Friday Review » History & Culture

Updated: November 25, 2009 16:48 IST

Charles Darwin and Madras

S. Muthiah
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The British Council recently celebrated Charles Darwin’s 200th birth anniversary and the 150th anniversary of the publishing of his scientific landmark On the Origin of the Species. On the sidelines of the exhibition being inaugurated that day, an exhibition that was outstanding for the simplicity with which it explained Darwin’s theories, Chris Gibson, Head of the Council in South India, appeared to be preparing for the quiz that was to follow when he stopped me with the question “Who was the American who was born on the same day as Darwin?” When he found those he was shepherding as stumped as I, he provided the answer: Abraham Lincoln. Darwin and Lincoln were both born on February 12, 1809! Then, he bowled a googly: What would have happened if Lincoln had been born in Britain and Darwin in the U.S.? And he laughed as he answered it himself, “Britain would have had a written Constitution…” and, I thought to myself, “… the U.S. would have had another lynching.”

The exhibition and other British Council commemorative programmes on him in Madras apart, Darwin did have connections with the city. And recalling them has been reader Dr. A. Raman from New South Wales who states that though Darwin never came to Madras, biological specimens from the Coromandel were sent to him by Walter Elliott (1803-1887; later Sir Walter who started as a civil servant in Madras and became Governor of Madras in 1858). Elliott in time gained a reputation as an archaeologist, antiquarian, zoologist, botanist, linguist, and Orientalist. He also co-founded the Madras Society for Literature and Science in the 1830s.

In his two-volume book, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868), Darwin discusses the specimens of the Indian Ground Tumbler, Indian Frillback, Laugher, and Nun (preserved in alcohol?) that were sent by Sir Walter from Madras. Darwin also comparatively discussed mignonette, turnip and carrot seeds sown in Madras but which had origins elsewhere.

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