FORTIFYING A NATURALIST’S BODY IN VICTORIAN INDIA: DESIRE, LOATHING AND HUMOUR IN E.H AITKEN’S NATURAL HISTORY: A PAPER BY RAJARSHI MITRA

Professor Rajarshi Mitra, in his fascinating paper, talks about the 19 th century naturalist E.H
Aitken and how his writings capture the beauty of the tropical forests of India while
criticizing the colonial reality. Edward Hamilton Aitken came to India as a civil servant. He
spent almost fifty five years in India. He was one of the founding members of the Bombay
Natural History Society. During an expedition to Goa, Aitken discovered a new species of
anopheline mosquito, which was named Anopheles aitkeni after him. With achievements
like such, we can obviously assume that Aitken was a natural historian who was enthralled
by the flora and fauna of colonial India. Aitken reveals the jarring mixture of compassion,
violence and sense of superiority the Victorians had towards the natural world. Professor
Mitra observes the world of the colonizers to be an anthro-centric one, with man at the
authoritarian position and all the animals and plants subservient to his will, much like Adam
in Genesis. The paper deconstructs Aitken’s style, which captures the nuances of this world,
where the white man has dominated the natural world and yet remains fascinated with it. .
This blog aims to discuss how Professor Mitra ties together colonialism and the position of
Aitken as a naturalist, a representative of the English imperialism in the wilderness of India.

Aitken exposes colonialism for what it is to the Englishman- both a blessing and a curse. It is
a paradoxical mixture of excitement and colonial boredom. On one hand, there is the thrill
of the colonial process, career and financial prospects and ideals of heroism and glory that
one can win in a faraway, almost mythical land. This bestowed a degree of surrealism and
enchantment on the entire colonial process. However, as rightfully pointed out by professor
Mitra, there was also colonial boredom, that is, the disenchantment with the imperial
reality and the constant struggle to maintain and expand the Empire. Aitken shows that the
enchantment and disenchantment processes are simultaneous, the white man had
experienced both at the same time. According to Aitken, the prowl should be an integral
part of the naturalist’s behaviour.” The naturalist is a prowler”, Aitken had stated in his book
‘The Naturalist On The Prowl”. This prowling helped the naturalist to interact with the Indian
natural world while at the same time maintaining an apathetic distance from nature.
Professor Mitra explains how Aitken views the colonizer as the master of his domain,
establishing his “durbar” on the both natural and civilized world.
In his book ‘The Tribes On My Frontier’, Aitken compares the north-western frontier tribes
to the tropical insects- something both alien and threatening to the British colonial empire.
The book quite accurately captures the rising anxiety about the ongoing Anglo-Afghan wars
and berates the British empire of its colonial policies, especially with the Afghans and the
frontier tribes. The natives and the natural world blend together to create an absurd mesh

of enchanted reality, something that the white man is mesmerized by and craves to
conquer. Professor Mitra’s argument makes us aware of the ongoing dehumanization of the
natives, their tedious reality overlapping with the mythical natural world of India. The
naturalist plays a strange role in the colonial process, he plays a vital part and yet is
somehow aloof from the imperial strategies.
Through Rajarshi Mitra’s paper and his argument, we understand the position of the
naturalist and how the desires, anxiety and antagonism of the colonizer reflect on his
relation with the natural world.

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