Tuesday, 10 August 2010
Multicaulis in the mid-19th century
It was only at the end of the 1830s that Government of Madras became involved in promoting sericulture, and that indirectly. The attention of the East India Company in London had been drawn to a new American book called The silk culturist’s manual. It was by one John d’Homergue, ‘addressed to the farmers and planters of the United States’. During the 1820s an old interest in silk production in the United States which had faded and then almost disappeared in the War of Independence between 1775 and 1783, began again to appeal to ‘many prominent persons’ who ‘recommended its development’. The House of Representatives of the Congress became involved in 1826, directing the Secretary to the Treasury to have a manual prepared on the production and manufacture of silk (Klose 1963: 226). None was, it seems, available: Count Dandolo’s The art of rearing silkworms had appeared, in London in English translation from the original Italian of 1815, only the year before. In any case it was not directed to American conditions. In 1830 the Committee on Agriculture of the American Congress was then set to assess a scheme to make the United States a world leader of raw silk production.
This scheme had been put forward by an unlikely pair of Frenchmen: one had immigrated to America from France in 1777 at the age of 17 with a certain Baron von Steuben and as his ‘military secretary’. This young man was Pierre-Etienne du Ponceau, and the Baron was a Prussian soldier who was to become one of the leading generals in the American ‘Continental Army’, credited with creating a trained and disciplined army to fight under George Washington. After serving in the American War of Independence, Pierre-Etienne became Paul Stephen Duponceau, and in time a renowned jurist, philologist especially of American Indian languages, long-time President of the American Philosophical Society and, towards the end of his life, an enthusiastic exponent of sericulture for America. It was for this that he teamed up with a new arrival from France who was seeking his fortune from silk, the John d’Homergue mentioned above. Between them they were an attention-catching team, and their campaign in 1830/31 to get a national sericultural development programme financed under Act of Congress played an important part in a craze for mulberry cultivation and silkworm rearing that built up through the decade.
It was this excitement generated in America, which led the Directors in London to be alerted and then, eventually, to forward the letter they had received from a Lieutenant Colonel Sykes to the Madras Government at Fort St George in 1839. They passed the message on to the Board of Revenue, the Agri-Horticultural Society of Madras and to Surgeon Wight, EIC Surgeon, Naturalist and Botanist in the Madras establishment, with the brief of ‘investigating the natural resources of the country with a view to commercial exploitation’.
A key part of the excitement in the United States was the identification of one mulberry variety, morus multicaulis (many-stemmed), the white mulberry that was a native of China. It had appeared as the Philippine mulberry in the 18th century, in the course of exploration to find natural resources from around the world. It was notoriously difficult to distinguish varieties: mulberry’s apparent characteristics, such as leaf structure, were inconstant in different environments and the stocks so mixed by long use without consistent discrimination or breeding. In 1821 however, one George Samuel Perrottet, a distinguished French botanist who had been sent with a ship on a three-year collecting mission to the seas of Asia, returned with multicaulis amongst his collection and named by him. He was said to have found it on the banks of a river in Manilla, the capital of the Philippines in south-east Asia, ‘in the garden of a Chinese cultivator’, ‘growing with a vast variety of other precious plants which had … been collected from India, from Ceylon, from Sumatra and from China’. Perrottet obtained two plants, from which he established multicaulis first on the French Island of Bourbon, now Réunion, in the Indian Ocean, then in Cayenne, now in French Guiana in Central America, and finally in France, starting with the Royal Gardens in Paris. From there it was supplied to French territories and more widely still across the world.
In the United States, it first arrived about 1827. It was widely imagined that, at first called ‘Philippine’ or ‘Chinese’ or occasionally ‘Perrottet’s mulberry’, the multicaulis was an almost magical key to successful silk production. A vigorous market in young trees and cuttings built up. In 1834 it was selling for $3-5 a hundred, but within a few years ‘at $25 or even $500 a hundred’. Speculation in large plantations mounted in frenzy, until ‘the cold winter of 1839 killed many of the trees, chilling the enthusiasm and toppling the speculative price structure. Sericulture in America received a serious setback and a reputation it took long to live down’ (Klose 1963: 26-27.
The Madras government in 1842 – with the bubble already burst in America and having apparently made no progress with the matter of acquiring this wonderful mulberry still being called ‘Philippine’ here – was reminded that they were supposed to be propagating it. They should now obtain supplies from the Bengal and Bombay Governments. A covering note in circulating this instruction commented that it could be obtained from Pondicherry where there was a silk factory and plantation. The Agri-Horticultural Society replied that they already had the plant growing in their garden, from cuttings presented to them by Mr Groves of Chittoor. They had already distributed several hundred cuttings to ‘enterprising persons on the Nilgiri Hills and in Mysore’, and could with financial support provide 10,000 more in the following April or May. It was doing well and believed likely to do equally well in most parts of the Presidency. The Government then issued a call to all Collectors to submit their requirements: from Salem and Coimbatore, the application was for as many cuttings as possible; in Mysore it was already thriving; from the Telugu Districts of the north, Rajamundry, Nellore, Kadapa and Kurnool responded positively. Kurnool took until the following year to consider the matter but had then decided to try for a government-financed establishment for sericulture and reeling. They were turned down.
Sadly, multicaulis was no more the solution to sericultural success in India than it had been in America. Other problems in plenty lay ahead.