William Thomas Blanford (1832-1905)

“This is the first volume of the Handbooks on the Fauna of British India published since the death of Dr. Blanford, under whose Editorship the series was initiated and carried on for over twenty years. The many obituary notices that have appeared in the publications of the learned and scientific societies fully testify to the great value of the work done by him during a long and strenuously productive life, and the loss that science has sustained by his death. To few, however, will that loss be personally so great as to those who under his direction were working for the Fauna of India series.”

This wistful note in the Editorial preface to the third volume (1906) on the Rhyncota (the old name for the true bugs, now known as the Hemiptera) by W L Distant (1845-1922) was penned by C T Bingham (1848-1908), successor to the first overseer of the Fauna of British India series, William Thomas Blanford. It pointed to the extraordinary contributions of a man who, in his role as editor of the series, would play one of the most important innings of a multifaceted life. Born in London in 1832, Blanford over the course of his early years would dabble at carving, gliding and designing before joining his younger brother, Henry Francis Blanford (1834-1893) at the Royal School of Mines.

The Blanford brothers were appointed to the Geological Survey of India in 1855 and in fairly short order attained prominence in the field by identifying the effects of ice in the boulder beds of the Talchir tillites while surveying the eponymous coalfields in Orissa and Bengal, a study of extensive Permian glaciation that would anticipate and contribute to later conceptualisations of the southern continental landmass of Gondwanaland. Other geological expeditions would follow for W T Blanford, including Burma (1860), the Bombay Presidency (1862-1866) and possibly his most celebrated, that of the Indo-Persian Boundary Commission (1871-1872). There would also be a foray into Sind (1874-1877) during the course of which he would describe the Indian bush rat (Gollunda ellioti). The zoological interpolation was not stray; Blanford had earlier been assigned to the Absyssinia Expedition (1867-88) as part of the Bombay Army led by Lieutenant General Sir Robert Napier (1810-1890) to relieve European missionaries and British Governmental representatives imprisoned by the local ruler Emperor Thewodros II (1818-1868). During that effort, Blanford made considerable collections, which would be central to his acclaimed Observations on the Geology and Zoology of Abyssinia (1870). A journey to Sikkim the same year with H J Elwes (1846-1922) would result in a paper describing new bird species in the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, while, in a marvellous commingling of geological and biological interests, i.e. palaeontology, Blanford would write at length on the Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene fauna of the Siwalik range in A Manual of the Geology of India (1879), a book he co-authored with H B Medlicott (1829-1905), also of the Geological Survey of India and for a period its Superintendent. Blanford would also contribute substantially to natural historical reports emerging from expeditions to Yunan and Yarkand in the 1860s and 1870s, particularly with reference to malacology (the study of molluscs).

It was however in the context of the Fauna of British India that Blanford would achieve lasting renown. Part of that accrued reputation would emerge from well beyond Blanford’s own immediate stature, eminent though it was—the supporters of the effort to produce a series of handbooks on zoology for the Indian region included such stalwarts as Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the grand old man of evolutionary theorising, Sir Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), keeper of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825- 1895), ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ and celebrated comparative anatomist, Sir William Henry Flower (1831- 1899), Conservator at the Hunterian Museum, Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913), the first Baron Avebury, Member of Parliament and strong votary for science and Philip Lutley Sclater (1829-1913), the founding editor of the journal Ibis. At the time of the memorial (1881), duly signed by these heavyweights of establishment-science in Great Britain, Blanford was ill in Quetta, Baluchistan, a condition that would largely force his retirement to London the following year. Nonetheless, given his immense knowledge of the natural history of the Indian region, the suggestion was made by the aforementioned luminaries that he edit the first series of the fledgling Fauna of British India. To this he acceded, being paid at a rate of two thirds his regular salary whilst in harness. Even as he gained public approbation for his work in his original field of endeavour, receiving the Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London, he was sedulously making plans for the new series. A decade and a half later, he would have this to write in the preface to Volume 4 of the Birds (1898):

Brown palm civet

“The Vertebrate animals of British India have now been described for the first time in a single uniform series, consisting of eight volumes, of which this is the last to appear. The work comprises two volumes on the Fishes by the late Dr. F. Day, one on Reptiles and Batrachians (an older name for the Amphibians, in particular the Anura which include frogs, toads and tree-toads) by Mr. G. Boulenger, and two on Birds by Mr. E. W. Oates; the remaining two volumes on Birds and one on Mammals, together with the editing of the whole, having been my own contribution to the undertaking. Five volumes on Invertebrata – four on the Moths of British India by Sir G F Hampson, and one on the Hymenoptera by Colonel C T Bingham – have also been published on the same plan. The work has fully occupied me during the fifteen years that have now elapsed since my retirement from Indian service; but the completion of the Vertebrate series would not have been practicable without the valuable cooperation of the able naturalists already mentioned.”

Blanford’s major contribution to the Mammals and Birds of India therefore was in a work of synthesis and editorship, bringing everything that was known at the time in the region into taxonomic relief. His achievement at the time was towering and would set the stage for the continuation of the project, something that lasts to this day, if under the title of The Fauna of British India, reflecting the status of an independent nation free from its colonial adjective. Blanford himself had embarked on a malacological project potentially to attend his work on mammals and birds for the series at the time of his demise in London in 1905. For the organisational context in which we know so much about the mammals and other elements of the fauna of the subcontinent, so very much is owed to this indefatigable geologist.

Suggested reading:
W T Blanford. Birds, Vol IV. The Fauna of British India, including Ceylon and Burma. (London: Taylor and Francis, 1898), iii.
J Mathew. 2011. ‘To Fashion a Fauna for British India,’ Doctoral Thesis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University).

This article is from issue


2012 Sep