skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From John Scott   8 January [1868]1

Royl Bot Gardens | Calcutta

8th. Jany. 1867

Dear Sir,

I have been asked by Dr. Anderson the Superintendent of the Gardens, to solicit you to favor us with a short memorandum on the desirability that the now ruined Bot. Gardens of Calcutta should be transferred to one or other of the many favored sites which occur in the valleys of the Sikkim Himalayah.2

Before entering on details allow me to say that I have hesitated much in troubling you in the matter but as Dr. Anderson is anxious to have the support of a few scientific gentlemen in laying the matter before the government of Bengal, I have by his particular desire made the request. I may also state that both of us have made a similar request from Dr. Hooker. and Mr. Thwaites,—Ceylon—has already sent a very strong for presentation to Government—on the desirability of a removal—3

I shall now simply detail to you its present position— First. it is as you are aware on the opposite side of the river from Calcutta, and fully five miles distant. Consequently from the danger in crossing the river, it is very rare indeed that any visitors come to the Garden, and these are all but confined to a two months or so during the cold season— Furthermore those nearly all consist of parties for picnics who come for a days amusement—in one or other of the fashionable games—rarely exhibiting the slightest interest in the plants, and only annoyed at our frequent curtailment—if fresh plantings—of places for their games! So far therefore as the Calcutta public is concerned with the Botanic Gardens as a scientific institution—I do assure you they might as well be in the most distant part of Bengal. I mention this particularly as you will naturally be disposed to regard their transference as an injustice to Calcutta— This will be much more than compensated by the proposition which I doubt not our government will sanction, in their transferring the gardens—namely give them in lieu a public park on the Calcutta side—from the proceeds in part of the sale of our present garden site.

Secondly—with regard to the physical character of the present site— This is also most unfavorable. The lands are only a few feet—part of them indeed just on a level with the ordinary tides. You will thus readily imagine the condition of our grounds throughout the rainy season: much of them under water, and indeed on the higher parts should you turn up a spadeful of soil the vacancy is almost immediately filled with water— The consequence of this is that all the tap roots of our trees are destroyed—all depends on a series of horizontally spreading surface roots—thus rendering them infinitely less able to cope with the storms to which they are so subject here— I assure you, I do not exaggerate the character of our grounds when I say that throughout the rainy season they are fit only for the cultivation of rice! Again the rains are immediately followed by the cold season, which utterly paralyses all truly tropical vegetation—while this being succeeded by a dry and hot season renders them all but uninhabitable to all plants of humid intertropical regions— There of species numbers, genera, aye whole natural orders which I could mention which we can barely get to exist even with all the care we can bestow— This should not be in a tropical garden— I can afford you no more emphatic demonstration of the unfavorableness of the present site or indeed any in the Gangetic delta for the purposes of a Botanic Garden than by noting the character of the indigenous flora—4

The characteristic vegetation are chiefly Fici, Artocarpi, a few Euphorbiacae and Myrtaceæ, Mangoes, Clumps of Bamboos with Coco-Nuts, Phoenix, Borassus and Corypha.5 Such is the meagre character of our arborescent flora, and another significant fact is that even amongst these (with the exception of adventitious rooting Fici) there are no aged trees— I may safely say that few are to be found exceeding 80 or 100 years. The oldest in the Botanic Gardens does not I believe exceed 90 years, and I see none in the vicinity that have a more aged appearance— This of itself speaks volumes as to the unsuitability of sites for Botanic Gardens! The dwarf vegetation is also extremely poor— Ferns, Orchids, &c. are all but eliminated— Again with reference to the present condition of the gardens, I may say that it is all but destitute of arborescent vegetation— The cyclone of 1864 uprooted upwards of 1000 trees, and the late one in November uprooted 700 more   These with very few exceptions include nearly all the unique specimens of Roxburgh and Wallich, which while they stood would have tied us to the old site.6 Fortunately we have had the majority of these propagated, and now possess young specimens, which I do trust we will not be again forced to plant on those ungenial lands. In fine I do not know a single recommendation for the continuation of the gardens on the present site.— It would be a real service to botany as also to horticulture therefore to urge its transference to a Sikkim valley in proximity to Darjeeling (which promises yet to be an important station) where we could have both our thoroughly tropical garden and at higher elevations others for the introduction and cultivation of the temperate Himalayan flora—

Reflect on the advantages there afforded for the study of acclimatisation etc etc. The ready access to a rich indigenous flora, which European horticulturists would be so proud to possess.7 There in regions favored by nature (free from those devastating cyclones) would we soon raise a Botanic Garden worthy of the presidency of Britains eastern empire— here it is simply hopeless.

In conclusion allow me to beg again your forgiveness in troubling you in this, and to say how much pleased we will be should the transference meet with your approval, and the favor of a short memorandum to that effect, with permission to present it to the Lieut. Governor of Bengal—8

I remain | Dear Sir | Yours most respectfully | John Scott

CD annotations

4.3 level … tides.] underl blue crayon
4.1o Again … vegetation— 4.12] scored blue crayon; ‘conditions unfavorable—tend to be very flooded’ added blue crayon
5.11 The cyclone … 700 more 5.12] double scored blue crayon
5.20 and at … flora— 5.22] scored red crayon
Verso of last page: ‘My Book | Expression’ blue crayon 9


The year is established by the reference to the November 1867 cyclone (see n. 2, below).
Scott refers to Thomas Anderson. A cyclone on 2 November 1867 destroyed much of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta; the disadvantages of the garden’s lowland site on the banks of the tidal River Hooghly near Calcutta are described in Gardeners’ Chronicle, 14 December 1867, pp. 1265–6. A cyclone had also caused significant damage in 1864 (see Correspondence vol. 15, letter from John Scott, 22 January 1867). Sikkim, a mountainous state in north-eastern India, was a British protectorate.
The portion of Scott’s letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker describing the destruction caused by the cyclones was published in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, 18 December 1867, p. 1322. Scott also refers to George Henry Kendrick Thwaites, director of the botanic gardens in Peradeniya, Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
Calcutta is on the western flank of the Ganges (Ganga) delta in Bengal; most of the delta lies in what is now Bangladesh.
Scott refers to the genera Ficus (figs), and Artocarpus (breadfruit), the families Euphorbiaceae and Myrtaceae, and the palm genera Phoenix, Borassus, and Corypha.
Scott refers to trees planted by William Roxburgh and Nathaniel Wallich, earlier superintendents of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta; see also Gardeners’ Chronicle, 28 December 1867, p. 1322, and R. Desmond 1992. For more on the trees destroyed, and on those spared, see Burkill [1965], p. 133.
On the introduction of plants from Sikkim to Britain after this date, and their successful acclimatisation in British gardens, see Hadfield 1960, pp. 17–18, 358, 414–15, and R. Desmond 1992. The Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta, administered a Cinchona plantation at Rungbee, several miles south-east of Darjeeling; Scott had been employed at the plantation for several months when he first arrived in India in late 1864 (see Correspondence vol. 13, letter from John Scott, 20 January 1865). Workers from the Calcutta garden also often collected plants in the vicinity of Darjeeling.
The lieutenant governor of Bengal was William Grey.
CD had sent Scott a list of queries on expression with a letter that has not been found; see Correspondence vol. 15, letter from John Scott, 24 September 1867. Scott responded to the queries in his letter of 4 May 1868.


Burkill, Isaac Henry. [1965.] Chapters on the history of botany in India. [Calcutta: Botanical Survey of India.]

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Desmond, Ray. 1992. The European discovery of the Indian flora. Oxford: Oxford University Press [in association with the] Royal Botanic Gardens.

Hadfield, Miles. 1960. Gardening in Britain. London: Hutchinson & Co.


Asks CD for memorandum giving his opinion on a proposal to move the site of the Calcutta Botanic Garden. Gives details of the position, the physical character and the climate of the present site to show how desirable a move would be.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Scott
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
R. Bot. Gard., Calcutta
Source of text
DAR 177: 116
Physical description
7pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5351,” accessed on 22 September 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16