A life for forestry

Hugh Cleghorn

Hugh Cleghorn  



Reader Shanti Bhattacharya sent me a message the other day wondering whether I knew anything about Hugh Cleghorn’s contribution to forestry in South India. She referred me to his The Forests and Gardens of South India (1861) and, informing me that it was available for free downloading at >, suggested that it was compulsory reading for anyone interested in the environment. Given my relationship with computers, that’s going to take ages. Meanwhile, it’s easier to look at the contribution through the eyes of a message she forwarded me from N.S. Prashanth, who is at the Prince Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, Belgium ( > With quotes from Richard Grove’s Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonialism and Global Environmental History, he writes, “There are so many references to Cleghorn in the book … The book traces the enormous influence that Cleghorn’s concepts of ‘widespread desiccation’ had on the British policy on our forests! The history of ‘protected areas’ in fact can themselves be traced to the fear of widespread famine, revolt and devastation of the ‘empire’. Of course, I am sure, timber concerns and the second world war underscored these fears to a large extent, but a great part in disseminating this fear about ‘drying up of the earth’ and ‘connecting water resources to forests’ has been played by Cleghorn and his works.”

Hugh Francis Clarke Cleghorn, to give him his full name, is someone whom I have made passing reference to in this column (Miscellany, October 28, 2004). Put on his trail by reader Bhattacharya, I find he deserves better. A third generation India hand, Cleghorn was born in Madras in 1820. He studied medicine in Edinburgh and joined the Madras Medical Service in 1842. He travelled extensively in South India with the Service, through “the arid sands of Madras, the undulating plateau of Mysore (his first posting), the primeval forests of Coorg and Malabar, the woodless plains of the Carnatic where European furniture cracks and wraps, and the Malabar ghauts, where in the southwest monsoon the lancet, in the coat, coats with rust.” During these travels, like many of his predecessors in the Service, he followed botanist Joseph Hooker’s advice “to study one plant a day for quarter of an hour.” It was these studies that made him conscious of agriculture’s sufferings due to deforestation and shifting cultivation in forest plots after all vegetation was burnt to cinders.

After returning to Britain in 1848 on sick leave, he spoke at several fora there about why agriculture in India was failing. It was these lectures that spurred the Government of India to introduce forest conservation policies and Forest Departments not only in India but in the other colonies as well.

Returning to India in 1852, Cleghorn was appointed Professor of Botany and Materia Medica in the Madras Medical College; he also became the Honorary Secretary of the Madras Agri-Horticultural Society. In 1855 he was asked to organise the Madras Forest Department and the next year was appointed its first Conservator of Forests. His persistent campaigning with the Government resulted in the banning of shift cultivation in the Madras Presidency in 1860.

The ban was ordered while he was again on sick leave in Britain. He returned to Madras in 1861 with cinchona plants from Kew. The cinchona plantations around Ooty thrived and were seen as a possible substitute in blight-hit coffee estates, but when world prices of cinchona crashed, tea was seen as a better bet. That same year, Cleghorn was appointed Joint Conservator of Forests for India with Sir Dietrich Brandis. The northwest Himalayan region then began to attract him. In 1867, he was appointed Inspector General of Forests, India, but retired to Scotland the next year. Today, few remember what Cleghorn of Madras contributed to Indian forestry.

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