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Closeup of panjica

British scientists working in the colonies encountered, employed, and collaborated with a wide range of local experts, informants, go-betweens, and assistants.

The uneven power dynamic typical to these collaborations—and the asymmetry of the historical record from which this Explore section draws—has tended to obscure the significance of indigenous labour and local knowledge traditions in imperial scientific pursuits.

Madras observatory pendulum experiments

This beautiful illustration celebrates an 1821 experiment at Madras Observatory to determine the exact length of a seconds-beating pendulum(1).

Comparison with data from England enabled the elliptical figure of the earth to be calculated. Astronomer John Goldingham peers through a telescope at the Kater’s pendulum; the second Assistant, Thiruvenkatachari, reads the clock; and the first Assistant, Shrinivasachari, notes down the readings.

Brahmin astronomers

Chinthamani Ragoonatha Chary
Image 1: Chinthamani Ragoonatha Chary (1822/8–1880) was the first Indian Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Collaborations between European astronomers and Brahmin assistants were an essential part of work in British Indian observatories. Brahmin astronomers performed a range of tasks, including making observations and computing data.

In 1867 Chinthamani Ragoonatha Chary (Image 1) at Madras Observatory discovered a variable star, and in 1874 he published a dialogue in English and Urdu concerning the forthcoming transit of the planet Venus across the sun.

Data from observatories like Madras were also incorporated into local astronomical almanacs.

An Odiya almanac

Panjika, almanac on palm-leaf
Image 2: Panjika, almanac on palm-leaf, Odisha, India, 1872. Image © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge (2017.26).

The panjika shown in Image 2 is a compendium of calendrical and astronomical data.

Written in Odiya, the language of Odisha in east India, it would have been used for celestial prediction and astrological forecasting.

Its English collector has written on it: “The Almanac for the years 14, 15, of the present Raja of Pooree (1872-73)”. The almanac was compiled for the Raja of Puri, Dibyasingha Deva III, who ruled from 1859 and was imprisoned by the British for murder in 1878.

It has often been assumed that colonial spaces were blank slates onto which ‘Western’ British science was introduced. But there is ample evidence that the knowledge traditions and material practices of colonised populations profoundly influenced the development of European science.

Read more about one example of local knowledge and its influence on Western scientific instruments

Instrument-makers in India

Image 3: 4-inch Islamic celestial globe, in brass and silver, by H ibn M Muqim ibn Isa, Lahore, India, 1655–1659 (Wh.1255)

The objects shown in Images 3–5 are evidence of a rich tradition of scientific instrument making in Asia stretching back to the medieval period.

The 17th-century Islamic celestial globe (Image 3) is a fine example of a hollow seamless cast metal sphere, a technique unique to the specialist Mughal workshops of Lahore.

These globes were used alongside dials or quadrants to compute time-keeping and astronomical data.

The output of north-central Indian workshops incorporated a wide range of influences, as in the below 19th-century astrologer’s globe (Image 4), inscribed in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu.

The ring dial, on the right, (Image 5) follows a European design, but is inscribed with Sanskrit text.

8-inch celestial astrologer’s globe, and Universal equinoctial ring dial
Image 4: 8-inch celestial astrologer’s globe, in brass, north-central India, 19th Century (Wh.5180). Image 5: Universal equinoctial ring dial, north-central India, c. 1875 (Wh.5907)

British attitudes to local Indian skill and knowledge varied widely. The famed British surveyor and administrator George Everest was disparaging in 1832, declaring that

“though the natives may be competent to making screws and other small matters, which do not require any very fine work, it does not follow that they are equal to all the nicer and more delicate parts of Mathematical Instruments.”(2)

But when the Survey of India lost its British instrument specialist Henry Barrow in 1839, Everest came to depend on the Madras-born instrument-maker Syed Mir Mohsin Hussain (d. 1864). In a report endorsing Mohsin Hussain’s promotion, Everest wrote that

“[Mohsin Hussain] is peculiarly remarkable for his inventive talent, the facility with which he comprehends all mechanical arrangements, and the readiness with which he enters into all the new ideas of others. … He has both genius and originality.”(3)

Mohsin Hussain was eventually granted the title of Mathematical Instrument Maker to the British Survey, on half the pay of Barrow.

Read more about the role of Indian ‘Pundits’ in British surveys of North India

References

1.     Image from: John Goldingham, Madras Observatory papers (Madras: 1827). Scanned by the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge (E.10.5).

2.     Everest, in a Feb. 1832 letter to the Government of the Bengal Presidency, as quoted in: Jane Insley, ‘Making mountains out of molehills? George Everest and Henry Barrow, 1830–39’, Indian Journal of History of Science, Vol. 30 (1995), 47–55, on p.51.

3.     Everest, as quoted in: R. H. Phillimore, Historical Records of the Survey of India, Vol. 4 (Dehra Dun: Survey of India, 1958), on p.458.

 

Joshua Nall

Joshua Nall, ‘Local Knowledge’, Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2020.

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