Promoting Natural & Cultural History
Detailed information about the manufacturing of cotton, printing, and painting on cloth, trade with handkerchiefs, and the use of various carpets on the Coromandel coast was part of a European traveller’s diary in 1778. Johann Gerhard König (1728-1785) was born in Livland. At fifty, he had reached an unusually mature age for his time to make a natural history voyage from India to present-day Thailand and Malaysia. Earlier in life, he had been a private student of Carl Linnaeus in 1757, lived in Denmark from 1759 to 1767 and during twelve years from 1773 – a period also including this journey – he acted as a royal botanical collector on a Danish trade mission, closely situated to the British East India Company post in Tranquebar [Tharangambadi]. After König’s death in 1785 at this place in India, his journal and other papers were bequeathed to Sir Joseph Banks. This case study will focus on his informative textile observations made on the outward journey from Madras [Chennai] in August 1778.
His main aim with the journey was botanising and describing plants, insects, birds and shells, which is reflected in the quite extensive journal. Still, during the first two weeks of the circa one-and-a-half-year-long voyage, the ship anchored along the coast close to Madras [Chennai] on several occasions. In this area, he made detailed observations of fine kinds of cotton, the complex dyeing/painting process of such cotton and a few mentions of other used and traded textiles in the area. The East India Companies of several European countries were part of his discussion, too. According to the publisher in 1894, the handwritten journal (1778-79) was written in a mix of German and Danish, in a hardly legible hand.
It may also be noticed that König had quite a long-term correspondence with his former teacher Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), but mainly concerning botany and other natural history matters. These letters, dating from 1763 to 1777, are preserved at the Linnean Society of London. However, the period of this particular journey post-date these letters, due to that Linnaeus died in January 1778, before König’s travel journal started. His correspondence from Tranquebar was taken up once more after his journey, in the years 1780-82, but by now to his former teacher’s son – Carl Linnaeus the Younger (1741-1783).
Some quotes from the initial weeks of König’s “Journal of a voyage from India to Siam [Thailand] and Malacca [city in Malaysia] in 1778-1779” will give informative perspectives about fine textiles, produced and traded along the Coromandel Coast. But also a glimpse into the lucrative positions and changing powers of various East India Companies in the area and their connection to traders from the Asian regions and local inhabitants alike.
The diary commences when the ship Bristol sailed from Madras [Chennai] on 8 August 1778; four days later, at a stopover along the coast König observed the handkerchief trade and uses of other types of pieces of cotton:
On 16 August, at another stop along the coast, König mentioned the manufacturing and trade of painted cotton as well as woollen carpets – of luxurious and inexpensive sorts, desired by Europeans and Indian inhabitants alike:
Whilst the traveller, on 19 August, reflected on the changing conditions and existence over time for the European East India Companies in the area:
Johann Gerhard König was part of the 18th century network of Carl Linnaeus, Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander and hundreds of others, where textiles from all possible aspects were included to extend one’s knowledge of natural and cultural history. Besides their global scientific curiosity and trading in rare plants. Overall, the travelling Europeans had a general interest in wild growing species and cultivated nutritious or otherwise beneficial plants in visited gardens or plantations established by East India Companies and other parties – all in for them far-flung places. Their observations and collecting were often focused on medicinal uses or food or more specific commodities like tea, sugar, coffee or natural dyes. Live plants, or more easily seeds, could then be transported on ships in their private luggage or sent with other boats from various ports along the sailing routes to be transported over the oceans to reach naturalists, gardeners, et al., who dispersed the rarities to the increasing numbers of European botanical gardens. Gradually, some of these specimens – if hardy enough in the more northerly climes or grown in hot houses – were spread further via shared seeds and cuttings into private gardens. The connection between the local populations of India and the commercial or scientific intentions of the Europeans was one branch of these complex crisscrossing encounters around the globe in the Age of Enlightenment and Colonialism.
In a concluding textile context along the Coromandel Coast, linked to the Europeans, the following description by König gives enlightening details on 20 August 1778 of methods and used dyes in Madepolam [Narsapur]. This place was famous for its cloth trade: ‘After our return, the gentlemen took me to see some of the principal people who print or paint cotton…’
He foremost mentioned the dyeing of red and black cotton, how to get a greenish-yellow colour, the workshop and the necessary tools for the workmen to perform their skills to the highest standard. His tour of the manufacturing works was concluded with some thoughts on fine linen and how the Europeans in the area for many years had marked their presence along the Coromandel Coast: ‘Afterwards, I saw the great ponds, used to bleach the fine kinds linen, and ended up by visiting the graves of the first Europeans, over which monuments as big an in the shape of houses have been erected ornamented with rich sculpture. Amongst them was also that of an English lady buried here almost a hundred years ago…’.