens at Calcutta, Saharanpur, and elsewhere across the British empire, Kew feels somehow more tangibly global than the nearby City of London, a cultural void whose myriad overseas financial connections are obscured by their complexity and ethereality. In the humid enclosure of an antique greenhouse, as the sweat came to my skin, an unlikely argument came to my mind around the disparate sources I had spent the summer consulting. I rushed “home” to write it down.