Darwin’s Biggest Fan?

Himalayan Journals: Or, Notes of a Naturalist in Bengal, the Sikkim and Nepal Himalayas, the Khasia Mountains, etc., Joseph Dalton HookerIf T.H. Huxley was famously ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ – the pugnacious supporter who wiped the smirk off the face of ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce (son and biographer of William) during the British Association debate in Oxford in 1860 – and J. S. Henslow was ‘Darwin’s Mentor’, what role should history assign to Joseph Dalton Hooker? ‘Darwin’s Biggest Fan’, undoubtedly – he made no secret of his desire to emulate his hero’s voyages and discoveries, became a major collaborator and a close friend – but also, perhaps, ‘The Man in Darwin’s Shadow’?

Hooker was born in 1817, the son of Sir William Jackson Hooker, protégé of Sir Joseph Banks and first Director (from 1843) of Kew Gardens, whose Life and Labours were later commemorated by his son. At the time of his second son’s birth, William was living in Halesworth, Suffolk, ostensibly managing the local brewery (owned by his father-in-law, another keen botanist), but spent much of his time researching plants at home and abroad (including a voyage to Iceland at the behest of Banks); in 1820, again through Banks’ influence, he was appointed Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow.

Young Joseph apparently attended his father’s lectures from the age of seven(!), and his other great early interest was in the stories of voyages – not surprising, therefore, that a significant part of his life’s work was on the distribution of plants. He graduated from Glasgow with a medical degree, and his own first voyage was as an assistant surgeon on H.M.S. Erebus which, with the Terror, and commanded by James Clark Ross, was to survey the Antarctic region for four years between 1839 and 1841. The intention was for Hooker to function as the expedition’s naturalist, in the same way that Darwin had done, but his family’s finances precluded his travelling as a ‘gentleman scientist’ – he was, and for several years remained, an officer of the Royal Navy. But before he left, he had been shown (by Sir Charles Lyell’s father) a proof of Darwin’s Journal of Researches, and was determined that his own explorations should result in no less significant discoveries. (He must have been furious to discover his plant collection, which had been taken over by Ross on their return, rotting in Ross’s garden after his death in 1862.)

The many surviving pictures of Hooker show him as tall and thin, and almost always wearing spectacles – perhaps a rather weedy specimen (I pass over the terrible mutton-chop whiskers . . .). He must in fact have been extremely tough, to survive not only the rigours of four years at sea, in considerably less comfortable surroundings than those of Darwin (and these seem uncomfortable enough to us!), but also the four years  (1847–51) that he spent collecting plants for Kew and exploring in the Himalayas, at a time when the political situation in the area was complicated, and European travellers making maps were regarded with great suspicion. In fact, at one point Hooker and his companion Dr Archibald Campbell were arrested in Sikkim, and Campbell was badly beaten – a sequence of events which Hooker describes with great sang-froid in his Himalayan Journals (dedicated to Charles Darwin), but which ended badly for the unfortunate ruler of Sikkim with the (metaphorical) dispatch of a British gunboat  . . .

The Journals are very much more than a botanist’s notebook. There are observations on the geology, the animals, the architecture, and especially the people: chapter sub-headings include (in Ch. 2) ‘Lieutenant Beadle, Hot springs of Soorujkond, Poppy fields, Alligator, Spiders, &c., Tiger-hunt, Robbery’; in Ch. 17, ‘Acorns, Heat, Elephants, purchase of, Rajah of Cooch Behar, Beautiful scenery, Botanising on elephants’. And although he assures the reader that he will not even attempt to convey the sensations of sublimity he felt on first beholding the Himalayas, it was recently reported (The Independent, 25 February 2011 – many thanks to our colleague Sarah Tomlins for pointing this out to us!) that the archives at Kew possess a watercolour sketch by Hooker of Mt Chomolugma (named Mt Everest in 1856 by the Royal Geographical Society) which is believed to be the earliest Western depiction of the world’s highest mountain.

Back in England in 1851, Hooker married Frances Henslow, daughter of the Mentor, and began to publish the results of his travels – we are planning to reissue as many of these as we can, given the constraints of size and colour. One of the side-effects of his work was to begin a craze among British gardeners for rhododendrons which has continued to this day, and is often deplored because the enthusiastic planting by the Victorians of the thuggish Rhododendron ponticum has caused it to proliferate across large tracts of northern England and Scotland, obliterating native plants as it does so.

Meanwhile, Hooker had begun to work closely with Darwin, who in the early 1840s has asked him for help in classifying plants from the Galapagos; they corresponded frequently, and it was to Hooker that Darwin confided in 1844 that ‘I am almost convinced . . . that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable’. It was Hooker and Lyell who were instrumental in announcing Darwin’s and Wallace’s theories to the Linnaean Society in 1858 (thus establishing the primacy of Darwin’s idea), and the rest is well-known history.

Hooker succeeded his father as Director of Kew on the latter’s death in 1865, and was succeeded by his son-in-law, William Thiselton-Dyer, on his own retirement in 1885. As well as the biography of his father, he also produced in these years an edition of Sir Joseph Banks’ Endeavour journal. The original manuscript (in another superb example of the interconnectedness of Victorian society) had been sold by Lord Brabourne, the editor of Jane Austen’s letters, who was a relation of Banks by marriage. It apparently then disappeared to Sydney, NSW, but luckily a transcription had been made by Hooker’s own grandfather, the brewer and botanist, a friend of the great man, who was entrusted with the material in order to write a life of Banks which sadly never materialised. Young Joseph was employed by his aunts to check the accuracy of their copying against the original, ‘. . . and I never ceased to hope that one day it might be published’.

Hooker died in 1911, and the government offered his family a burial place alongside Darwin in Westminster Abbey, but they chose that he should lie next to his father at St Anne’s church, Kew Green – out of Darwin’s shadow at last.

Caroline

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