Brian Houghton Hodgson

Brian Houghton Hodgson

Brian Houghton Hodgson (February 1, 1800May 23, 1894 [May 28, 1894 According to M. A. Smith in the Fauna of British India. 1941] ) was an early
naturalist and ethnologist working in British India where hewas an English civil servant.

Life and career

Hodgson was born at Lower Beech, Prestbury, Cheshire. [Hunter (1896):3] He went to study at Haileybury and showed an aptitude for languages. At the end of his first term (May 1816) he obtained a prize for Bengali. He passed Haileybury with a gold medal. [Hunter (1896):17]

At the age of seventeen he travelled to India as a writer in the British East India Company. He was sent to Kathmandu in Nepal as Assistant Commissioner in 1819, becoming British Resident in 1833. He travelled in the Kumaon region during 1819-20 He studied the Nepalese people, producing a number of papers on their languages, literature and religion.

Ethnology and anthropology

Hodgson had a keen interest in the culture of the people of the Himalayan regions. He believed that racial affinities could be identified on the basis of linguistics and he was influenced by the works of Sir William Jones, Friedrich Schlegel, Blumenbach and J. C. Prichard. From his studies he believed that the ‘aboriginal’ populations of the Himalayas were not ‘Aryans’ or ‘Caucasians’, but a race he termed as the ‘Tamulian’, who he claimed were unique to India.Arnold, David (2004) Race, place and bodily difference in early nineteenth-century India. Historical Research. 77(196):254-273.]

Educational reform

During his service in India, he was a strong opponent of Macaulay and a proponent of education in the local languages and was opposed to the use of English as a medium of instruction. From 1855 to 1859 William Adam, Brian Houghton Hodgson, Frederick Shore and William Campbell wrote against Macaulay's idea of education in the English medium. Hodgson wrote to the Serampore Mission journal, "The Friend of India" titled "Pre-eminence of the Vernaculars ;Or, the Anglicists Answered." [John D. Windhausen (1964) The Vernaculars, 1835-1839: A Third Medium for Indian Education. Sociology of Education, Vol. 37, No. 3. (Spring, 1964), pp. 254-270.]

quotation|No one has more earnestly urged the duty of communicating European knowledge to the natives than Mr. Hodgson ; no one has more powerfully shown the importance of employing the vernacular languages for accomplishing that object; no one has more eloquently illustrated the necessity of conciliating the learned and of making them our coadjutors in the great work of a nation's regeneration.|Third Report on Education in Bengal, p. 200 (1838)

Ornithology and natural history

Hodgon studied all aspects of natural history around him including material from Nepal, Sikkim and Bengal. He amassed a large collection of birds and mammal skins which he later donated to the British Museum. He discovered a new species of antelope which was named after him, the Tibetan Antelope "Pantholops hodgsonii". He also discovered 39 species of mammals and 124 species of birds which had not been described previously, 79 of the bird species were described himself. The zoological collections presented to the British Museum by Hodgson in 1843 and 1858 comprised of 10,499 specimens. In addition to these, the collection also included an enormous number of drawings and coloured sketches of Indian animals by native artists under his supervision. Most of these were subsequently transferred to the Zoological Society of London.

His studies were recognised and the Royal Asiatic Society and the Linnean Society in England elected him. The Zoological Society of London sent him their diploma as a corresponding member. The Socit Asiatique de Paris and the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle also honoured him. Around 1837 he planned to make an illustrated work on the Birds and Mammals of Nepal. The Museum d'Histoire Naturelle de Paris and other learned bodies came forward as supporters, three hundred and thirty subscribers registered in India, and in July 1837 he was able to write to his father that the means of publication were secured "I make sure of three hundred and fifty to four hundred subscribers, and if we say 10 per copy of the work, this list should cover all expenses. Granted my first drawings were stiff and bad, but the new series may challenge comparison with any in existence." He hoped to finish this work in 1840.

After retiring to Darjeeling he took a renewed interest in natural history. During the spring of 1848 he was visited by Sir Joseph Hooker. He wrote to his sister Fanny: [Hunter (1896):245-247] quotation|I have still my accomplished and amiable guest, Dr. Hooker, with me, and am even thinking of accompanying him on an excursion to the foot of the snows. Our glorious peak Kinchinjinga proves to be the loftiest in the range and consequently in the world, being 28,178 feet above the sea. Dr. Hooker and I wish to make the nearer acquaintance of this king of mountains, and we propose, if we can, to slip over one of the passes into Tibet in order to measure the height of that no less unique plateau, and also to examine the distribution of plants and animals in these remarkable mountains which ascend from nearly the sea-level, by still increasing heights and corresponding changes of climate, to the unparalleled elevation above spoken of. Dr. Hooker is young in years but old in knowledge, has been at the Antarctic Pole with Ross, and is the friend and correspondent of the veteran Humboldt. He says our Darjiling botany is a wondrous mixture of tropical and northern forms, even more so than in Nepal and the western parts of the Himalayan ranges ; for we have several palms and tree-ferns and Cycases and Musas (wild plantain), whereas to the westward there are few or none of these. Cryptogamous plants abound yet more here than there, especially fungi. Every old tree is loaded with them and with masses of lichens, and is twined round by climbing plants as big as itself, whilst Orchideae or air plants put forth their luscious blossoms from every part of it. Dr. Hooker has procured ten new species of rhododendrons, one of which is an epiphyte, and five palms and three Musas and three tree-ferns and two Cycases. These are closely juxtaposed to oaks, chestnuts, birches, alders, magnolias, Michelias, Oleas, all of enormous size. To them I must add rhododendrons, including the glorious epidendric species above spoken of, and whose large white blossoms depend from the highest branches of the highest oaks and chestnuts. Laurels too abound with me as forest trees, and a little to the north are the whole coniferous family, Pinus, Picea, Abies, with larch and cedar and cypress and juniper, all represented by several species and nearly all first-rate for size and beauty. Then my shrubs are Camelias and Daphnes and Polygonums and dwarf bamboos ; and my herbaceous things, or flowers and grasses, bluebells, geraniums, Cynoglossum, Myriactis,Gnaphalium, with nettles, docks, chickweeds, and such household weeds. I wish, Fan, you were here to botanise with Dr. Hooker ; for I am unworthy, having never heeded this branch of science, and he is such a cheerful, well-bred youthful philosopher that you would derive as much pleasure as profit from intercourse with him. Go and see his father Sir William Hooker at the Royal Gardens at Kew.

Allan Octavian Hume said of him:quotation|Mr. Hodgson's mind was many-sided, and his work extended into many fields of which I have little knowledge. Indeed of all the many subjects which, at various times, engaged his attention, there is only one with which I am well acquainted and in regard to his researches in which I am at all competent to speak. I refer of course to Indian Ornithology, and extensive as were his labours in this field, they absorbed, I believe, only a minor portion of his intellectual activities. Moreover his opportunities in this direction were somewhat circumscribed, for Nepal and Sikkim were the only provinces in our vast empire whose birds he was able to study in life for any considerable period. Yet from these two comparatively small provinces he added fully a hundred and fifty good new species to the Avifauna of the British Asian Empire, and few and far between have been the new species subsequently discovered within the limits he explored. But this detection and description of previously unknown species was only the smaller portion of his contributions to Indian Ornithology. He trained Indian artists to paint birds with extreme accuracy from a scientific point of view, and under his careful supervision admirable large-scale pictures were produced, not only of all the new species above referred to, but also of several hundred other already recorded ones, and in many cases of their nests and eggs also. These were continually accompanied by exact, life-size, pencil drawings of the bills, nasal orifices, legs, feet, and claws (the scutellation of the tarsi and toes being reproduced with photographic accuracy and minuteness), and of the arrangement of the feathers in crests, wings, and tails. Then on the backs of the plates was preserved an elaborate record of the colours of the irides, bare facial skin, wattles, legs, and feet, as well as detailed measurements, all taken from fresh and numerous specimens, of males, females, and young of each species, and over and above all this, invaluable notes as to food (ascertained by dissection), nidification and eggs, station, habits, constituting as a whole materials for a life-history of many hundred species such as I believe no one ornithologist had ever previously garnered. ... Hodgson combined much of Blyth's talent for classification with much of Jerdon's habit of persevering personal observation, and excelled the latter in literary gifts and minute and exact research. But with Hodgson ornithology was only a pastime or at best a "parergon", and humble a branch of science as is ornithology, it is yet like all other branches a jealous mistress demanding an undivided allegiance ; and hence with, I think, on the whole, higher qualifications, he exercised practically somewhat less influence on ornithological evolution than either of his great contemporaries. ...

Charles Darwin in his "Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication" when discussing the origin of the domestic dog, mentions that Hodgson succeeded in taming the young of the "Canis primaevus", an Indian wild dog, and in making them as fond of him and as intelligent as ordinary clogs. Darwin was also indebted to Hodgson's writings for information on the occurrence of dew-claws in the Tibetan mastiff, and for other details of variations which he observed in the cattle, sheep, and goats of India.

"Hodgsonia" is a genus of cucurbits named after Hodgson. His close friend, Sir Joseph Hooker named a species of Rhododendron after him "Rhododendron hodgsoni". Several species of bird including "Prinia hodgsonii" are named after him.

Return to England

Hodgson resigned in 1844 and returned to England for a short period. In 1845 he settled in Darjeeling and continued his studies of the peoples of northern India. In 1858 he again returned to England and settled in the Cotswolds. He died at Alderley.

During his life in India, he fathered a boy and a girl through a Kashmiri Muslim who lived with him. He was however resentful of the abuse and discrimination in India of 'mixed-race' children and sent them to Holland to live with his sister. However both children died soon after.


* On the colonization of the Himalaya by Europeans (1856)
* On the Aborigines of India: the Kocch, Bodo and Dhimal Tribes (1847)



* Smith, M. A. 1941. Fauna of British India. Reptilia and Amphibia.
*Barbara and Richard Mearns - "Biographies for Birdwatchers" ISBN 0-12-487422-3
*Lydekker, R. (1902) Some famous Anglo-Indian naturalists of the nineteenth century. Indian Review Vol.3:221-226
* Cocker, M. & Inskipp, C. (1988) A Himalayan ornithologist: The life and work of Brian Houghton Hodgson. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 89pp.
* Hunter, W.W. (1896) Life of Brian Houghton Hodgson. John Murray: London. 390pp. [ Scanned book]

External links

* [ Natural History Museum, London]
* [ (1863) Catalogue of the specimens and drawings of Mammalia and birds of Nepal and Tibet : presented by B. H. Hodgson, Esq., to the British Museum.]

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