IIAS Newsletter 12, Spring 1997, Southeast Asia 01

IIASNewsletterNo 12Regions

Southeast Asia


Thomas Horsfield

An American Enigma


Dr Thomas Horsfield (1773-1859) was the first American to engage in scientific research in Southeast Asia. This took place in the years between 1800 and 1819. Although he was later forced to watch others be acclaimed for discoveries he had made, he was the first to report to the Western scientific community on many of the unprecedented natural phenomena which existed in Java, and its near environs.µ

Trained as a medical doctor and an apothecary, but a botanist by avocation and an adventurer at heart, Thomas Horsfield was a scientific generalist who avidly investigated every physical wonder he encountered, from exotic butterflies to belching volcanoes.

The American scholar began his career in Java while it was under Dutch rule, but then Napoleon Bonaparte annexed Holland. This enabled the English East India Company to take control over the island in 1811. Thereupon Horsfield was employed by the English to continue his research under their direction. After Napoleon's defeat in 1815 Java was returned to Holland and Horsfield stayed on briefly under a new Dutch administration. However, in 1819, increasingly bad health caused him to seek re-employment with the English company this time in the more temperate surroundings of London. He became a curator at the East India Company's India House Museum. In 1836 he became keeper of the Museum, remaining in that position until his death in 1859.

It was during his sojourn in London that Horsfield's tragic struggle to maintain his scientific reputation began. First, his two major mentors, Sir Joseph Banks and Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, died soon after his arrival in England, depriving him of their powerful support in the caste-ridden social and scientific world of London. Sir Joseph, the most prominent natural scientist of Great Britain in the early decades of the nineteenth century, had introduced the American into the scientific community in London. Sir Thomas, who had been made lieutenant-governor of Java for the English East India Company in 1811, had recognized Horsfield's genius early on. Raffles had encouraged Horsfield to pursue his scientific work, helping him publish some of his initial findings while they were both in Java. The young English empire builder continued to support his naturalist friend after he had returned to England. But Raffles died in 1826 on the day before he turned forty-six. Thus, the American-born scholar was left without powerful friends in an English society where which schools one had attended, in which regiment one had served, and who one's family was mattered socially and professionally.

The second hurdle he had to face was that, although he was a prodigious collector, Thomas Horsfield was not well-trained as a naturalist. He required the assistance of others in the identification and classification of species. Unfortunately, those men who collaborated with him in preparing his specimens for publication failed to move quickly enough to keep ahead of the growing competition. William Macclay, who was helping Horsfield organize a major study of Javanese insects, decamped in the midst of the work to pursue a more lucrative career in Havana as His Britannic Majesty's Commissioner of Arbitration. Dr Robert Brown, who was a collaborator in botanical studies, had so many duties pertaining to his position as botanist at the British Museum that he took three decades to finish his part of Horsfield's work entitled Plantae Javanicae Rariores.

Finally his employer was also part of the problem. Corrupt, nearly bankrupt, and politically senile, the English East Company was in the final year of its existence. As Keeper of the Company's India House Museum in London, Horsfield presided over a fascinating variety of collections possessed by a dying trading association whose board of directors had no understanding at all of the scientific significance of the holdings found in their Museum.

Many Company employees from around the world had been sending to the museum vast collections of specimens of the flora and fauna of the areas in which they worked, as well as huge quantities of native art, artifacts, and exotic materials of all kinds. Ultimately the Museum was overwhelmed with collections, and much of the material had to be distributed to other museums, scientific societies, and scholars around the world. This expensive and time-consuming distribution of collections, overseen primarily by Horsfield, was done without cost to the recipients. The Company apparently considered this service to be a means of refurbishing its tarnished and doddering reputation.

Thus, while Horsfield was unable to complete publication of much of his own research, he did contribute to the expansion of scientific knowledge around the world. He was known by the directors of natural history collections from the botanical gardens in Calcutta to the natural history museum in Charleston, South Carolina.

In recent times an increasing amount of attention has been directed to the scholarship of Thomas Horsfield. Led by John Bastin of Oxford University, scholars have begun to resurrect Horsfield's scholarship and give him the proper credit for his early work in Java and Sumatra. Bastin's elegant reproduction of Horsfield's Zoological Researches in Java, and the Neighbouring islands, published in 1990 is but one of a number of works which Bastin and others have dedicated to the memory of this American scholar. Utilizing both the archives of the India Office Library and Records in London and sources in Holland, much has been written on the science of this early American scholar.

Mysterious personal life

There is little that is definite about Horsfield as a man. One major reason for this is that Horsfield ordered all of his personal papers be destroyed upon his death, robbing us of the chance to know much about him personally. Bastin, while doing a magnificent job in describing Horsfield's science, is less definite concerning the man's personal background.

Why did Horsfield destroy his personal papers and attempt as much as possible to erase his past? It has been suggested he was a modest person, with deep religious faith thereby expressing much piety and humility. Perhaps he did not think his personal life would mean very much to others. Alternatively, was Horsfield attempting to cover up what might have been a major scandal in his life in order to protect the reputations of his children and family? Somewhere in the vast archives of other people and institutions who associated with horsfield during his lifetime there are probably sources which could give us a definite direction as to what his personal life was all about. This writer would be pleased to hear from colleagues regarding findings with reference to the personal affairs of Thomas Horsfield in their own research dealing with Southeast Asia in the early nineteenth century, or regarding his later career in London as curator and then Keeper of the India House Museum.

Gorden K. Harrington is affiliated to the history department of Weber State University in Utah, USA. He can be contacted by

fax: +1-801-6267130 or via E-mail GKHarrington@weber.edu

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