Sunday 24 August 2014

The Thames and the Cooum

In the 19th century, the river Thames that flows through London was a far worse stinking river than the river Cooum that flows through Madras. Not only the river, but the whole city of London was the world’s largest dumpyard. Carolyn Steel traces the growth of the London through its ravenous demand for food, first marched in as cattle and sheep on hooves, and later carted in as food by bullock carts and ships.

The Cooum in Chintadiripet
When an engineer, Chadwick, proposed that Thames be cleaned,The Times of London opposed it vehemently: "England wants to be clean, but not be cleaned by Chadwick" ran their editorial. So says Peter Medawar in his book The Limits of Science.

Poor Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria died surrounded by 42 cesspools, and the inconsolable queen then ordered the cleaning up of London - thus was born the modern sewerage system. This was the most useful royal death in history, first for England, then the world. Systematically, the largest metropolis of the post-Industrial Revolution era, got its first effective sewerage system.

Another factor might be mentioned here – horses. More specifically horse dung. As Stephen Leavitt explains brilliantly in his book SuperFreakonomics, the modern curse of Carbon-di-oxide pollution is insignificant compared to the pre-automobile horse-dung pollution that every European and American city suffered. The tall basements of stone houses in the US cities of that era – New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and of similar cities in Europe, owe their design to the deep aversion of the moneyed classes, who built such residences, to prevent rain mixed sludge, thoroughly enriched with horse and human refuse, from entering their homes. In a remarkable connection, the houses of Bohra Muslims in Siddhpur, a city in Gujarat, were built on the designs of the European houses of the time – and reflect the high basements of such houses. 

Bohra houses in Siddhpur, Gujarat - with high basements

Environmentalists mindlessly curse the internal combustion engine, and the modern mechanical world, as the root of all pollution, and as evil incarnate. I have already written about how vital Diesel and Benz’s automobile was to improving farming, citing Matt Ridley. Curse softly, dear Anti-carbon Totalitarians.

Thomas Hager, in his book on the synthesis of nitrogen, The Alchemy of Air, vividly describes cargo ships carrying mountains of guano– bat and bird dung from Pacific islands off the Peruvian coast, arriving at the ports of England. This worsened the smell. London was steadily getting dirtier and smellier well before the Industrial Revolution, and dumping its untreated sewage and trash into the Thames worsened things - in fact, the Great Stink of 1858 caused Parliament to shift from London to Oxford. (If only Muhammad bin Thugluq had such a terrific excuse!) 

The word malaria comes from the Latin word “mal” and “air”, since scientists at one time believed that the disease was caused by the bad air, as the effects of the anopheles mosquito was unknown then.

Most readers of English literature may be familiar with the satires of Charles Dickens of the soot and terrible pollution of London, or the more popular depictions of street boys in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Such a London no longer exists. It is a far cleaner, far less polluted metropolis, a beacon for financiers, fashionistas, artists and capitalists. That is a lesson for the dirty cities of the world.

Stephen Johnson in this tracing of the early history of curing cholera in London, describes the discovery of polluted water as the source of cholera. Bill Joy, in this otherwise melancholy, apocalyptic soliloquy, mentions that Clean water is more important than antibiotics as weapon of health. Some things are obvious, after someone points it out.

I cannot resist pointing out at this point the single most repeated thing about the Indus Valley Civilization – they had the most advanced sewerage systems of the world until the 19th century,  have a better system than most cities and villages in India.  On our January 2014 site visit of Tamil Heritage Trust to Lothal, we were given a tour of the drainage systems of that Harappan city. Sewage is disgusting as current affairs, but apparently fascinating as heritage!

Septic tank in Lothal

Sewage treatment system and drains, Lothal
As Sriram V elucidated to some of us on a Chintadripet Heritage Walk, it was during Lord Hobart’s Governorship of Madras Presidency, that the plan for a sewerage system for Madras germinated. In fact, Lord Hobart’s death was as useful to Madras, as Prince Albert’s was to England.
Road to first sewage pumping station, Chintadripet, Madras
Links (added 2 April 2020)

The Growth of London - Carolyn Steel TED talk video
Cholera in 1850s London - Steven Johnson TED talk video
The Great Stink of 1858
The Limits of Science - Peter Medawar
London's sewerage system - video
SuperFreakonomics - New York's 19th century horse dung problem
How diesel engines tranformed agriculture
Lord Hobart's death - letter from Florence Nightingale - cleaning the Cooum
How terrible traffic was in the Victorian era

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Trautmann on Francis Whyte Ellis

I have written recently about the Ellis inscription. My interest in Ellis was kindled by a speech by Prof Thomas Trautmann (University of Michigan) at Roja Muthiah Library in Madras. I was blown away that this true discoverer of the Dravidian languages and a man of several astounding accomplishments was practically forgotten, with credit going to Robert Caldwell, until the recent re-discovery by Trautmann.

In August 2013 I was invited by Mr Shankar of Madras Midtown Rotary Club to give them a talk on Ellis. Mr Narasiah forwarded this email biography of Ellis by none other than Trautmann himself, to help me prepare for this lecture. I had read his books Languages and Nations and The Aryan Debate, and I strongly recommend them. I wrote to Prof Trautmann who is "delighted that my talk encouraged your interest," and with his permission, publish this brief biography of FW Ellis.

Ellis,  Francis Whyte  (1777-1819), orientalist, grew up in Compton, Bedfordshire, and was schooled at The Academy, Burlington Street, London.

He became a writer in the East India Company's service at Madras in 1796. He was promoted to the offices of assistant under-secretary, deputy secretary, and secretary to the board of revenue in 1798, 1801, and 1802 respectively. In 1806 he was appointed judge in Tanjore, but was transferred the same year to the zillah (district) of Masulipatam, when he offended the raja, having incarcerated one of his servants for extorting rents by force. In 1809 he became collector of land customs in the Madras presidency, and in 1810 collector of Madras. 
College of Fort St George - DPI Campus, Egmore

He was largely responsible for planning the college of Fort St George to teach the languages of south India to the junior civil servants posted to Madras, and was senior member of the board of superintendence from its inception in 1812 until his death. He was a leading light of the Madras Literary Society, also begun in 1812. He died unmarried at Ramnad, Madras, of accidental poisoning on 10 March 1819 while on sick leave. His mother, Elizabeth Hubbard, was the main beneficiary of the will he made on his deathbed.
Ellis was a brilliant scholar of the south Indian languages, especially  Tamil, and vowed not to publish before the age of forty; because of his untimely death, he published little in his lifetime. Moreover, his private papers were all lost or destroyed; it was said they ended up in the kitchen of the collector of Madura, and were used by his cook 'to  kindle his fire and singe fowls'.
Ellis's most important accomplishment was the discovery of the  Dravidian language family, a proof of which appeared in 1816, forty years before Robert Caldwell's A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages (1856), which consolidated Ellis's finding, and forty years after Sir William Jones proposed the concept of the Indo-European language family.
The proof appears in an introduction to A. D. Campbell's A Grammar of the Teloogoo Language, published by the college of Fort St George for the use of its students. In it Ellis demonstrated that the Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada languages, although containing abundant loanwords from Sanskrit, are not descended from it, as are the languages of north India, but constitute a separate language family. He showed that the three languages have many cognate words that have no roots in Sanskrit, comprising a common core vocabulary of related words. 
He further asserted, correctly, that the south Indian languages now called Malayalam, Tulu, and Codagu, and Malto (a tribal language in north India) belong to the same family, but that Marathi and Sinhalese, though influenced by it, belong to the Sanskritic language family.The published proof began as a separate Dissertation on Telugu printed for the use of students, and Ellis intended to do the same for Malayalam and Tamil. The Dissertation on Malayalam was published after his death (1878), but the 'Dissertation on Tamil' probably was never printed, because his plans for it grew ever larger, judging from manuscript remains that include a very long treatise on Tamil prosody. 
Towards the end of his life the college press was printing his translation of the Tirukkural of Tiruvalluvar (c.1819), a Tamil classic, but he did not finish it. His contributions to the study of Tamil, had he lived, would have been considerable. 
Madras Literary Society, DPI Campus, Egmore
Two other works are of special importance. A treatise on mirasi (freehold) rights was written when he was collector of Madras and in collaboration with his sheristadar (chief clerk), B. Sancaraya, to explain the system of land tenure prevailing there through ancient legends and historical inscriptions, in response to a request for information from the board of revenue. It is notable for its attack upon the belief that oriental despotism (the ownership of all land by the sovereign) was the original constitution of India, arguing that private property in land was ancient in this region. It was first published by the government of Madras in 1818. 
Second, he wrote a long article dealing with the purported Veda called the Ezour Vedam , which had become famous in Europe through Voltaire, who, relying on its authenticity and antiquity, had used it as evidence that deism was the original and universal religion of mankind, against the claims of Christianity. Ellis's article, published in the Asiatic Researches in 1822, proved that the Ezour Vedam had been composed by Jesuit missionaries in India. 
Here is Mr Narasiah's article on Trautmann's lecture

Prof Trautmann adds:
You may know that recently Manu Francis found in a library in France the Tamil composition of Ellis, a treatise on the smallpox vaccination in the form of a colloquy between Shakti and Dhanvantari.  I had found Ellis' English translation of his own composition, and published it in my "Languages and Nations" book.  I could not have been more pleased that this Tamil original has now been found, which is what I hoped when I published the translation.

The introduction of vaccination in the Madras Presidency is another remarkable contribution of Ellis, and deserves to be commemorated.