From Plant Press, Vol. 19, No. 2, April 2016.
By John Boggan
-Adapted from DC Tropics
Sitting at our computers in our comfortable offices, handling herbarium specimens that are often well over a century old, we sometimes forget how dangerous it could be to collect these specimens in the 1800s, and how many of these collectors came to bad—and sometimes violent—ends. One such end inspired a story by Rudyard Kipling. “The Man Who Would Be King”—made into a 1975 movie with the same title—ends with a rather memorable scene of a man’s severed head in a bag, a scene loosely based on the true story of Adolphe Schlagintweit.
Kipling probably never met any of the Schlagintweit brothers—Hermann (1826-1882), Adolphe* (1829-1857), and Robert (1833-1885)—but I recently worked with some of the plant specimens these Bavarian explorers collected in the 1850s on a scientific expedition to Asia. Well-educated sons of a wealthy Munich ophthalmologist, Hermann and Adolphe moved to Berlin in 1849 shortly after receiving their doctorates in geography and geology, respectively. There they met the famous naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, then 80 years old and looking for younger men to continue his life's work. Impressed by their previous work in the Alps, he recommended them for an expedition commissioned by the East India Company (and paid for in part, for reasons not clear to me, by the King of Prussia) to complete the Magnetic Survey of India and to collect geological, zoological, botanical, and anthropological specimens. In 1854, taking their younger brother Robert along as an assistant, they set off for India.
This expedition was significant for going into areas where no collectors had been before, and in many cases no westerners of any kind. For three years the brothers traveled both together and separately, with a retinue of assistants and servants, finally writing about their travels in a never-completed series of volumes, Results of a Scientific Mission to India and High Asia. For Adolphe, the botanist of the team, the publication was posthumous.