In July 1827, an unlikely passenger from Borneo reached the docks in Calcutta on board a ship that had sailed from Singapore. His guardian, William Montgomerie, a Scottish doctor in the service of the English East India Company and an expert on the flora and fauna of South East Asia, wasted no time taking him to a fellow enthusiast, George Swinton, who had been associated with the Botanical Gardens in Shibpur near Calcutta.
The mystery passenger spent the next few years of his life at the Swinton residence in Calcutta, responding to the name ‘Maharajah’. This is an account of the life and times of Maharajah (or ‘Sir Oran’ as he was sometimes called) and ‘Rannee’ (‘Lady Oran’), two of the first orang-utans in India to become part of human society and to be closely studied alive by modern zoologists.
It was not uncommon, during the long history of European colonisations, for animals to be transported from different parts of the world for entertainment and for study. Think of Clara, the celebrity rhinoceros, who set sail from Bengal in the early 1740s and toured Europe for 17 long years before finding a home in London, where she breathed her last in April 1758.
This practice of commodifying animals had its origins in the early-modern period (‘Dürer’s Rhinoceros’ had arrived in Lisbon in 1515). But as Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier write in Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West (2002), it culminated in the 19th century: “to the layman the enjoyment of the living, to the scholar the use of the dead”.
During and after the Enlightenment, there were attempts to systematize the existing knowledge about the animal and plant kingdoms—which, ultimately, reflected back on the centrality of the Humanist subject in the grand scheme of things. The publication of Carl Linneaus’s Systema Naturae (1735) offered a template that could accommodate this ever-growing list of newly discovered plant and animal species. With a higher degree of certainty than could be afforded before, pieces of the mighty jigsaw could be located (thanks to imperial expansion), named, tamed, studied, and often fixed inside the walls of museums and academies that mushroomed in Europe.
The orang-utan’s place in this scheme held dual significance. The animal was critical to the project of understanding the natural order and, as corollary, a close study of its physique and behaviour could shed light on the biological definitions of the ‘human’. Dutch physician and zoologist Petrus Camper was a serial dissector of simians (from the mid-17th century, the Dutch-led the scientific race to understand the orang-utan, owing to their colonial dominance in the Indonesian islands.). In 1782, he published his analysis of an Indonesian orang-utan, where he asserted that the study of the creature was “a matter of great importance not only to natural history (Natuurkunde) but also to anthropology (Menschkunde) (translated by Miriam Meijer)”. Some rehearsed a Javanese belief that orang-utans were, in fact, cleverer than humans – they had the gift of speech, which they deliberately disguised to avoid working!
By the time William Montgomerie arrived in Calcutta with the orang-utan, a number of scientific descriptions of varying degrees of precision were in circulation. One of the most accurate accounts is found in The Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China (1818) by Clarke Abel, who had been presented an orang-utan by one Captain Methuen. But none of the previously studied orang-utans seem to have caused as much amusement and inspired so much affection among their human companions as did Lady and Sir Oran. Sir Oran has the rare distinction of having two separate entries on him (shared with the Lady) in the Edinburgh Journal of Science as well as a book of verse.
Sometime between March and June 1829, George Swinton wrote and privately printed a miscellany of poems and short, amusing dialogues for his children, who had stayed back in Edinburgh with their mother, Anne Elizabeth. He titled this volume Papa’s Keepsake: Being Stories and Verses Funny and Grave for Archie the Scholar, and Alan the Brave; and a Rose for a Looking Glass, Wonderous Rare, for My Own Darling, Meggy the Fair. A copy of it can be found at the British Library (Asia, Pacific & Africa ORB.30/5690) but, thankfully, one need not go that far to browse through this delightful book. It is in the public domain, available on Google Books, and comes with a charming handwritten note which says, “Written by my grandfather, George Swinton, B.C.S., sometime Secretary to Lord Amherst, Governor-General of India.”
The details of Sir Oran’s life can be found in two entries written by J Grant (Presidency Surgeon, Calcutta) in letters to David Brewster, the founding editor of the Edinburgh Journal of Science and a noted scholar of optics. Sir Oran’s journey, as we know it, begins in the equatorial city of Pontianak in Borneo. His guardian in Singapore, William Montgomerie, was not, however, the only one who knew the scientific value of the orang-utan. His associate, Stamford Raffles, had sent out a “country-born Frenchman” (probably a resident of the French colony of Chandernagore) to Borneo. The skull he had returned with was of an aged mammal but Montgomerie was quite sure it was not of an orang-utan. Raffles, credited with the founding of Singapore, also has the dubious distinction of lending his name to the largest flower in the world, the Rafflesia or the ‘corpse lily’.
Onboard the ship, the creature entrusted to Montgomerie showed an impressive level of intelligence. The crew found it impossible at first to keep him bound with a length of rope, as the orang-utan seemed capable of undoing every knot they could tie. “He used to look on attentively during the operation of tying it, and set himself loose with his fingers and teeth immediately,” wrote Montgomerie. “It was only by making fast the yarns of the rope, as in the operation of splicing, that it was possible to puzzle him.”
In Calcutta, Sir Oran found a home in the grounds of Swinton’s residence. During the warm afternoons, he was kept away from the sun in a box which had been furnished with some straw and a blanket. He became friends with the bearers who served Swinton, and they, in turn, appear to have taken a great liking to him. Sir Oran even picked up many of the mannerisms he saw in his immediate caretakers: he drank out of a tin jug, which he cleaned after use with a coarse towel. After cleaning the jug, he would throw the towel over his shoulder as he saw the bearers do.
– A connoisseur of tea, Sir Oran is reported to have demanded four consecutive cups on one occasion.
After the house staff had exhausted their quota for the day, they served him cold water, in response to which he apparently “whined in a peculiar manner, and threw himself passionately on his back on the ground, striking his breast and paunch with his palms, and giving a kind of reiterated croak”.
Soon after his arrival, Sir Oran was joined by a female orang-utan named Rannee, who had been staying previously with a family in Singapore. Grant’s account of the two creatures is tinged amusingly with his Victorian gender stereotyping. Sir Oran’s chivalric spirit is seen in his abstinence from forcibly snatching away some morsel of food which Rannee may have first laid claim to. Rannee, on the other hand, though a teetotaller and gentle in her ways, displayed a pragmatic sense which overrode her performance of this human-imagined gender role. A disappointed Grant notes that once, during Sir Oran’s illness, “she appeared at first to sympathize in his sufferings, sitting beside him and bestowing the orang kiss…but the night being cold, she afterward rather unfeelingly stripped him of his blanket, as an additional covering for herself.”
The orang-utans did not, unfortunately, live very long in Calcutta. Rannee contracted a cold in January 1829 and died shortly thereafter. She was put in a jar, preserved, and sent to Edinburgh as a scientific specimen. This occasioned, according to Swinton, the set of verses attributed to Sir Oran:
When Swinton (‘Papa’) accuses Sir Oran of dramatazing his feelings for the female, he replies with self-awareness rare among male Victorian poets: “Very true, Papa: but I am a Poet, and Poetry, you know, consists in Fiction. I have no thoughts of dying for grief.”
Interestingly, even in their death, Grant’s account carries racist overtones. The fondness of the locals who sympathized with the creature is described in patronizing terms. During his illness, the Maharajah so resembled a human that it made the bearers “forget his order of being”, and “in their language, as they would to a sick child”, stroke and soothe him with “Rajah Sahib! Rajah Sahib! Gently now, Rajah Sahib!”
Sir Oran spent his last days in one Mr. Breton's house, and died in June 1829, after suffering repeated attacks of fever. The European scientific mind, however, was less sorry for the loss of the individual animal. He was dissected after his death by Grant, Breton and one Mr. Egerton, who testified that even if the orang-utan did not qualify as a biped, they could be acquitted of the label of ‘quadruped’. They denominated him, “as true naturalists have done, a quadrumanous animal”. Nonetheless, his death “completely frustrated an expectation we at one time had entertained, that this orang-outang might be destined to solve the interesting question, whether it was a young one of the gigantic race”.
It is perhaps unsurprising that a different strand of the same Enlightenment project discovered the benefits of palm oil cultivation in Indonesia and eventually lost sight of the need for a sustainable relationship with nature. Today, the orang-utan, which had fascinated human beings of varying ages and persuasions for centuries, is endangered because of the reckless greed of cultivators and consumers, who have destroyed their natural habitat. There are efforts underway to rehabilitate these magnificent creatures but it may already be too late. Not just for them, but for us too.
The author extends special thanks to Sarbajit Mitra (SOAS) for helping him access material about the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
– ABOUT AUTHOR
Sujaan Mukherjee is a JU-Sylff Ph.D. researcher at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. Although his research focuses on urban history, his interests include colonial sciences, modernism, architecture and physical cultures.