Allan Octavian Hume

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Allan Octavian Hume (1829–1912)
(scanned from a Woodburytype)

Allan Octavian Hume CB (6 June 1829 – 31 July 1912) was a civil servant, political reformer, ornithologist and botanist who worked in British India. He was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress, a political party that was later to lead in the Indian independence movement. A notable ornithologist, Hume has been called "the Father of Indian Ornithology" and, by those who found him dogmatic, "the Pope of Indian ornithology."[1]

As an administrator of Etawah, he saw the Indian Rebellion of 1857 as a result of misgovernance and made great efforts to improve the lives of the common people. The district of Etawah was among the first to be returned to normalcy and over the next few years Hume's reforms led to the district being considered a model of development. Hume rose in the ranks of the Indian Civil Service but like his father Joseph Hume, the radical MP, he was bold and outspoken in questioning British policies in India. He rose in 1871 to the position of secretary to the Department of Revenue, Agriculture, and Commerce under Lord Mayo. His criticism of Lord Lytton however led to his removal from the Secretariat in 1879.

He founded the journal Stray Feathers in which he and his subscribers recorded notes on birds from across India. He built up a vast collection of bird specimens at his home in Shimla by making collection expeditions and obtaining specimens through his network of correspondents. Following the loss of manuscripts that had been maintaining for long in the hope of producing a magnum opus on the birds of India, he gave up ornithology and gifted away his collection to the British Museum of Natural History where it continues to be the single largest collection of Indian bird skins. He was briefly a follower of the theosophical movement founded by Madame Blavatsky. He left India in 1894 to live in London from where he continued to take an interest in the Indian National Congress, apart from taking an interest in botany and founding the South London Botanical Institute towards the end of his life.

Life and career

Early life

Hume was born at St Mary Cray, Kent,[2] a younger son (and the eighth child in a family of nine)[3] of Joseph Hume, the Radical member of parliament, by his marriage to Maria Burnley.[4] He was educated at University College Hospital,[5] where he studied medicine and surgery and was then nominated to the Indian Civil Services which led him to study at the East India Company College, Haileybury. Early influences included his friend John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer.[4]

Etawah (1849-1867)

Hume sailed to India in 1849 and the following year, joined the Bengal Civil Service at Etawah in the North-Western Provinces, in what is now Uttar Pradesh. His career in India included service as a district officer from 1849 to 1867, head of a central department from 1867 to 1870, and secretary to the Government from 1870 to 1879.[6] He married Mary Anne Grindall (1823/4-1890) in 1853.[7]

It was only nine years after his entry to India that Hume faced the Indian Rebellion of 1857 during which time he was involved in several military actions[8][9] for which he was created a Companion of the Bath in 1860. Initially it appeared that he was safe in Etawah, not far from Meerut where the rebellion began but this changed and Hume had to take refuge in Agra fort for six months.[10] Nonetheless, all but one Indian official remained loyal and Hume resumed his position in Etawah in January 1858. He built up an irregular force of 650 loyal Indian troops and took part in engagements with them. Hume blamed British ineptitude for the uprising and pursued a policy of "mercy and forbearance".[4] The district of Etawah was restored to peace and order in a year, something that was not possible in most other parts.[11]

Shortly after 1857, he set about in a range of reforms. As a District Officer in the Indian Civil Service, he began introducing free primary education and held public meetings for their support. He made changes in the functioning of the police department and the separation of the judicial role. Noting that there was very little reading material with educational content, he started, along with Koour Lutchman Singh, a Hindi language periodical, Lokmitra (The People's Friend) in 1859. Originally meant only for Etawah, its fame spread.[12]

The system of departmental examinations introduced soon after (Hume joined the civil services) enabled Hume so to outdistance his seniors that when the rebellion broke out he was officiating Collector of Etawah, which lies between Agra and Cawnpur. Rebel troops were constantly passing through the district, and for a time it was necessary to abandon headquarters ; but both before and after the removal of the women and children to Agra, Hume acted with vigour and judgment. The steadfast loyalty of many native officials and landowners, and the people generally, was largely due to his influence, and enabled him to raise a local brigade of horse. In a daring attack on a body of rebels at Jaswantnagar he carried away the wounded joint magistrate, Mr. Clearmont Daniel,[13] under a heavy fire, and many months later he engaged in a desperate action against Firoz Shah and his Oudh freebooters at Hurchandpur. Company rule had come to an end before the ravines of the Jumna and the Chambul in the district had been cleared of fugitive rebels. Hume richly merited the C.B. (Civil division) awarded him in 1860. He remained in charge of the district for ten years or so and did good work.

— Obituary The Times of August 1st, 1912

He took up the cause of education and founded scholarships for higher education. He wrote, in 1859, that education played a key role in avoiding revolts like the one in 1857:

... assert its supremacy as it may at the bayonet's point, a free and civilized government must look for its stability and permanence to the enlightenment of the people and their moral and intellectual capacity to appreciate its blessings.[7]

In 1863 he moved for separate schools for juvenile delinquents rather than flogging and imprisonment which he saw as producing hardened criminals. His efforts led to a juvenile reformatory not far from Etawah. He also started free schools in Etawah and by 1857 he established 181 schools with 5186 students including two girls.[14] The high school that he helped build with his own money is still in operation, now as a junior college, and it was said to have a floor plan resembling the letter "H". This, according to some was an indication of Hume's imperial ego.[15] Hume found the idea of earning revenue earned through liquor traffic repulsive and described it as "The wages of sin". With his progressive ideas on social reform, he advocated women's education, was against infanticide and enforced widowhood. Hume laid out in Etawah, a neatly gridded commercial district that is now known as Humeganj but often pronounced Homeganj.[7]

Commissioner of Customs (1867-1870)

In 1867 Hume became Commissioner of Customs for the North West Province, and in 1870 he became attached to the central government as Director-General of Agriculture. In 1879 he returned to provincial government at Allahabad.[7][11]

Hume's appointment, in 1867, to be Commissioner of Customs in Upper India gave him charge of the huge physical barrier[16] which stretched across the country for 2,500 miles from Attock, on the Indus, to the confines of the Madras Presidency. He carried out the first negotiations with Rajputana Chiefs, leading to the abolition of this barrier, and Lord Mayo rewarded him with the Secretaryship to Government in the Home, and afterwards, from 1871, in the Revenue and Agricultural Departments.[17]

Secretary to the Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce (1871-1879)

Hume was very interested in the development of agriculture. He believed that there was too much focus on obtaining revenue and no effort had been spent on improving the efficiency of agriculture. He found an ally in Lord Mayo who supported the idea of developing a complete department of agriculture. Hume noted in his Agricultural reform in India that Lord Mayo had been the only Viceroy who had any experience of working in the fields. Hume made a number of suggestions for the improvement of agriculture placing carefully gathered evidence for his ideas. He noted the poor yields of wheat, comparing the yields that he had estimated with the records of Emperor Akbar and the yield of farms in Norfolk. Lord Mayo's supported his ideas but was unable to establish a dedicated agricultural bureau as the scheme did not find support in the Secretary of State for India, but they negotiated the setting up of a Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce despite Hume's insistence that Agriculture be the first and foremost aim. Hume was made a secretary of this department in July 1871 leading to his move to Shimla. With the murder of Lord Mayo in the Andamans in 1872, Hume lost patronage and support for his work. He however went about reforming the department of agriculture, streamlining the collection of meteorological data (the meteorological department was set up by order number 56 on 27 September 1875 signed by Hume[18]) and statistics on cultivation and yield.[19] Hume proposed the idea of having experimental farms to demonstrate best practices to be set up in every district. He proposed to develop fuelwood plantations "in every village in the drier portions of the country" and thereby provide a substitute heating and cooking fuel so that manure (dried cattle dung was used as fuel by the poor) could be returned to the land. Such plantations, he wrote, were "a thing that is entirely in accord with the traditions of the country – a thing that the people would understand, appreciate, and, with a little judicious pressure, cooperate in." He wanted model farms to be established in every district. He noted that rural indebtedness was caused mainly by the use of land as security, a practice that had been introduced by the British. Hume denounced it as another of "the cruel blunders into which our narrow-minded, though wholly benevolent, desire to reproduce England in India has led us." Hume also wanted government-run banks, at least until cooperative banks could be established.[7][20]

The department also supported the publication of several manuals on aspects of cultivation, a list of which Hume included as an appendix to his Agricultural Reform in India. Hume supported the introduction of cinchona and the project managed by George King to produce quinine locally at low cost.[21]

Hume was very outspoken and never feared to criticise when he thought the Government was in the wrong. Even in 1861, he objected to the concentration of police and judicial functions in the hands of police superintendents. In March 1861, he took a medical leave due to a breakdown from overwork and departed for Britain. Before leaving, he condemned the flogging and punitive measures initiated by the provincial government as 'barbarous … torture'. He was allowed to return to Etawah only after apologizing for the tone of his criticism.[4] He criticized the administration of Lord Lytton before 1879 which according to him, had cared little for the welfare and aspiration of the people of India. Lord Lytton's foreign policy according to Hume had led to the waste of "millions and millions of Indian money".[7] Hume was critical of the land revenue policy and suggested that it was the cause of poverty in India. His superiors were irritated and attempted to restrict his powers and this led him to publish a book on Agricultural Reform in India in 1879.[4][22] Hume noted that the free and honest expression was not only permitted but encouraged under Lord Mayo and that this freedom was curtailed under Lord Northbrook who succeeded Lord Mayo. When Lord Lytton succeeded Lord Northbrook, the situation worsened for Hume.[23] In 1879 Hume went against the authorities.[6] The Government of Lord Lytton dismissed him from his position in the Secretariat. No clear reason was given except that it "was based entirely on the consideration of what was most desirable in the interests of the public service". The press declared that his main wrongdoing was that he was too honest and too independent. The Pioneer wrote that it was "the grossest jobbery ever perpetrated" ; the Indian Daily News wrote that it was a "great wrong" while The Statesman said that "undoubtedly he has been treated shamefully and cruelly." The Englishman in an article dated 27 June 1879, commenting on the event stated, "There is no security or safety now for officers in Government employment."[24] Demoted, he left Simla and returned to the North-West Provinces in October, 1879, as a member of the Board of Revenue.[25] It has pointed out that he was victimized as he was out of step with the policies of the Government, often intruding into aspects of administration with critical opinions.[25]

Demotion and resignation (1879-1882)

In spite of the humiliation of demotion, he did not resign immediately from service and it has been suggested that this was because he needed his salary to support the publication of "The Game Birds of India" that he was working on.[25] Hume retired from the civil service only in 1882. In 1883 he wrote an open letter to the graduates of Calcutta University, calling upon them to form their own national political movement. This led in 1885 to the first session of the Indian National Congress held in Bombay.[26] In 1887 writing to the Public Commission of India he made what was then a statement unexpected from a civil servant — I look upon myself as a Native of India.[25]

Return to England 1894

Hume's wife Mary died on 30 March 1890 and news of her death reached him just as he reached London on 1 April 1890.[27] Their only daughter Maria Jane Burnley ("Minnie") (1854 - 1927) had married Mr. Ross Scott at Simla on 28 December 1881.[28] Maria became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, another occult movement, after moving to England.[29] Ross Scott was the founding secretary of the Simla Eclectic Theosophical Society, who was sometime Judicial Commissioner of Oudh and died in 1908.[30] Hume's grandson Allan Hume Scott served with the Royal Engineers in India. Hume left India in 1894 and settled at The Chalet, 4, Kingswood Road, Upper Norwood in London. He died at the age of eighty-three on 31 July 1912. His ashes were buried in Brookwood Cemetery.[3] The bazaar in Etawah was closed on hearing of his death and the Collector, H. R. Neville, presided over a memorial meeting.[31]

The Indian postal department released a commemorative stamp with his portrait in 1973 and a special cover depicting Rothney Castle, his home in Shimla was released in 2013.

Contribution to ornithology and natural history

From early days, Hume had a special interest in science. Science, he wrote:

...teaches men to take an interest in things outside and beyond… The gratification of the animal instinct and the sordid and selfish cares of worldly advancement; it teaches a love of truth for its own sake and leads to a purely disinterested exercise of intellectual faculties

and of natural history he wrote in 1867:[7]

... alike to young and old, the study of Natural History in all its branches offers, next to religion, the most powerful safeguard against those worldly temptations to which all ages are exposed. There is no department of natural science the faithful study of which does not leave us with juster and loftier views of the greatness, goodness, and wisdom of the Creator, that does not leave us less selfish and less worldly, less spiritually choked up with those devil's thorns, the love of dissipation, wealth, power, and place, that does not, in a word, leave us wiser, better and more useful to our fellow-men.

Map of the Crags and Rothney Castle, Shimla (1872)

During his career in Etawah, he built a personal collection of bird specimens, however it was destroyed during the 1857 rebellion. Subsequently he started afresh with a systematic plan to survey and document the birds of the Indian Subcontinent and in the process he accumulated the largest collection of Asiatic birds in the world, which he housed in a museum and library at his home in Rothney Castle on Jakko Hill, Simla. Rothney castle originally belonged to P. Mitchell, C.I.E and after Hume bought it, he tried to convert the house into a palace expecting it to be bought by the Government as a Viceregal residence since the Governor-General then occupied Peterhoff, a building too small for large parties. Hume spent over two hundred thousand pounds on the grounds and buildings. He added enormous reception rooms suitable for large dinner parties and balls, as well as a magnificent conservatory and spacious hall with walls displaying his superb collection of Indian horns. He hired a European gardener, and made the grounds and conservatory a perpetual horticultural exhibition, to which he courteously admitted all visitors.[7]

Rothney Castle could only be reached by a troublesome climb, and was never purchased by the British Government and Hume himself never used the larger rooms except for one that he converted into a museum for his collection of birds, and for occasional dances.[7]

He made several expeditions to collect birds both on health leave and where work took him. He was Collector and Magistrate of Etawah from 1856 to 1867 during which time he studied the birds of that area. He later became Commissioner of Inland Customs which made him responsible for the control of 2,500 miles (4,000 km) of coast from near Peshawar in the northwest to Cuttack on the Bay of Bengal. He travelled on horseback and camel in areas of Rajasthan to negotiate treaties with various local maharajas to control the export of salt and during these travels he took note of the birdlife:

The nests are placed indifferently on all kinds of trees (I have notes of finding them on mango, plum, orange, tamarind, toon, etc.), never at any great elevation from the ground, and usually in small trees, be the kind chosen what it may. Sometimes a high hedgerow, such as our great Customs hedge, is chosen, and occasionally a solitary caper or stunted acacia-bush.

— On the nesting of the Bay-backed Shrike (Lanius vittatus) in The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds.

Hume appears to have planned a comprehensive work on the birds of India around 1870 and this "forthcoming comprehensive work" finds mention in the second edition of The Cyclopaedia of India (1871) by his cousin Edward Balfour.[32] Hume made several expeditions solely to study ornithology the largest being an expedition to the Indus area in late November 1871 and continued until the end of February 1872. In March 1873, he visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal along with geologists Dr. Ferdinand Stoliczka and Dr. Dougall of the Geological Survey of India and James Wood-Mason of the Indian Museum in Calcutta. In 1875 he made an expedition to the Laccadive Islands aboard the marine survey vessel IGS Clyde under the command of Staff-Commander Ellis. The official purpose of the visit being to examine proposed sites for lighthouses. During this expedition Hume collected many bird specimens, apart from conducting a bathymetric survey to determine whether the island chain was separated from India by a deep canyon.[33][34] And in 1881 he made his last ornithological expedition to Manipur, a visit in which he collected and described the Manipur bush quail (Perdicula manipurensis), a bird that has remained obscure with few reliable reports since. Hume spent an extra day with his assistants cutting down a large tract of grass so that he could obtain specimens of this species.[35] This expedition was made on special leave following his demotion from the Central Government to a junior position on the Board of Revenue of the North Western Provinces.[7] Apart from personal travel, he also sent out a trained bird-skinner to accompany officers travelling in areas of ornithological interest such as Afghanistan.[36] Around 1878 he was spending about ₤ 1500 a year on his ornithological surveys.[25]

Hume was a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal from January 1870 to 1891[37][38] and admitted Fellow of the Linnean Society on November 3, 1904.[39] After returning to England in 1890 he also became president of the Dulwich Liberal and Radical Association.[40]


Hume used his vast bird collection to good use as editor of his journal Stray Feathers. He also intended to produce a comprehensive publication on the birds of India. Hume employed William Ruxton Davison as a curator for his personal bird collection and also sent him out on collection trips to various parts of India, when he was held up with official responsibilities.[7] In 1883 Hume returned from a trip to find that many pages of the manuscripts that he had maintained over they years had been stolen and sold off as waste paper by a servant. Hume was completely devastated and he began to lose interest in ornithology due to this theft and a landslip, caused by heavy rains in Simla, which had damaged his museum and many of the specimens. He wrote to the British Museum wishing to donate his collection on certain conditions. One of the conditions was that the collection was to be examined by Dr. R. Bowdler Sharpe and personally packed by him, apart from raising Dr. Sharpe's rank and salary due to the additional burden on his work caused by his collection. The British Museum was unable to heed his many conditions. It was only after the destruction of nearly 20000 specimens, that alarm bells were raised by Dr. Sharpe and the museum authorities let him visit India to supervise the transfer of the specimens to the British Museum.[7]

Sharpe wrote of Hume's impressive private ornithological museum:[7]

I arrived at Rothney Castle about 10 am on the 19th of May, and was warmly welcomed by Mr Hume, who lives in a most picturesque situation high up on Jakko…From my bedroom window, I had a fine view of the snowy range. Although somewhat tired by my jolt in the Tonga from Solun, I gladly accompanied Mr. Hume at once into the museum…I had heard so much from my friends, who knew the collection intimately,…that I was not so much surprised when at last I stood in the celebrated museum and gazed at the dozens upon dozens of tin cases which filled the room. Before the landslip occurred, which carried away one end of the museum, It must have been an admirably arranged building, quite three times as large as our meeting-room at the Zoological Society, and…much more lofty. Throughout this large room went three rows of table cases with glass tops, in which were arranged a series of the birds of India sufficient for the identification of each species, while underneath these table- cases where enormous cabinets made of tin, with trays inside, containing species of birds in the table cases above. All of the rooms were racks reaching up to the ceiling, and containing immense cases full of birds… On the western side of the museum was the library, reached by a descent of three steps, a cheerful room, furnished with large tables, and containing besides the egg-cabinets, a well-chosen set of working-volumes. One ceases to wonder at the amount of work its owner got through when the excellent plan of his museum is considered. In a few minutes an immense series of specimens could be spread out on the tables, while all the books were at hand for immediate reference…After explaining to me the contents of the museum, we went below into the basement, which consisted of eight great rooms, six of them full, from floor to ceiling, of cases of birds, while at the back of the house two large verandahs were piled high with cases full of large birds, such as Pelicans, Cranes, Vultures, &c. An inspection of a great cabinet containing a further series of about 5000 eggs completed our survey. Mr. Hume gave me the keys of the museum, and I was free to commence my task at once.

Sharpe also noted:[7]

Mr. Hume was a naturalist of no ordinary calibre, and this great collection will remain a monument of his genius and energy of its founder long after he who formed it has passed away...Such a private collection as Mr. Hume's is not likely to be formed again; for it is doubtful if such a combination of genius for organisation with energy for the completion of so great a scheme, and the scientific knowledge requisite for its proper development will again be combined in a single individual.

The Hume collection of birds was packed into 47 cases made of deodar wood constructed on site without nails that could potentially damage specimens and each case weighing about half a ton was transported down the hill to a bullock cart to Kalka and finally the port in Bombay. The material that went to the British museum in 1884 consisted of 82,000 specimens of which 75,577 were finally placed in the museum. A breakup of that collection is as follows (old names retained).[7] Hume had destroyed 20,000 specimens prior to this as they had been destroyed by dermestid beetles.[41]

  • 2830 birds of prey (Accipitriformes)… 8 types
  • 1155 owls (Strigiformes)…9 types
  • 2819 crows, jays, orioles etc.…5 types
  • 4493 cuckoo-shrikes and flycatchers… 21 types
  • 4670 thrushes and warblers…28 types
  • 3100 bulbuls and wrens, dippers, etc.…16 types
  • 7304 timaliine birds…30 types
  • 2119 tits and shrikes…9 types
  • 1789 sun-birds (Nectarinidae) and white-eyes (Zosteropidae)…8 types
  • 3724 swallows (Hirundiniidae), wagtails and pipits (Motacillidae)…8 types
  • 2375 finches (Fringillidae)…8 types
  • 3766 starlings (Sturnidae), weaver-birds (Ploceidae), and larks (Alaudidae)…22 types
  • 807 ant-thrushes (Pittidae), broadbills (Eurylaimidae)…4 types
  • 1110 hoopoes (Upupae), swifts (Cypseli), nightjars (Caprimulgidae) and frogmouths (Podargidae)…8 types
  • 2277 Picidae, hornbills (Bucerotes), bee-eaters (Meropes), kingfishers (Halcyones), rollers(Coracidae), trogons (trogones)…11 types
  • 2339 woodpeckers (Pici)…3 types
  • 2417 honey-guides (Indicatores), barbets (Capiformes), and cuckoos (Coccyges)…8 types
  • 813 parrots (Psittaciformes)…3 types
  • 1615 pigeons (Columbiformes)…5 types
  • 2120 sand-grouse (Pterocletes), game-birds and megapodes(Galliformes)…8 types
  • 882 rails (Ralliformes), cranes (Gruiformes), bustards (Otides)…6 types
  • 1089 ibises (Ibididae), herons (Ardeidae), pelicans and cormorants (Steganopodes), grebes (Podicipediformes)…7 types
  • 761 geese and ducks (Anseriformes)…2 types
  • 15965 eggs

The Hume Collection contained 258 type specimens. In addition there were nearly 400 mammal specimens including new species such as Hadromys humei.[42]

The egg collection was made up of carefully authenticated contributions from knowledgeable contacts and on the authenticity and importance of the collection, E. W. Oates wrote in the 1901 Catalogue of the Collection of Birds' Eggs in the British Museum (Volume 1):

The Hume Collection consists almost entirely of the eggs of Indian birds. Mr. Hume seldom or never purchased a specimen, and the large collection brought together by him in the course of many years was the result of the willing co-operation of numerous friends resident in India and Burma. Every specimen in the collection may be said to have been properly authenticated by a competent naturalist; and the history of most of the clutches has been carefully recorded in Mr. Hume's 'Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds', of which two editions have been published.

Taxa described

Hume described many species, some of which are now considered as subspecies. He also erected two genus names that are currently in use.[7][43][44]


The use of trinomials had not yet gone into regular usage during Hume's time. The following subspecies are current placements of taxa that were named as new species by Hume.

William Ruxton Davison, Curator of Hume's personal bird collection

An additional species, the large-billed reed-warbler Acrocephalus orinus was known from just one specimen collected by him in 1869 but the name that he used, magnirostris, was found to be preoccupied and replaced by the name orinus provided by Harry Oberholser in 1905.[45] The status of the species was contested until DNA comparisons with similar species in 2002 suggested that it was a valid species.[46] It was only in 2006 that the species was seen in the wild in Thailand, with a match to the specimens confirmed using DNA sequencing. Later searches in museums led to several other specimens that had been overlooked and based on the specimen localities, a breeding region was located in Tajikistan and documented in 2011.[47][48]

My Scrap Book: Or Rough Notes on Indian Oology and Ornithology (1869)

Dedication of "My Scrap Book" to Blyth and Jerdon.[49]

This was Hume's first major work on birds. It had 422 pages and accounts of 81 species. It was dedicated to Edward Blyth and Dr. Thomas C. Jerdon who, he wrote [had] done more for Indian Ornithology than all other modern observers put together and he described himself as their friend and pupil. He hoped that his book would form a nucleus round which future observation may crystallize and that others around the country could help him fill in many of the woeful blanks remaining in record. In the preface he notes:

...if these notes chance to be of the slightest use to you, use them; if not burn them, if it so please you, but do not waste your time in abusing me or them, since no one can think more poorly of them than I do myself.

Stray Feathers

Hume started the quarterly journal Stray Feathers in 1872. At that time the only journal for the Indian region that published on ornithology was the "Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal". He had wondered if there was merit to start a new journal and in that idea was supported by Stoliczka, who was an editor for the Journal of the Asiatic Society:

To return; the notion that Stray Feathers might possibly interfere in any way with our scientific palladium, the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, is much like that entertained in England, when I was a boy, as to the probable effects of Railways on road and canal traffic.

— Hume, 1874[50]
Cover of Stray Feathers

He used the journal to publish descriptions of his new discoveries, such as Hume's owl, Hume's wheatear and Hume's whitethroat. He wrote extensively on his own observation as well as critical reviews of all the ornithological works of the time and earned himself the nickname of Pope of Indian ornithology. He critiqued a monograph on parrots, Die Papageien by Friedrich Hermann Otto Finsch suggesting that name changes (by "cabinet naturalists") were aimed at claiming authority to species without the trouble of actually discovering them. He wrote:

Let us treat our author as he treats other people's species. “Finsch!” contrary to all rules of orthography! What is that “s” doing there? “Finch!” Dr. Fringilla, MIHI! Classich gebildetes wort!!

— Hume, 1874[51]

Hume in turn was attacked, for instance by Viscount Walden, but Finsch became a friend and Hume named a species, Psittacula finschii, after him.[52][53]

Rainfall map from Stray Feathers 8 (1878)

In his younger days Hume had studied some geology from the likes of Gideon Mantell[54] and he appreciated the synthesis of ideas from other fields in ornithology. Hume included in 1872, a detailed article on the osteology of birds in relation to their classification written by Richard Lydekker who was then in the Geological Survey of India.[55] The early meteorological work in India was done within the department headed by Hume and he saw the value of meteorology in the study of bird distributions. In a work comparing the rainfall zones, he notes how the high rainfall zones indicated affinities to the Malayan fauna.[56][57]

Hume sometimes mixed personal beliefs in notes that he published in Stray Feathers. For instance he believed that vultures soared by altering the physics ("altered polarity") of their body and repelling the force of gravity. He further noted that this ability was normal in birds and could be acquired by humans by maintaining spiritual purity claiming that he knew of at least three Indian Yogis and numerous saints in the past with this ability of aethrobacy.[58][59]

Network of correspondents

Distribution and density of Hume's correspondents across India.[60]

Hume corresponded with a large number of ornithologists and sportsmen who helped him by reporting from various parts of India. More than 200 correspondents are listed in his Game Birds alone and they probably represent only a fraction of the subscribers of Stray Feathers. This large network made it possible for Hume to cover a much larger geographic region in his ornithological work.

During the lifetime of Hume, Blyth was considered the father of Indian ornithology. Hume's achievement which made use of a large network of correspondents was recognized even during his time:

Mr. Blyth, who is rightly called the Father of Indian Ornithology, "was by far the most important contributor to our knowledge of the Birds of India." Seated, as the head of the Asiatic Society's Museum, he, by intercourse and through correspondents, not only formed a large collection for the Society, but also enriched the pages of the Society's Journal with the results of his study, and thus did more for the extension of the study of the Avifauna of India than all previous writers. There can be no work on Indian Ornithology without reference to his voluminous contributions. The most recent authority, however, is Mr. Allen O. Hume, C.B., who, like Blyth and Jerdon, got around him numerous workers, and did so much for Ornithology, that without his Journal Stray Feathers, no accurate knowledge could be gained of the distribution of Indian birds. His large museum, so liberally made over to the nation, is ample evidence of his zeal and the purpose to which he worked. Ever saddled with his official work, he yet found time for carrying out a most noble object. His Nests and Eggs, Scrap Book and numerous articles on birds of various parts of India, the Andamans and the Malay Peninsula, are standing monuments of his fame throughout the length and breadth of the civilized world. His writings and the field notes of his curator, contributors and collectors are the pith of every book on Indian Birds, and his vast collection is the ground upon which all Indian Naturalists must work. Though differing from him on some points, yet the palm is his as an authority above the rest in regard to the Ornis of India. Amongst the hundred and one contributors to the Science in the pages of Stray Feathers, there are some who may be ranked as specialists in this department, and their labors need a record. These are Mr. W. T. Blanford, late of the Geological Survey, an ever watchful and zealous Naturalist of some eminence. Mr. Theobald, also of the Geological Survey, Mr. Ball of the same Department, and Mr. W. E. Brooks. All these worked in Northern India, while for work in the Western portion must stand the names of Major Butler, of the 66th Regiment, Mr. W. F. Sinclair, Collector of Colaba, Mr. G. Vidal, the Collector of Bombay, Mr. J. Davidson, Collector of Khandeish, and Mr. Fairbank, each one having respectively worked the Avifauna of Sind, the Concan, the Deccan and Khandeish.

— James Murray[61]

Many of Hume's correspondents were eminent naturalists and sportsmen of the time.

Hume exchanged skins with other collectors. A collection made principally by Hume that belonged to the Earl of Northbrook was gifted to Oxford University in 1877.[63] One of his correspondents, Louis Mandelli from Darjeeling, stands out by claiming that he was swindled in these skin exchanges. He claimed that Hume took skins of rarer species in exchange for the skins of common birds but the credibility of the complaint has been doubted. Hume named Arborophila mandelli after Mandelli in 1874.[44]

He also corresponded and stayed up to date with the works of ornithologists outside India including R. Bowdler Sharpe, the Marquis of Tweeddale, Père David, Henry Eeles Dresser, Benedykt Dybowski, John Henry Gurney, J. H. Gurney, Jr., Johann Friedrich Naumann, Nikolai Severtzov and Dr. Aleksandr Middendorff. He helped George Ernest Shelley with specimens from India aiding the publication of a monograph on the sunbirds of the world (1876-1880).[64]

Collector's Vade Mecum (1874)

The Indian Ornithological Collector's Vade Mecum: containing brief practical instructions for collecting, preserving, packing and keeping specimens of birds, eggs, nests, feathers, and skeleton (1874)

Hume's vast collection from across India was possible by recruiting a network. He corresponded with these contributors, providing them with information, methods and tips for preservation while at the same time seeking information from them. The Vade Mecum was published as a substitute for the notes that he frequently had to send to potential collaborators who sought advice. Materials for preservation are carefully tailored for India with the provision of the local names for ingredients and methods to prepare glues and preservatives with ready to find household equipment. Apart from skinning and preservation, the book also covers matters of observation, keeping records, the use of natives to capture birds, obtain eggs and the care needed in obtaining other information apart from care in labelling.[65]

Game Birds of India, Burmah and Ceylon (1879–1881)

This work was co-authored by C. H. T. Marshall. The three volume work on the game birds was made using contributions and notes from a network of 200 or more correspondents. Hume delegated the task of getting the plates made to Marshall. The chromolithographs of the birds were drawn by W. Foster, E. Neale, (Miss) M. Herbert, Stanley Wilson and others and the plates were produced by F. Waller in London. Hume had sent specific notes on colours of soft parts and instructions to the artists. He was unsatisfied with many of the plates and included additional notes on the plates in the book. This book was started at the point when the government demoted Hume and only the need to finance the publication of this book prevented him from retiring from service. He had estimated that it would cost ₤ 4000 to publish it and he retired from service on 1 January 1882 after the publication.[4][25]

In the preface Hume wrote:

In the second place, we have had great disappointment in artists. Some have proved careless, some have subordinated accuracy of delineation to pictorial effect, and though we have, at some loss, rejected many, we have yet been compelled to retain some plates which are far from satisfactory to us.

while his co-author Marshall, wrote:

I have performed my portion of the work to the very best of my abilities, and yet personally felt almost as if I were sailing under false colors in appearing before the world as one of the authors of this book; but I allow my name to appear as such, partly because Mr. Hume strongly wishes it, partly because I do believe that as Mr. Hume says this work, which has been for years called for, would never have appeared had I not proceeded to England, and arranged for the preparation of the plates, and partly because with the explanation thus afforded no one can justly misconstrue my action.

Hume's comment on the illustration The plate is a cruel caricature of the species, just sufficiently like to permit of identification, but miscolored to a degree only explicable on the hypothesis of somebody's colour-blindness… Fortunately for our supporters, this is the very worst plate in the three volumes.
White-fronted goose One of the illustrations that Hume considered as exceptionally good.

Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds (1883)

This was another major work by Hume and in it he covered descriptions of the nests, eggs and the breeding seasons of most Indian bird species. It makes use of notes from contributors to his journals as well as other correspondents and works of the time. Hume also makes insightful notes such as observations on caged females separated from males that would continue to lay fertile eggs through the possibility of sperm storage[66] and the reduction in parental care by birds that laid eggs in warm locations (mynas in the Andamans, river terns on sand banks).[67]

A second edition of this book was made in 1889 which was edited by Eugene William Oates. This was published when he had himself given up all interest in ornithology. An event precipitated by the loss of his manuscripts through the actions of a servant. He wrote in the preface:

I have long regretted my inability to issue a revised edition of 'Nests and Eggs'. For many years after the first Rough Draft appeared, I went on laboriously accumulating materials for a re-issue, but subsequently circumstances prevented my undertaking the work. Now, fortunately, my friend Mr. Eugene Oates has taken the matter up, and much as I may personally regret having to hand over to another a task, the performance of which I should so much have enjoyed, it is some consolation to feel that the readers, at any rate, of this work will have no cause for regret, but rather of rejoicing that the work has passed into younger and stronger hands. One thing seems necessary to explain. The present Edition does not include quite all the materials I had accumulated for this work. Many years ago, during my absence from Simla, a servant broke into my museum and stole thence several cwts. of manuscript, which he sold as waste paper. This manuscript included more or less complete life-histories of some 700 species of birds, and also a certain number of detailed accounts of nidification. All small notes on slips of paper were left, but almost every article written on full-sized foolscap sheets was abstracted. It was not for many months that the theft was discovered, and then very little of the MSS. could be recovered.

— Rothney Castle, Simla, October 19th, 1889

Eugene Oates wrote his own editorial note:

Mr. Hume has sufficiently explained the circumstances under which this edition of his popular work has been brought about. I have merely to add that, as I was engaged on a work on the Birds of India, I thought it would be easier for me than for anyone else to assist Mr. Hume. I was also in England, and knew that my labour would be very much lightened by passing the work through the press in this country. Another reason, perhaps the most important, was the fear that, as Mr. Hume had given up entirely and absolutely the study of birds, the valuable material he had taken such pains to accumulate for this edition might be irretrievably lost or further injured by lapse of time unless early steps were taken to utilize it.

This nearly marked the end of Hume's interest in ornithology. Hume's last piece of ornithological writing was part of an Introduction to the Scientific Results of the Second Yarkand Mission in 1891, an official publication on the contributions of Dr. Ferdinand Stoliczka, who died during the return journey on this mission. Stoliczka in a dying request had asked that Hume edit the volume on ornithology.[7]

Taxa named after Hume

A number of animals and birds are named after Hume. These include :


File:Vegetarian Society.jpg
A vice-president of the Vegetarian Society

Hume's interest in theosophy took root around 1879. An 1880 newspaper reports the initiation of his daughter and wife into the movement.[72] Hume did not have great regard for institutional Christianity, but believed in the immortality of the soul and in the idea of a supreme ultimate.[4] Hume wanted to become a chela (student) of the Tibetan spiritual gurus. During the few years of his connection with the Theosophical Society Hume wrote three articles on Fragments of Occult Truth under the pseudonym "H. X." published in The Theosophist. These were written in response to questions from Mr. Terry, an Australian Theosophist. He also privately printed several Theosophical pamphlets titled Hints on Esoteric Theosophy. The later numbers of the Fragments, in answer to the same enquirer, were written by A.P. Sinnett and signed by him, as authorized by Mahatma K. H., A Lay-Chela.[73]

Madame Blavatsky was a regular visitor at Hume's Rothney castle at Simla and an account of her visit may be found in Simla, Past and Present by Edward John Buck (who succeeded Mr. Hume in charge of the Agricultural Department).[74] A long story about Hume and his wife appears in A.P. Sinnett's book Occult World,[75] and the synopsis was published in a local paper of India. The story relates how at a dinner party, Madame Blavatsky asked Mrs Hume if there was anything she wanted. She replied that there was a brooch, her mother had given her, that had gone out of her possession some time ago. Blavatsky said she would try to recover it through occult means. After some interlude, later that evening, the brooch was found in a garden, where the party was directed by Blavatsky. According to John Murdoch (1894), the brooch had been given by Mrs. Hume to her daughter who had given it to a man she admired. Blavatsky had happened to meet the man in Bombay and obtained the brooch in return for money. Blavatsky allegedly planted it in the garden before directing people to the location through what she claimed as occult techniques.[76] After the incident, Hume too had privately expressed grave doubts on the powers attributed to Madame Blavatsky. He subsequently held a meeting with some of the Indian members of the Theosophical Society and suggested that they join hands with him to force the resignation of Blavatsky and sixteen other members for their role as accomplices in fraud. Those present could however not agree to the idea of seeking the resignation of their founder.[77] Hume soon fell out of favour with the Theosophists and lost all interest in the theosophical movement in 1883.[25]

Hume's interest in spirituality brought him into contact with many independent Indian thinkers[78] who also had nationalist ideas and this led to the idea of creating the Indian National Congress.[79]

Hume's immersion into the theosophical movement eventually led him to become a vegetarian and also to give up killing birds for their specimens.[7]

Indian National Congress

Hume at the first session, Bombay, 28–31 December 1885

After retiring from the civil services and towards the end of Lord Lytton's rule, Hume observed that the people of India had a sense of hopelessness and wanted to do something, noting "a sudden violent outbreak of sporadic crime, murders of obnoxious persons, robbery of bankers and looting of bazaars, acts really of lawlessness which by a due coalescence of forces might any day develop into a National Revolt." Concerning the British government, he stated that a studied and invariable disregard, if not actually contempt for the opinions and feelings of our subjects, is at the present day the leading characteristic of our government in every branch of the administration.[80]

There were agrarian riots in the Deccan and Bombay, and Hume suggested that an Indian Union would be a good safety valve and outlet to avoid further unrest. On the 1st of March 1883 he wrote a letter to the graduates of the University of Calcutta:[26]

If only fifty men, good and true, can be found to join as founders, the thing can be established and the further development will be comparatively easy. ...

And if even the leaders of thought are all either such poor creatures, or so selfishly wedded to personal concerns that they dare not strike a blow for their country's sake, then justly and rightly are they kept down and trampled on, for they deserve nothing better. Every nation secures precisely as good a Government as it merits. If you the picked men, the most highly educated of the nation, cannot, scorning personal ease and selfish objects, make a resolute struggle to secure greater freedom for yourselves and your country, a more impartial administration, a larger share in the management of your own affairs, then we, your friends, are wrong and our adversaries right, then are Lord Ripon's noble aspirations for your good fruitless and visionary, then, at present at any rate all hopes of progress are at an end and India truly neither desires nor deserves any better Government than she enjoys. Only, if this be so, let us hear no more factious, peevish complaints that you are kept in leading strings and treated like children, for you will have proved yourself such. Men know how to act. Let there be no more complaining of Englishmen being preferred to you in all important offices, for if you lack that public spirit, that highest form of altruistic devotion that leads men to subordinate private ease to the public weal – that patriotism that has made Englishmen what they are – then rightly are these preferred to you, rightly and inevitably have they become your rulers. And rulers and task-masters they must continue, let the yoke gall your shoulders never so sorely, until you realise and stand prepared to act upon the eternal truth that self-sacrifice and unselfishness are the only unfailing guides to freedom and happiness.

Hume (left) with Wedderburn (right) and Dadabhai Naoroji

His poem The Old Man's Hope published in Calcutta in 1886 also captures the sentiment:[81]

Sons of Ind, why sit ye idle,
Wait ye for some Deva's aid?
Buckle to, be up and doing!
Nations by themselves are made!

Are ye Serfs or are ye Freemen,
Ye that grovel in the shade?
In your own hands rest the issues!
By themselves are nations made! ...

The idea of the Indian Union took shape and Hume initially had some support from Lord Dufferin for this, although the latter wished to have no official link to it. Dufferin's support was short-lived.[82] It has been suggested that the idea was originally conceived in a private meeting of seventeen men after a Theosophical Convention held at Madras in December 1884. Hume took the initiative, and it was in March 1885, when the first notice was issued convening the first Indian National Union to meet at Poona the following December.[26]

He attempted to increase the Congress base by bringing in more farmers, townspeople and Muslims between 1886 and 1887 and this created a backlash from the British, leading to backtracking by the Congress. Hume was disappointed when Congress opposed moves to raise the age of marriage for Indian girls and failed to focus on issues of poverty. Some Indian princes did not like the idea of democracy and some organizations like the United Indian Patriotic Association went about trying to undermine the Congress by showing it as an organization with a seditious character.[83] In 1892, he tried to get them to act by warning of a violent agrarian revolution but this only outraged the British establishment and frightened the Congress leaders. Disappointed by the continued lack of Indian leaders willing to work for the cause of national emancipation, Hume left for Britain in 1894.[4]

Many Anglo-Indians were against the idea of the Indian National Congress. The press in India tended to look upon it negatively, so much so that Hume is said to have held a very low opinion of journalists even later in life.[84] A satirical work published in 1888 included a character called "A. O. Humebogue".[85]

The organizers of the 27th session of the Indian National Congress at Bankipur (26–28 December 1912) recorded their "profound sorrow at the death of Allan Octavian Hume, C.B., father and founder of the Congress, to whose lifelong services, rendered at rare self-sacrifice, India feels deep and lasting gratitude, and in whose death the cause of Indian progress and reform sustained irreparable loss."[86][87]

South London Botanical Institute

Bookplate of Hume with the motto Industria et Perseverantia

After the loss of his manuscript containing his lifetime of ornithological notes. Hume took up a great interest in horticulture while at Shimla.

... He erected large conservatories in the grounds of Rothney Castle, filled them with the choicest flowers, and engaged English gardeners to help him in the work. From this, on returning to England, he went on to scientific botany. But this, as Kipling says, is another story, and must be left to another pen.[88]

Herbarium cabinets at the SLBI

Hume took an interest in wild plants and especially on invasive species although his botanical publishing was sparse with only a few short notes in 1901 on a variety of Scirpus maritimus and another on the flowering of Impatiens roylei. Hume contacted W.H. Griffin in 1901 to help develop a herbarium of botanical specimens. Hume would arrange his plants on herbarium sheets in artistic positions before pressing them. The two made many botanical trips including one to Down in Kent to seek some of the rare orchids that had been collected by Darwin.[89] In 1910, Hume bought the premises of 323 Norwood Road, and modified it to have a herbarium and library. He called this establishment the South London Botanical Institute with the aim of "promoting, encouraging, and facilitating, amongst the residents of South London, the study of the science of botany." One of the aims of the institute was to help promote botany as a means for mental culture and relaxation, an idea that was not shared by Henry Groves, a trustee for the Institute.[90] Hume objected to advertisement and refused to have any public ceremony to open the institute. The first curator was W.H. Griffin and Hume endowed the Institute with £10,000. Frederick Townsend, F.L.S., an eminent botanist, who died in 1905, had left instructions that his herbarium and collection was to be given to the institute, which was then only being contemplated.[91] Hume left £15,000 in his will for the maintenance of the botanical institute.[40][92]

Herbarium sheets showing Hume's artistic arrangements

In the years leading up to the establishment of the Institute, Hume built up links with many of the leading botanists of his day. He worked with F. H. Davey and in the Flora of Cornwall (1909), Davey thanks Hume as his companion on excursions in Cornwall and Devon, and for help in the compilation of the 'Flora', publication of which was financed by Hume.[93] The SLBI has since grown to hold a herbarium of approximately 100,000 specimens mostly of flowering plants from Europe including many collected by Hume. The collection was later augmented by the addition of other herbaria over the years, and has significant collections of Rubus (bramble) species and of the Shetland flora.


  • My Scrap Book: Or Rough Notes on Indian Oology and Ornithology (1869)
  • List of the Birds of India (1879)
  • The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds (3-volumes)
  • Game Birds of India, Burmah and Ceylon (3-volumes)
  • Hints on Esoteric Theosophy
  • Agricultural Reform in India (1879)
  • Lahore to Yarkand. Incidents of the Route and Natural History of the Countries Traversed by the Expedition of 1870 under T. D. Forsyth
  • Stray Feathers (11-volumes + index by Charles Chubb)


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  94. Author Query for 'Hume', International Plant Names Index Invalid |mode=CS1 (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Bruce, Duncan A. (2000) The Scottish 100: Portraits of History's Most Influential Scots, Carroll & Graf Publishers.
  • Buck, E. J. (1904). Simla, Past and Present. Calcutta: Thacker & Spink.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Mearns and Mearns (1988) Biographies for Birdwatchers. Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-487422-3
  • Mehrotra, S. R. (2005) Towards India's Freedom and Partition, Rupa & Co., New Delhi.
  • Mehrotra, S. R.; Edward C. Moulton (Eds) (2004) Selected Writings of Allan Octavian Hume: District Administration in North India, Rebellion and Reform, Volume One: 1829–1867. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-565896-5
  • Moxham, Roy (2002) The Great Hedge of India. ISBN 0-7567-8755-6
  • Wedderburn, W. (1913). Allan Octavian Hume. C.B. Father of the Indian National Congress. T.F. Unwin. London.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

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