Transporting Plants between India and England

The challenge of sending a package between India and England comprised of a journey of over 12,000 nautical miles, as it had to travel around the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point of the African continent. The East Indiamen ships sailed between 75 and 150 miles per day, the whole journey taking four or five months, if traveling directly and without complication.[1] Complications were many as departures were unpredictable and dependent upon environmental and political factors, a trip often extended with many stops and detours. Letters sometimes waited months on board or were left behind abruptly and without notice. Elizabeth wrote shortly after her arrival:

I have just now heard that the Swallow Packet is going to sail which has been lying here nine months to be ready to sail at 24 hours notice & whether it may now sail in a few hours or be here some months I cannot guess but report says it is to sail.

Elizabeth Gwillim to Esther Symonds, July 16, 1802[2]

This observation was made many times over the years; letters dashed off in response to news that a ship would depart shortly, or conversely, remarks were made on a packet of letters languishing on a ship for months before finally leaving. The sisters sent letters, fabric, curiosities such as a live cockatoo, and Elizabeth spent “months of […] labour” collecting and sending many collections of seeds and trees to her family and botanical contacts in England.[3],[4]

Sending anything was a challenge, but transporting seeds and young plants was a particularly complex endeavor. Elizabeth actively participated in a botanical network that included amateur and educated locals and foreigners in India, as well as an extended network in England. The most advanced methods of transporting botanical specimens were still quite rudimentary, and the delivery of live plants or viable seeds was rare. Elizabeth’s contemporary Joachim Loddiges, a London nurseryman, noted only one plant out of twenty would survive the much shorter trip from the Americas.[5] The botanist and surgeon John Livingstone wrote to the Horticultural Society of London about the challenge of sending live plants from China to London in 1819, estimating that only one in a thousand plants survived.[6] Elizabeth’s efforts are notable in the face of such challenges, placing her successes among those of professional botanists and explorers of the time.

J. C. Müller, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth’s letters mention only with glancing detail how she packaged or prepared seeds and plants for travel. In 1801 she mentioned a trial of sending seeds two ways, the first “hung up in bags in a basket & hung up in Cabins,” while favoring a “varnished past[e] board” method. [7] Both of these methods were described in Englishman John Ellis’s 1770 booklet, Directions for bringing over seeds and plants from the East-Indies and other distant countries in a state of vegetation, one of the first publicly available manuals on the subject.[8] Ellis favored rolling clean, dry seeds in a layer of beeswax before securing them with another layer of wax in a shallow box, a method that performs the same functions as varnishing seeds onto a piece of thick cardstock.[9] Elizabeth’s approach with live plants is not specific, but is clear, as she noted sending trees in pots or boxes. In 1804, she wrote to her sister Hetty James of an opportunity to send plants home:

Captain Rees calling here & seeing two boxes of plants lying ready under a tree said he wou’d get the Captain of the David Scott to put them on the Poop – I am glad to accept the offer because there is in one of the boxes a large tree that is above two foot high of the plant which the German Botanical Doctor has called by name.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister “Hetty” Hester James, October 16, 1804 [10]

Packing plants in boxes was the popular method of transporting live specimens as it offered stability, relative climate control, potential protection from salt water and pests onboard such as rats, cockroaches, monkeys, and cats. These boxes were heavy and cumbersome, deep enough to accommodate a small plant in a foot of soil. Londoner Peter Collinson wrote of the best box for importing American plants in 1735, specifying “a Box 20 Inches or Two feet square and 15 or 16 inches High & a foot in Earth is Enough. . . . Nail a few small Narrow Laths across it to keep the Catts from Scratching It.”[11] The East India Company was known for a similar method, using casks with holes bored in the sides to safely bring exotics back to England in the late eighteenth century.[12] The preeminent botanist of Elizabeth’s day, Joseph Banks, would outfit an entire ship for plants, but also used boxes until his death in 1825.

Sending live plants was generally regarded as having a higher chance of success than seeds, as seeds were hard to find, often not available at the time of travel, and could spoil easily from their own natural oils or poor packaging conditions.[13] Live plants were preferrable, especially if a place above deck could be secured so that they could receive plenty of sunlight. Elizabeth described sending a particularly large specimen in the above excerpt, a plant identified by German amateur botanist Dr. Rottler. The poop deck was often the highest point of the ship and was farther removed from sea spray and had ready access to light and air circulation, all important factors in keeping a plant healthy on the long trip.

Making sure a plant arrived alive in England depended upon those enlisted to help with transportation and the weather along the way. Elizabeth noted many failures, referring to one Captain as “stingy” and a “sorry Crab” as he did not allow the plants freshwater rations on one trip.[14] Another letter notes the ruin of seeds and trees from a rough sea, as the pots of the trees broke and the seeds were destroyed by salt water.[15] Her efforts of 1804 saw success, her specimen arriving safely despite the David Scott taking six months to reach Plymouth.[16] Though it is unclear which two-foot tree she sent, it is likely the Gwillimia Indica, a variety of magnolia named for her by Dr. Rottler. Mentioned in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine in 1807, the tree’s presence in England was attributed to Elizabeth, the magazine calling her “the lady patroness of the science in [Madras].”[17] This was a rare success, as Elizabeth noted that she often sent the same varieties multiple times and in 1806 commented that she was “tired of sending plants because they are so unlucky.”[18] This was not only a concern for the safety of plants with the people, pests, and weather on a ship, but also the possibility of the ship being taken by privateers or the French Navy.

Mary’s letters discuss at length the dangers of the war with France to their friends aboard ships, and any letters or packages they might carry with them. Elizabeth said it succinctly when she wrote to her sister Hetty James in February of 1806, “I rail at Buonaparte & all the causes of the war which has so much interrupted our intercourse ever since we have been here.”[19] Though it seems a rather petty need for news from home, Elizabeth was pointing to the reality of the disruption of war and its effect on worldwide shipping.

The French National Convention declared war on Britain in 1793, Elizabeth and Mary arrived in India eight years into the conflict. Except for an official pause through the Peace of Amiens in March 1802 to May 1803, the war escalated during their stay.[20] England had recently lost the war with American rebels but was still expanding their colonial reach across the globe. India was not yet a dominion of the British crown, but militarized expansion through the East India Company had gained large portions of the continent, and there was increased pressure on land as well as at sea. The pressure on the expanding shipping network increased despite infrastructure and technological advances in shipping and a growing British power on the seas. British shipping was “averting an invasion of the British Isles, waging war at sea, mitigating economic warfare, circumventing the French blockade, safeguarding trade, and sustaining trade routes.”[21] Though maintenance of these routes was critical for the subsequent political and economic growth of Britain, Elizabeth and Mary’s letters pointed to a daily reality where India was quite isolated from England.  

Nevertheless, the project of sending and receiving packages between England and India fill many of Elizabeth and Mary’s letters. The delight in receiving a package from home with news of friends and family, along with tastes and conveniences such as preserved foods, the latest millinery fashions, sturdy boots, and art supplies was met with long epistolary gratitude. They detailed the ships the packages arrived on, the conditions of everything, the uses of the items (and misuses, especially when it came to the latest styles of hats), and the appreciation of the community as a whole, as food stuffs and vegetable seeds were shared and dress patterns loaned out. Maintaining this exchange by returning objects of interest was a highly personal and fairly political act, as it maintained personal connections through a militarized national project of global expansion.

Shipping anything from India to England was a feat with inconsistent success. As such, sending plants in this environment indicates their importance to the imperial project, as well as Elizabeth’s own interest and sense of purpose.

Sources

Ellis, John. Directions for bringing over seeds and plants from the East-Indies and other distant countries in a state of vegetation. London: Printed and sold by L. Davis, printer to the Royal Society, 1770. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough. China: Culture and Society, http://www.chinacultureandsociety.amdigital.co.uk.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/Documents/Details/Z199_01_0910 [Accessed July 26, 2022].

Keogh, Luke. The Wardian Case: How a Simple Box Moved Plants and Changed the World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. https://doi.org/10.7208/9780226713755.

Galani, Katerina. British Shipping in the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic Wars. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017. doi: https://doi-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/10.1163/9789004343283.

McCook, Stuart. “Squares of Tropic Summer: The Wardian Case, Victorian Horticulture, and the Logistics of Global Plant Transfers 1770-1910.” In Global Scientific Practice in an Age of Revolutions, 1750- 1850, edited by Patrick Manning and Daniel Rood, 199-215. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. muse.jhu.edu/book/47448.

Rudolf, Jenny. “The Botanical Cabinet.” Lankesteriana 8, no. 2 (2008): 43-52. https://doi.org/10.15517/lank.v0i0.7926.

Sims, John. “MAGNOLIA PUMILA, DWARF MAGNOLIA.” Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Volume XXV (1807): 977. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/471984.

Wheeler, Patrick. Ribbons Among the Rajahs: A History of British Women in India Before the Raj. South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword History, 2017.

Wikipedia. “David Scott (1801 EIC ship).” Last edited on 18 January 2021, at 19:10 (UTC). Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Scott_(1801_EIC_ship).


[1] Patrick Wheeler, Ribbons Among the Rajahs: A History of British Women in India Before the Raj (South Yorkshire:Pen and Sword History, 2017), 13.

[2] Elizabeth Gwillim to Esther Symonds, July 16, 1802, BL IOR Mss.Eur.C.240/1, ff. 62r-71v, f. 70v.

[4] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, no date [spring 1803], BL IOR Mss.Eur.C.240/2, ff. 167r-177v, f. 172v.

[3] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, March 6, 1805, BL IOR Mss.Eur.C.240/4, ff. 258r-266r, f. 258r.

[5] Jenny Rudolf, “The Botanical Cabinet.” Lankesteriana 8, no. 2 (2008): 3, https://doi.org/10.15517/lank.v0i0.7926.

[6] Luke Keogh, The Wardian Case: How a Simple Box Moved Plants and Changed the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 45, https://doi.org/10.7208/9780226713755.

[7] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, October 17, 1801, BL IOR Mss.Eur.C.240/1, ff. 19r-19v, f. 19r.

[8] Stuart McCook, “Squares of Tropic Summer: The Wardian Case, Victorian Horticulture, and the Logistics of Global Plant Transfers 1770-1910,” in Global Scientific Practice in an Age of Revolutions, 1750- 1850, ed. Patrick Manning and Daniel Rood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), 201.

[9] John Ellis, Directions for bringing over seeds and plants from the East-Indies and other distant countries in a state of vegetation (London: Printed and sold by L. Davis, printer to the Royal Society, 1770) available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough. China: Culture and Society, 3.

[10] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, October 16, 1804, BL IOR Mss.Eur.C.240/3, ff. 236r-241v, f. 236r.

[11] Keogh, The Wardian Case, 34.

[12] Keogh, The Wardian Case, 32.

[13] McCook, “Squares of Tropic Summer,” 202.

[14] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, August 24, 1805, BL IOR Mss.Eur.C.240/4, ff. 279r-296v, ff. 279v-280r.

[15] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, October 18, 1802, BL IOR Mss.Eur.C.240/1, ff. 88r-91v, f. 89v.  

[16] Wikipedia, s.v. “David Scott (1801 EIC ship),” last edited on 18 January 2021, at 19:10 (UTC), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Scott_(1801_EIC_ship).

[17] John Sims, “MAGNOLIA PUMILA, DWARF MAGNOLIA,” Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, Volume XXV (1807): 977, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/471984.

[18] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, February 11, 1806, BL IOR Mss.Eur.C.240/4, ff. 310r-313v, f. 313v.

[19] Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, February 11, 1806, BL IOR Mss.Eur.C.240/4, ff. 310r-313v, f. 310r.

[20] The relative effect of the peace on shipping may have been minor, as the news of whether France and England were at war could take six months to travel. “The expectation of a War has kept all ships here & nothing can sail untill [sic] we receive news from England[…] I intend sending this by Captain Gordon Commander of the Wellesley a private ship who waits only ’till some news arrives & will then sail instantly but will not be in England ’till xmas – so it will be one year before you can know the fate of your care & kindness.” Elizabeth Gwillim to Hester James, BL IOR August 14/15, 1803, Mss.Eur.C.240/2, ff. 134r-139v, 134r-v.

[21] Katerina Galani, British Shipping in the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic Wars, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017), 1,  doi: https://doi-org.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/10.1163/9789004343283.


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