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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 17, December 16-31, 2010
The city's first botanical gardens
(By Dr. Anantanarayanan Raman ­remembers their creator, Dr. James Anderson)

Two hundred years before Chennai’s new botanical gardens, the first two were developed in the then growing town. Dr. James Anderson will be remembered for these two gardens of 18th and early 19th Century Madras. His Nopalry in ‘Marmelon’ (now Mambalam-Saidapet) and sprawling Anderson Gardens (now in Nungambakkam) were the result of his spirited efforts to know plants and their usefulness to humans.

James Anderson (1739-1809) was a qualified surgeon with an MD from Edinburgh and came to Madras in 1761 from Scotland. He was appointed an assistant surgeon with the English East India Company in Fort St. George in 1765. He was promoted as a full surgeon in 1786 and, later, became the Physician-General. Andersonia (Meliaceae) celebrates his contributions to Indian botany.

The Nopalry

Anderson sent specimens of cochineal insects he collected on a grass growing on Madras’s sandy beaches, as well as of the dye they produced, to Joseph Banks for verification. Spain at the time controlled most of the production and sale of cochineal dye and, levying as it did several tiers of tax on its export, the price of the dye was exorbitant. Anderson had friends search in Central and South America for the cactus (Cactus Cochinilifer; current name: Nopalea cochenillifera, Cactaceae), called the nopal (Spanish), on which the cochineal insects could be reared, after his searches in India were unsuccessful. However, he found it by chance in China and imported a plant into Madras for cultivation. He imported another plant from Manila, a third from the Cape of Good Hope, and a fourth from the King’s Garden at Kew. That the soil and climate of the coast of Coromandel sufficiently resembled those of Mexico was pointed out by Anderson in his attempt to convince the Government. The Company, with advice from Joseph Banks, recognised the advantages that Britain would gain by cultivating the cactus and the insect in Indian settlements and permitted Anderson to start a nopalry (a nopal nursery) in Madras. It started functioning in 1791 in Saidapet. In preparing for the nopalry, Anderson got allotted a 2-acre levelled plot with a southerly aspect. The plot was embanked and on the top embankment he had a milk hedge (Euphorbia aphylla) and mirgosa (margosa; neem, Azadirachta indica, Meliaceae) grown. Along the bottom embankment he had a 2-feet wide ditch dug to drain water in case of flooding. Anderson’s nephew Andrew Berry (also a surgeon) was appointed the Superintendent of the nopalry. The cactus grown, Nopal de Castile, had such fine spines that they could be seen only with a magnifying glass. He had the nopals planted 6 feet apart.

Dr. James Anderson (James is Jacobus in Latin) remembered in St. George's Cathedral – (Photograph: Vignesh Suresh Bhimsingh.)

By 1796, however, Anderson’s attention got diverted into setting up Anderson’s Gardens (about 110 acres) around his house in Nugambakkam. With receding attention from Anderson, Government, by 1793, decided to devote a part of the nopalry site to the Government Botanical Gardens (where the garden house Lushington Gardens came up) and to experiment with growing rubber trees supervised by Berry.

Madras was ravaged by a severe cyclone on December 9, 1807, and the nopalry and the botanical gardens were casualties. The plants that managed to survive the cyclone included sago palm (Saguerus rumphii, Arecaceae) and the nopal (prickly pear). The nopalry was in a state of ruin by 1809. Plants in the garden were then transferred to Lal Bagh, Bangalore, and the nopalry declared a failure. The land in Saidapet was subdivided and sold for development.

Anderson Gardens

Anderson developed his private botanical gardens in Nungambakkam in 1778-1792 and it survived until at least 1828. Tippu Sultan was at the time introducing sericulture in Mysore. Taking his cue from this economic enterprise, Anderson imported silkworms from Bengal in December 1790, and over the next six years tried to get the Company into silk production.

In the Nungambakkam garden, Anderson established several species of mulberry (Morus, Moraceae), among other plants. Convinced that the climate of Madras was most conducive for insect management, he became enthusiastic about rearing silkworms. He made two unsuccessful attempts, before he finally succeeded. The first batch of silkworm eggs hatched in Madras in December 1790.

Two months after receiving the silkworms, Anderson was sending silk reeled from their cocoons to London! He had obtained an experienced reeler from Bengal, Mahomet Arid Ulna, and using an illustration of a Piedmontese reeling machine, he had his own machine constructed.

In a letter to John Holland (Governor of Madras, 1789-1790) Anderson refers to importing ‘valuable’ plants into Madras. He starts with a brief description on the usefulness of the native Mahwah tree (Bassia latifolia, Sapotaceae, iluppai [Tamil]) and proceeds to talk about different native species of Meliaceae, Mimosa-s (which at present also refer to different Acacia-s), Ficus-es and Cassia-s. He refers to Andropogan Nardus (Poaceae) (=Cymbopogon nardus, which yields the citronella oil) used as thatch (karpurapul, Tamil) and to the import of Pegu Teak (teak – Tectona grandis) from the Pegu Ranges, Burma, for their usefulness in building gun carriages and houses.

In a communication dated August 3, 1788, Anderson records his observations on Oldenlandia umbellata (Rubiaceae), a tiny native of India (sãya-vér, Tamil; meaning colouring roots). He refers to O. umbellata as either che (read as ché) or choy and writes, “It grows everywhere here, a small weed; but it is only by particular culture the roots become possessed of the beautiful and permanent red dye, the seeds of which only are preserved for crop.” Later in the letter, Anderson refers to achieving the best results with the dye with sun drying. At the end of the letter he adds about 500 words translating methods of cultivation of O. umbellata as practised in the Talinga (Telugu) country (broadly referring to the northern Coromandel, including Madras). His communication concludes with a note referring to the list of shipments of seeds of O. umbellata he sent to Britain: (1) to the Royal Society for the Promotion of Arts (RSPA), Strand, London, (2) Society of Agriculture, Bath, and (3) Philosophic and Literary Society, Manchester. He also paid considerable attention to other plants of commercial importance, such as the sugarcane, coffee plant, American cotton, and European apple.

In a letter to Robert Brooks, Governor of St. Helena, he says:

“What benefits would result to society, if men of letters would in general turn their attention towards useful pursuits! How much might the lot of mankind be meliorated in a few centuries of such pursuits! Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, would thus contribute its share to the general improvement. And every country on the globe would be bettered for it. The mention of one plant alone, introduced into Europe from America, the potatoe, is enough to awaken the attention of every person, whose soul can feel the expansive glow of beneficient affections, and make them look up with gratitude to those, who by attentions of this fort (sort), have proved the best friends of mankind.”

James Anderson, Physician-General, Madras, contributed significantly to the botany of the Coromandel. He talks eloquently, as in the letter above, of his excitement in securing material food for the people. Nonetheless, there is an underpinning urge to improve Britain’s economy by exporting not only knowledge but also material resources of India to Britain.

In this issue

Fort's fading splendour
High Court restoration in urgent need of action
Here's how you build Green Homes
The city's first botanical gardens
An eco-system in transition
Where good food & music go together

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