Hooker was born in Norwich, England, in 1785. His father, Joseph, was a confidential clerk and amateur botanist. William was educated at Norwich grammar school and then attended Startson Hall to study estate management. Aged 21, he inherited the estate of his godfather, a wealthy brewer and farmer. By this time, he had already become a keen botanist and entomologist, an obsession that his inheritance would help finance. As early as 1805, he found a species of moss not previously recorded in Britain. The following year he was elected to the Linnean Society, and a year or two later he made his first foreign botanical expedition, to Iceland. Although his notes and drawings were destroyed by fire on the way home, he still managed to produce, and circulate a privately printed journal of the tour.
Hooker invested considerably in a planned tour to Ceylon with Sir Robert Brownrigg, but the project was abandoned. In 1814, he spent nine months on excursion in France, Switzerland and Italy. The year after, he married Maria Dawson Turner (sister-in-law of the historian Francis Palgrave), and they settled at Halesworth, Suffolk, where he built an herbarium that, in time, gained an international reputation. Various scientific publications followed in the 1810s: British Jungermanniae, a new edition of William Curtis’s Flora Londinensis, for which he wrote the descriptions, and Muscologia, an account of the mosses of Britain and Ireland, prepared in conjunction with Thomas Taylor.
In 1820, Hooker became the regius professorship of botany in the University of Glasgow, and he worked with the botanist Thomas Hopkirk to establish the Royal Botanic Institution of Glasgow and to develop the Glasgow Botanic Gardens. He also published Flora Scotica. Hooker was able to convince the British government that botanists should be appointed to expeditions, and subsequently his herbarium profited from samples brought back from all parts of the globe.
In 1836, he was made a Knight of Hanover, and in 1841 he was appointed the first full-time director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Under his direction the gardens expanded to 75 acres, with an arboretum of 270 acres, and many new glass-houses erected. He died on 12 August 1865; and was succeeded at Kew by his son Joseph Dalton, who had already become famous as a botanist and botanical explorer, and who, like his father, would be knighted. In accordance with William Hooker’s will, his herbarium and library were offered for sale to the nation, and were purchased for Kew in 1866; they contained over one million herbarium specimens, 4,000 volumes of publications, and about 29,000 letters from over 4,400 correspondents. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Parks and Gardens UK, or Kew’s website.
Hooker published extensively through his life. One of his early books, in the first instance printed and circulated privately in 1811, was called Journal of a Tour in Iceland in the Summer of 1809. However, as most of his papers (and all but a few weeks of his journal) had been lost in a fire on board the return vessel, the book is mostly based on his recollections. He put together Niger Flora, ‘an enumeration of the plants of western tropical Africa, collected by the late Dr. Theodore Vogel’ in 1841, which includes Vogel’s diary of the voyage. Hooker was very keen on publishing academic botanic journals. There was The Journal of Botany (1830-1842), The London Journal of Botany (1842-1848), and Hooker’s Journal of Botany and Kew Garden Miscellany (1949-1857).
Most of the very first volume of the latter (Hooker’s Journal of Botany - Kew Garden Miscellany Vol 1, Reeve, Benham, and Reeve, 1849) is taken up with a diary kept by his son, Joseph, and sent as letters, during his long expedition to India and the Himalayas in 1847-1851. This was later published as Himalayan Journals in 1854. Here are a couple of extracts from Joseph Hooker’s diary as found in Hooker’s Journal of Botany.
7 March 1848
‘Left my kind friend Mr. Felle’s house for Amoee, en route for Miraapore, myself mounted on an elephant of the Rajah’s, and my goods on Mr. Felle’s camels. Passed through Goorawul, a large village twelve miles due west of Shahgung. The road to it lay over a very flat monotonous country. Thence turning north, in a direction crossing the table-land, the country began to undulate and become more barren, with noble Mahoua trees and a few Fici, the former resembling oaks; and with the sandstone cropping out on the surface, I was occasionally much reminded of scenery in the forest of Dean. Sterile tracts, with their typical trees, alternate with cultivated fields, whose accompaniments are the Tamarind and Mango.
Many of the exposed slabs of sandstone are beautifully waved with the ripple-mark, like small specimens seen at Rotas.
Amoee, where I arrived at nine p.m., was an open grassy flat, about twenty miles from the Ganges, along whose course the dust clouds were coursing.
Mr. Monney, the magistrate of Mirzapore, kindly sent a mounted messenger to meet me here, the finest-looking fellow I had seen for a long time, wearing a brilliant scarlet surtout and white turban. He was a very active fellow, equally proud of his master (with good reason) and his horse; but he had vast trouble in getting bearers for my Palkee, which, after being carted for so long, was now to take its turn in carting me. Those he did procure (eight) carried me (for the greater part of the way) and the Palkee the whole twenty-two miles in eight hours, over very bad and stony paths, and down the ghaut, which is, however, an excellent road.
To the top of the ghaut the country was nearly level (and here called the Bind hills). There I saw for the first time the Ganges, rolling along the plains, through a forest of green trees, among which the white houses, domes, and temples of Mirzapore were scattered in every direction.
Unlike the Dunwah pass, this, to the level of the Ganges, is wholly barren. At the foot the sun was intensely hot, the roads rocky or smothered with dust by turns, the villages crowded with a widely different looking race from those of the hills, and the whole air of the outskirts, in a sultry afternoon, far from agreeable.
Mirzapore is, however, an exceedingly pretty, a moderately cool, and very pleasant station, especially the geographically east, but socially speaking west-end, which runs along the banks of the Ganges, and whither I proceeded to the house of my friend Mr. Claude Hamilton, where I received a most cordial welcome.
Mirzapore is celebrated for its manufactory of carpets (of a kind like our dining-room one), which are admirable looking, and in all respects save durability I am told are equal to the English. Indigo seed from Bundelkund is also a most extensive article of commerce, the best coming from the Doab, and lac. For cotton, sugar, and saltpetre, it is the greatest mart in India. Bundelkund indigo seed is good and larger but not equal to the Doab. The articles of native manufacture are brass washing and cooking utensils, and stone deities worked out of the sandstone.
There is little native vegetation, the country being covered with cultivation and extensive groves of Mango, and occasionally of Guava. English vegetables are abundant and excellent, and the strawberries rival in size the European fruit, but hardly in flavour.
The atmosphere is extremely dry and electrical, the hair constantly crackling when combed. Further west, where the country is still drier, the electricity of the air is even greater. Griffiths mentions that in filling his barometer tubes in Affghanistan, he constantly experienced a shock.
Here I had the pleasure of meeting Lieut. Ward, one of the assistant suppressors of Thugge (Thuggee, in Hindostan, signifying a deceiver, fraud, not open force being employed). This gentleman kindly showed me the approvers or king’s evidence, of his establishment, belonging to those three classes of human scourges, the Thug, Dakoit, and Poisoner. Of these the first was the Thug, a mild-looking man, who was born and bred to the profession: he has committed many murders, sees no harm in them, and feels neither shame nor remorse. His organs of observation and destructiveness were large, and the cerebellum small. He explained to me how the gang waylay the unwary traveller, enter into conversation with him, and have him suddenly seized, when the superior whips off his own linen girdle, throws it round the victim’s neck and strangles him, pressing the knuckles against the spine. Taking off his own cummerbund, he passed it round my arm (not neck) and showed me the turn as coolly as a sailor once taught me the hangman’s knot. The Thug is of any caste, and belongs to any part of India. The profession have particular stations, where they generally murder, throwing the body into a well. The Dakoit (dakhee, a robber) is one of a class who rob in gangs, but never commit murder - arson and housebreaking are also their profession. These are all high-class Rajpoots, originally from Guzerat, who, on being conquered, vowed vengeance on mankind. They talk both Hindostanee and the otherwise extinct Guzerat language. This latter the Dakoit spoke to me: it was guttural in the extreme, and very singular in sound. These are a very remarkable people, found all over India, and called by various names, as Buddacks (butchers), Sear Marwa, or Shighal Khof (jackall-eaters in pure Persian, i.e., a barbarian with no prejudice against the unclean). The women dress peculiarly, and are utterly devoid of modesty. The specimen I examined was a short, square, but far from powerful Nepalese, with high arched eye-brows, and no organs of observation. These people are great cowards. The poisoners all belong to one caste of Pasie, or dealers in toddy: they go singly or in gangs, haunting the travellers’ resting places, where they drop half a rupee weight of pounded or whole Datura seeds into his food, producing a twenty-four hours’ intoxication, during which he is robbed, and left to recover or sink under the stupifying effects of the narcotic. He told me that the Datura seed is gathered at any time, place, or age of the plant. He was a dirty, ill-conditioned looking fellow, with no bumps behind his ears, or prominence of eyebrow region, but an undeniable cerebellum.
As you may care to hear more of these celebrated Thugs, I will give you what information I picked up. (All this and better, too, you will find in Sleeman’s Reports). Though now all but extinct (except in Cuttack), through ten or fifteen years of increasing vigilance on the part of our Government, and incredible activity and acuteness on the officers employed, they were till then a wonderfully numerous body, who abstained from their vocation solely in the immediate neighbourhood of their own villages. These villages, however, were not exempt from the visits of other Thugs; so that, as Major Sleeman says, “The annually returning tide of murder swept unsparingly over the whole face of India, from the Sutledge to the sea-coast, and from the Himalaya to Cape Oomorin. One narrow district alone was free, the Concan, beyond the ghauts, whither they never penetrated.” In Bengal, river Thugs, of whom I shall tell you hereafter, replace the travelling practitioner. Khandush and Bohilcund alone harboured no Thugs as residents, but they were nevertheless haunted by the gangs.
Their origin is uncertain, but supposed to be very early, soon after the Mahommedan conquest. They now claim a divine original, and are supposed to have supernatural powers, and to be the emissaries of the divinity, like the wolf, the tiger, and the bear. It is only lately that they have swarmed so prodigiously, - seven original gangs having migrated from Delhi to the Gangetic provinces about 200 years ago, and from these all the rest have sprung. Many belong to the most amiable, intelligent and respectable classes of the lower and even middle ranks: they love their profession, regard murder as sport, and are never haunted with dreams, or troubled with pangs of conscience during hours of solitude, or in the last moments of life. The victim is an acceptable sacrifice to the Goddess Davee, who by some classes is supposed to eat the lifeless body, and thus save her votaries the necessity of coucealing it.
They are extremely superstitious, always consulting omens, such as the direction in which a hare or jackall crosses the road; and even far more trivial circumstances will determine the fate of a dozen of people, and perhaps an immense treasure. All worship the pick-axe, which is symbolical of their profession, and an oath sworn on it binds closer than on the Koran. The consecration of this weapon is a most elaborate ceremony, and takes place only under certain trees. They rise through various grades to the highest of strangler; the lowest are scouts; second, sextons; the third are holders of the victims’ hands.
Though all agree in never practising cruelty, or robbing previous to murder, - never allowing any but infants to escape, and these are trained to Thuggee, - and never leaving a trace of such goods as may be identified, - there are several variations in their mode of conducting operations. Some tribes spare certain castes, others none: murder of woman is against all rules; but the practice crept into certain gangs, and this it is which led to their discountenance by the Goddess Davee, and the consequent downfall of tbe system. Davee, they say, allowed the British to punish them, because a certain gang had murdered the mothers to obtain their daughters to be sold to prostitution. [. . .]’
16 March 1848
‘We arrived at Benares. The Ganges is here a broad stream, and rises 43 feet during the rains, with a current of eight miles an hour, and, I am informed, carries along one-quarter per cent, of sediment. The fall from hence is 300 feet to the junction of the Ganges and Hooghly, which is one foot to every hundred miles. My observations make the fall from Mirzapore to Benares very much greater.
Benares is the Athens of India. The variety of buildings along the bank is incredible. There are temples of all shapes, in all stages of completeness, and at all angles of inclination; for the banks give way so much that many of these edifices are fearfully out of the perpendicular. It is a most quaint river-frontage; and perhaps, to a long resident in India, it may look magnificent; but I was much disappointed. As an eastern city it is incomparably inferior to Cairo. [. . .]
The general appearance of an oriental town is always more or less ruinous; and here there was nothing to be seen of architecture but crumbling house-tops beyond the banks of the river. The eye is fatigued with pigeons, parrots, pots, plaster, pan-tiles, the ear with prayer-bells and Poojahs; whilst the Peepul and Parkimonia are the only green things to be seen on this side of the bright meadows and green trees which adorn the European residents’ dwellings, some four miles back from the river. The streets are so narrow, that it is difficult to ride a horse through them; and the houses are often six stories high, with galleries crossing above, from house to house. These tall, gaunt edifices sometimes give place to clumps of cottages, and a mass of dusty ruins, the unsavoury retreats of vermin and filth.’