Jardin de Lorixa – A Lost Herbal from the 18th Century

The frontispiece of the Jardin de Lorixa. Credits: Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

Under the title “Ellemans botanique des plante du Jardin de Lorixa, leur vertu et quallite, tans conus que celle qui ne le sont pas, avec leur fleur, fruis et grainne”, the Central library of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris holds a 14- volume folio manuscript, twelve of which contain 722 double-folio paintings of 720 Indian plants done by Indian artists. The remaining two volumes contain a description, in French, of each of these plants with an index of their vernacular names transcribed in the Latin script and a classification of plants according to their medical and, sometimes, economic, uses. This makes it one of the largest known herbals of the Indian subcontinent, second only to the Dutch Hortus Indicus Malabaricus executed in south-western India in the 1670’s and published from Amsterdam between 1678 and 1693 in 12 volumes with 794 engravings describing 742 plants. In addition to the index and verbal descriptions, the first volume of the manuscript contains a Preface, a Note to the Reader (“Avis au lecteur”) and an intriguing frontispiece depicting the artists executing the paintings, a woman carrying plants in a basket on her head, a brahmin with a (botanical or medical) manuscript, and a European.

Until quite recently nothing was known about this manuscript, apart from two pieces of information in the library’s catalogue: it was apparently authored, or commissioned, in the 18th century by a man named L’Empereur (most probably the European in the frontispiece). Moreover, and surprisingly for a work of this size, it does not seem to have been noticed, much less cited, by any known naturalist, and is thus totally redundant for the history of botany. However, months of sleuthing by the present author have unearthed a number of letters and miscellaneous documents related to this herbal, scattered in different archives and libraries in France. This help shed new and valuable light on ways in which floral diversity was understood and mobilised in this age of European expansion; on the circulation of intellectual and material practices and skills in the emerging space of a globalised world economy; on the making of new knowledge through the intercultural encounter between Europeans and South-Asians and on the relationship between armchair savants in Europe and their correspondents on the farthest shores of the globe.

Plate from the Jardin de Lorixa. Credits: Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

From a close reading of the manuscript and the other documents discovered, we learn that the Jardin de Lorixa was started in the 1690’s by Nicolas L’Empereur. It was completed in Chandernagore in Bengal, a few hundred kilometres to the northeast, and shipped to France around 1725 to a “Monsieur Julliens . However, the manuscript was ignored and, much to his embitterment, L’Empereur got no recognition or credit for his work: indeed, he died in Chandernagore, aged 80 in 1742, a pauper.

The documents at our disposal tell us little about L’Empereur. Apart from ascertaining his first name, we learn that he was a surgeon in the employ of the French East India Company, stationed at the small, but important, settlement of Ballasore in Orissa close to the western end of the Ganges delta. From the Chandernagore death register we learn that he was born in Normandy around 1660; from his total disregard for punctuation and fixed spelling, but nonetheless fairly wide, and learned, vocabulary, we can surmise that he came from a reasonably well-to-do urban family but had only an elementary education and most probably learned surgery as an apprentice onboard one of the Company’s East Indiamen, a common way of entering the profession until the end of the eighteenth century. He seems to have set up at the French trading lodge at Ballasore not long after it was established in 1688 and got the idea of working on a pharmacopoeia of Indian plants soon after, for we find him writing about it in his very first surviving letter dated 20 January, 1699 to his friend Gabriel Delavigne, future head of the Société des Missions Étrangères, who had returned to Paris the previous year after spending nearly twenty years in Asia. From this, and six other letters to other members of the Société, we learn that L’Empereur is trying to acquire and translate into French as many Indian medical texts as he can lay his hand on so that an apothecary can set up shop in India and help reduce the mortality rate among Europeans there.

Indeed, out of the 120,000 Frenchmen who sailed to the East between 1644 and 1789 as ordinary sailors or important officials, 35,000 did not survive the voyage.[1] In 1698, for instance, the French fleet was ravaged by disease in the Bay of Bengal, losing 600 men, including almost all its surgeons and medics, in the space of a few days. Besides the fact that Europeans met with a multitude of hitherto unknown diseases in these distant tropical waters, the herbs and medicines they normally carried with them deteriorated in quality through the many months the ships were at sea and were less efficacious for treating the few ailments they could normally handle. Furthermore, the number of simples, or medicinal plants, traditionally known to Europeans was relatively small leading them to look for new plant remedies in the distant regions they came into contact with. According to at least one study, for instance, more than 80% of the names of simples incorporated into French in the course of the seventeenth century were of American-Indian origin.[2] 

During the sixteenth century, a number of Portuguese had gathered material about Asian natural history, the most famous of them being Garcia da Orta (c.1500-c.1568) and Cristovão da Costa (also known as Christoval Acosta) (c.1525-c.1594) who had both spent many years on the West coast of India. It is significant to note that the very first book to be published from the Portuguese colony of Goa was da Orta’s Coloquios dos simples e drogas he cousas mediçinais da India… in 1563 — so important was herborising held to be by the Europeans.

Plate from the Jardin de Lorixa. Credits: Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

Already in the early years of their contact with the East, the Dutch had set up a surgeon’s shop in Batavia in the 1610s followed shortly after by a proto- botanical garden to rear medicinal plants brought together from various parts of Southeast Asia. In the 1670s the Dutch governor of Malabar (present-day Kerala) in Southwestern India, Hendrik Adriaan van Reede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691), had a gigantic work commissioned on the flora of this region, largely with the help of indigenous specialists who not only identified the plants with their regional names but also described the uses of each plant. Its pen-and-ink-wash sketches of the 742 plants, executed by Dutch draughtsmen, were thus accompanied by a detailed description of each (furnished by Indians) translated into Latin, the names of the plants being left in the local vernaculars and in Arabic. The codex was published with 794 black-and-white plant engravings, partly posthumously, under the title of Hortus Indicus Malabaricus in 12 in-folio volumes from Amsterdam between 1678 and 1693, and was soon to become the standard reference work for the flora of the southern Indian peninsula. Indeed, van Reede’s work along with that of another Dutchman, Paul Hermann (1646-1695), on Ceylon, were to form one of the main sources for Linnaeus for his knowledge of the tropical flora of Asia.

The English, too, were busy collecting tropical plants and sending them back to London with whatever details they could pick up as to their therapeutic, and other, properties. Thus, Samuel Browne (died ~1703) and Edward Bulkley (1651-1714), surgeons in the employ of the English East India Company at Madras, sent at least 5 volumes of dried plants, fruits and drugs, with their local names, sometimes transcribed in local characters, to the London apothecary, James Petiver (1658-1718). Indeed, by the mid-seventeenth century, both the Dutch and the English East India Companies had supplemented the luxury goods and spices they brought from the East with a vast range of exotic plants that they sold on European markets for their medicinal uses. In addition, the Dutch, being more established in the Indian Ocean than their English competitors, also used their knowledge of the tropical flora of Asia to move plants around to strategic stations in the region, like the Cape of Good Hope, Batavia, and Ceylon, in order to provide a stock of medicaments and spread the cultivation of commercially useful plants.

Dutch and English presence in Ballasore, and perennial inter-European rivalry, played no small role in spurring L’Empereur to embark on his ambitious project in the mid-1690s. Besides, a work of this sort, he was sure, would get him praise, fame… and pecuniary reward, often an important incentive for undertaking projects of this nature. In addition to collecting and translating Indian medical texts, he made the acquaintance of passing fakirs, many of whom had a knowledge of medicine and who acquainted him with some of their remedies. He then employed local artists to paint those plants that he could readily find in the neighbourhood. Indeed, painting flora was no novelty for these artists who earned their livelihood executing floral designs on the painted cloth that was one of the major export items of Eastern India. And although they did not usually paint on paper, they were quite versatile with respect to mediums, painting indifferently on cloth or on temple and house walls. He also spent his time experimenting with new concoctions he himself made, trying them on local patients: “monsieur nogest [a French missionary who was suffering from leprosy] na point voulu prandre le remede que je voulu luy donne je luy et anvoye apres an avoir fait prandre a un homme du pais … qui est tout ulcere et qui a ette gueri jan tretere daustre pour voir les differans effes que le remede fera” [3]

He sent Delavigne samples of his work, hoping he would be able to find a suitable patron and pecuniary advantage. Delavigne, however, does not seem to have made much headway and, by 1702, L’Empereur’s impatience was growing. He then started looking for alternative sources of access to patronage. He sent some samples of his work to a Monsieur Petit in London and to a friend of his brother’s in Dol, a retired canon who had once been tutor to the sons of Guy-Crescent Fagon (1638-1718), Louis XIV’s personal physician and superintendent of the Jardin du Roy in Paris. The connection seems to have worked, for decades later, copies of L’Empereur’s correspondence with the Directors of the East India Company were systematically forwarded to Guy- Crescent’s younger son, Louis Fagon (1680-1744), Conseiller d’Etat and Président of the Conseil royal des finances. It is probable that the latter was instrumental in putting L’Empereur in contact with “Monsieur Julliens”. The English connection did not materialise. Given his total disregard for spelling, it is unlikely that his samples ever reached their addressee, in all probability not Petit but the above-mentioned James Petiver.

In 1706, L’Empereur moved as senior surgeon to Chandernagore, making money on the side by selling uncut emeralds from South America bought on his behalf in Europe, buying and selling real estate… and continuing his medico-botanical work with unwavering determination. A trading port on the Hugly, the major distributary of the Ganges, and part of a major conglomerate of European townships, Chandernagore had a fairly large indigenous population composed mainly of merchants and artisans working for the European export market. L’Empereur would have had little difficulty finding artists and was soon also sending Indians at considerable personal cost to collect plants from places as far away as Nepal, in the north-west, and the Deccan to the south-west, in peninsular India. He also seems to have corresponded with Indian merchants in different parts of the subcontinent negotiating the purchase of rare medicinal plants. But not all the plants in the 12 tomes were medicinal. Some were even recent imports into the subcontinent, like the papaya, the chilli, the custard apple, and the potato, introduced from South America in the 16th century by the Portuguese. However, L’Empereur, like his Dutch predecessors, does not distinguish between local and imported varieties and reading the descriptions, one gets the impression that they form part of the region’s traditional flora. This is certainly not because they were not aware of plant transfer — they themselves were involved in moving flora around the Indian Ocean as also from Asia to Europe— but because their purpose was more to catalogue the medicinal and other uses the plants were put to by the natives of each region.

Plate from the Jardin de Lorixa. Credits: Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

Chandernagore being contiguous to the English and the Dutch townships of Hugly and Chinsura, L’Empereur could also keep a close eye on the botanical interests of the rival powers. Indeed, it was undoubtedly the close presence of the Dutch that provided him with the template for his own work — van Reede’s Hortus Malabaricus, an exorbitantly expensive and rare book even at the time. A close examination of this herbal, reveals that it provided not only the paradigm for organising Le jardin de Lorixa but also the model for the kind of representation required of artists for their paintings to be recognised as botanical by European savants. For it is important to note that while painting floral motifs were the bread-and-butter of Indian artists, their representations were specifically stylised and did not respect European botanical conventions of the day. These required, for instance, that seeds be shown apart, whole and laterally dissected. Flowers were also to be shown separately and roots were shown with the plant. Not only do the paintings in the Jardin respect these conventions, but some of them are more or less directly inspired by the engravings of the Hortus Malabaricus.

This, for instance, is the case for the jackfruit, the papaya and the banana. This, however, does not mean that L’Empereur’s artists copied the illustrations from the printed book simply changing lateral dispositions; the very fact that they coloured their illustrations, each time getting the colours of all parts right — the Hortus Malabaricus‘s drawings were in black and white — removes all doubt on the matter. Indeed, the artist’s hand knew how to render the variety and the subtlety of these colours. Much more strikingly, the frontispiece, too, is directly inspired from that of van Reede’s work, altering its allegorical style into the real story of the making of the Jardin de Lorixa: the disposition of the potted plant, this time in a Chinese porcelain pot; the kneeling Malayali children transformed into the artists of the latter; the goddess of Indian botany metamorphosed into a brahmin who wields his manuscripts instead of a rake and a pruning knife; the pergola in the foreground into an arch formed by flowering trees, inspired from traditional Indian paintings and embroidery; the ornamental summer house into a Greco-Roman ruin and the female pillar of the former brought to life as a woman actually carrying in plants to be painted. Indian artists, as indeed their European counterparts including those who specialised in botanical drawings, were used to drawing inspiration from floral albums and pattern books such as Pierre Vallet’s Le jardin du tres chrestien Henri Quatre (1608), Johann Theodor de Bry’s Florilegium novum (1611), or Crispian van de Passe’s Hortus floridus (1614- 17). But then again, the representations did not stick rigourously to the coventions laid down in these works: the Indian artists captured in a single painting the annual cycle of the plants — one can see the buds, the flowers, the fruit at one and the same instant, a style evocative of Eastern Indian narrative strategies. The work is truly hybrid in nature.

The codex was finally ready around 1725 and L’Empereur sent it shortly thereafter to “Monsieur Julliens” in Paris, hoping to recover rather more than his initial outlay — no mean sum, considering the number of people mobilised to keep this veritable industry going for over thirty years — in preparation for a comfortable retired life. Julliens, however, did not reply, much less send him any payment for his Gargantuan effort. After years of unproductive correspondence, L’Empereur finally wrote in early 1737 complaining to the directors of the East India Company about Julliens’s behaviour. He described in great detail how he had not only sent him his magnum opus but had also transmitted a remedy for epilepsy. Julliens had of course done nothing to procure any advantage for him. Nor did he spare his efforts to inform the rest of Parisian high society, amongst others, le comte de Maurepas, minister of the Navy, and l’Abbé Bignon, the king’s librarian.

Who was this mysterious Julliens, and how did the manuscript finally end up in the Muséum’s library? From L’Empereur’s letter to the Compagnie des Indes it seems clear that “Julliens” was either a medic, a surgeon or an apothecary close to the King’s personal physicians. However, the name does not figure in any records, neither at the faculty of medicine in Paris as nor among the names of well-known apothecaries or surgeons of the period. And yet, if L’Empereur wrote to the directors, and a copy of the letter reached Louis Fagon, Julliens must have referred to real, and known, person. The name was certainly not correctly transcribed, no great surprise given L’Empereur’s total disregard for spelling. A clue to the enigma is provided by the letter itself: on comparison with his writing in the manuscript and other correspondence, one realises that this letter, although signed by L’Empereur himself, was not written by him. Indeed, because of his advancing age, his hand must have been so shaky — the signature testifies to it — that he had his original draft copied by one of the Company’s scribes in Chandernagore, the latter misreading the name: the two l’s in Julliens could have plausibly been two customarily long s’s of the epoch. Julliens was then none other than Jussieu (the ‘s’ at the end being yet another of L’Empereur’s fantasies). An examination of the latter’s correspondence corroborated the supposition: two letters from L’Empereur to Antoine de Jussieu, held by the Muséum’s Laboratoire de phanérogamie, attest to the fact that the two men had been in correspondence with and that the latter was indeed the addressee of the famous manuscript.

Why then did Jussieu, the foremost naturalist in France at the time, ignore so valuable a work? Indeed, as stated earlier, herbals and pharmacopoeias of this sort were highly prized as much for their commercial potential as for their use to naturalists and medics as also as objects on a flourishing art market in Europe. When van Reede’s original 10-volume manuscript came up for sale in Amsterdam as late as 1771, the British Museum acquired it for a couple of thousands of pounds, and Joseph Banks personally bought Paul Hermann’s Herbarium for almost £100 (tens of thousands of Francs today). Personal animosity, as L’Empereur seems to suggest in his plaintive letter, cannot completely explain Jussieu’s comportment. Unfortunately, we shall perhaps never know what Jussieu wrote to his correspondent in India to explain his decision not to recompense him, as the latter’s personal effects and belongings were in all probability not preserved. On the other hand, at least one of Jussieu’s writings amongst his manuscripts throws some light on his appreciation of the Indian herbal. It is a short piece entitled “Des avantages que nous pouvons tirer d’un commerce littéraire avec les botanistes etrangers” and most probably written in 1732.

Because it provides a clear picture of Antoine de Jussieu’s notion of the botanical enterprise, it is perhaps worth tarrying a bit on its contents. It is neither simple curiosity, he says, nor the desire to adorn one’s garden with exotic and hitherto unknown plants that are the main reason for corresponding with botanists abroad — no, if botany is to have any place in the progress of medicine and other arts, then it must be to establish comparisons between European flora and that sent by correspondents abroad. It is only thus that one can identify plants of the same type, know their uses in medicine and the arts, and finally better the quality of European flora. According to Jussieu, it is this correspondence that helped establish that the Ipecacuanha was nothing other than the common violet, the “scammonée est le Turbit ces purgatifs si usités ne sont que des Liserons etrangers, et que les plantes qui servent a faire le papier au Japon, ne sont qu’une espece de Meurier blanc et une Guimauve.”

Jussieu then goes on to give five practical examples to show the utility of such correspondences… the second of them being none other than that with Nicolas L’Empereur:

“The second letter, dated 20 January 1729, is from Mr. L’Empereur, formerly surgeon at Chandernagore in the kingdom of Bengal. It contains a number of observations on the plants of that country drawn and painted by him in 12 folio volumes that he sent to the Academy and that are now with me. The observations are mainly on the uses in Bengal of most of the plants described in this collection, which is almost a corpus of medicine in this distant kingdom.

”However, an examination of the plants has led me to remark that most of those that grow there naturally and are, so to speak, wild, are to be found here among our vegetables which are cultivated and have thus developed a different taste.”

Plate from the Jardin de Lorixa. Credits: Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

With these few words, Jussieu had brushed aside all notions of biodiversity! The example does indeed speak louder than all the abstract explanations Jussieu gave in the preamble to his memoir: France was gifted with almost all existent plant species, the job of the botanist being to correspond with botanists abroad in order to receive information and/or herbariums in order to compare foreign specimens with local ones and establish concordances between them so as to be self-sufficient — a policy that today goes under the name of import substitution. With these few words, Jussieu also sounded the knell of the Jardin de Lorixa, condemned to lie unopened for almost three centuries, first on the shelves of Jussieu’s personal library at the Jardin du Roy, then in the Muséum’s archives when the latter acquired a large part of the Jussieu collections in the course of the nineteenth century.

1. Claude Chaligne, Chirurgiensde la Compagnie des Indes. Histoire du service de santé de la Compagnie 1664-1793. Thèse de médecine, Paris, 1961.

2. See Jacques Petitjean Roget, La société d’habitation à la Martinique, un demi-siècle de formation 1635- 1685. Thèse de l’Université de Lille 3, 1980.

3. L’Empereur to Gabriel Delavigne, 20 January, 1699, Archives de la Société des missions étrangères, Paris.

L’Empereur’s preface for the Jardin de Lorixa. Credits: Bibliothèque Centrale, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

Kapil Raj is an Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (The School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) in Paris.