William Roxburgh (1751-1815)
Robinson, T. F.
Refared to as the greatest botanist since Linnaeus and the founding father of Indian botany by his contemporaries, it is surprising that William Roxburgh has never before been the study of a full-length biography. Some of the problems regarding his life and work have been tackled and some solutions found. Lack of accessible archives has meant that Roxburgh’s origins and background are still uncertain, but fEom the time of his matriculation at Edinburgh University in 1771, more information is available. This casts useful light on the education of medical students by John Hope in preparation for them travelling and working in the emerging British colonies as doctors and scientists, with particular emphasis on botany. After his arrival in India, it has been possible to throw light on the ways in which fortunes were made, although there remains a conundrum of the exact relationship between Roxburgh and Andrew Ross. The importance of Gerhard Konig in the development of Roxburgh’s botanical and scientific position is highlighted, building on the foundations laid by Hope. By the time he left the Coromandel Coast in 1793, Roxburgh was deemed to be a figure of some stature in the scientific community in India, further developed once in Calcutta. The problems relating to his family are complicated by all three of his wives having the same Christian name, Mary, compounded by christening two of his sons William, the elder also leaving a son called William. The career of his natural son followed a fhirly standard path for children born to native women and who were educated in India, unlike Roxburgh’s other children who were sent to Britain. Roxburgh’s success was sufficient to leave all his legitimate children well provided: one son having a coat of arms granted. The second part of the thesis considers the scientific work of Roxburgh, both botanically and in a wider field. One of the main fmdings has been the large number of plant species that Roxburgh sent to Kew for cultivation, which needs further study. His botanical drawings are of importance both botanically and artistically, while his publications remain pillars of Indian botany as well as contributing to that of St Helena, and his time spent at the Cape of Good Hope was also of pivotal importance. In a wider scientific context, there are insights into his scientific methodology as well as his connections with the French physiocrats, putting him in a position close to the centre of his contemporary scientific world. The final part of this thesis considers his work in four areas, to show his working methods and gives an insight into his mind. His awareness of his own limitations, yet the necessity for detailed scientific experimental results comes out of a study of his work on dyes to back proposals to the East India Company to accept ideas for new investments and trading of crops. His work on sugar gives a useful medium to consider his thorough approach when looking for suitable new crops, to support his concern to provide work for native farmers and their reliance on cheap, labour-intensive methods of production. Roxburgh’s knowledge of the climate of India and the frequent disasters caused by the failure of the monsoons lead him to suggest a method of canalising the Godavq River. His breadth of practical skills also emerges from this case study, for it was Roxburgh himself who was asked to do the surveying. Finally, there is his work at the Cape of Good Hope, whence he sent major collections of Proteaceae and Ericaceae to Britain, but sadly his notebooks from this period, and indeed fiom his time in India, have not been traced.