In the early 1890s when British-Belgian zoologist George Albert Boulenger was revising his catalogue of snake species, he received a specimen from Trivandrum. The specimen of the non-venomous shield tale snake was sent to London by fellow British zoologist H.S. Ferguson. Boulenger, who also illustrated snake species in his catalogue for the British Museum, named the specimen from southern India the Rhinophis travancoricus. Writing in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society in 1896, Boulenger said, “Thanks to the same gentleman, I am now able to describe a third species, nearest allied to the Ceylonese R. trevelianus, with which I am happy to connect the name of Mr Ferguson to whose exertions we owe several interesting additions to the herpetological fauna of Travancore.”
By the 1890s, Harold Stuart Ferguson, a Scot living in Travancore, had made a name for himself as a zoologist and ornithologist, and was seen as an expert on the Western Ghats.
Childhood in Travancore and Britain
Much of what we know about Ferguson is from the brief introduction written about him by noted Indian historian and civil servant V. Nagam Aiya in the Travancore State Manual. The Scot was born in London but was a third-generation settler in Travancore. His India-born father Robert, who was close to the East India Company’s ruling elite, had plantations in the hills of what now make up the Idukki district.
Ferguson, who was born in 1851, spent a part of his childhood in Travancore before his father sent him to study at Eton. He would continue his education at Wimbledon College.
Records from Britain indicate he played for a Scotland XI against an English XI in the so-called pseudo-internationals in the early 1870s.
Ferguson would go on to join the Royal Artillery, one of the two regiments that make up the artillery arm of the British Army. After serving in the army for a few years, he resigned and decided to go back to India.
In Travancore, he first served as a tutor to the three princes of the state, and then as a commandant in the Nayar Brigade of the Travancore Army.
He began to work for the Government Museum in 1880 and focused on natural history. This gave him the impetus to focus on his real passion- nature. He soon became a member of the Linnean Society of London, which was created to study natural history, evolution and taxonomy.
In 1894, he was appointed the director of the museum. “He is a good shikari (hunter) and has always been a diligent student of Natural History, both of which qualifications entitle him to be reckoned as an authority on the subject,” Aiya wrote about Ferguson in the Travancore State Manual.
The second snake specimen that Ferguson sent to Boulenger was named Rhinophis fergusonianus. It is commonly known as the Cardamom Hills earth snake and is endemic to the Western Ghats. Among his other ‘discoveries’ were the Parantirrhoea marshalli or the Travancore evening brown butterfly and the Bufo fergusonii or Ferguson’s toad.
Science lectures and writings
As Ferguson’s exploits became known across Travancore, he began taking public lectures in Trivandrum on natural history. Aiya noted, “He has delivered several lectures on kindred subjects in pursuance of the scheme of Public Lectures instituted by the Travancore Government, and these lectures have generally drawn large audiences from among the educated classes of the Trivandrum Public.”
Ferguson’s knowledge on the birds and animals found in the princely state was put into full use by Aiya, when he tasked him with writing the chapter on the fauna of Travancore in the manual. Judging by the way he wrote this chapter, it’s easy to understand why his lectures were popular.
“All countries are characterised by the different kind of animals that inhabit them and they can be grouped into regions, subregions etc, in accordance with the way the animals are distributed,” Ferguson wrote. “In this respect, Travancore belongs to the Indo-Malay, or Oriental Region, which includes the whole of India, Ceylon, Assam, Burma, Formosa, Hainan, Cochin China, Malacca, Sumatra, Java, Borneo, the Philippine Islands and part of China.”
Written in 1904, the chapter gives the reader some rare insights on the nature of Travancore at that time. For instance, Ferguson wrote that black leopards were more common in the region than the spotted variety, noting that the former were bolder and fiercer than the latter. He added that villagers killed leopards and sold their skins to the government. Apparently, leopards were once a common sight in Kottayam.
Ferguson also shared his expertise on snakes, mentioning that Travancore had about 67 species. “When one is met with, the first question that is asked is, ‘Is it a poisonous one,’ to this most of the people at once reply in the affirmative, and, needless to say, they are generally wrong,” he wrote, adding that the only poisonous snakes in the low country were the cobra, Russel’s viper and the krait.
After retiring in 1904, Ferguson moved back to Britain, where he spent a lot of time at the gardens of the Zoological Society in Regents Park. Travancore and its fauna remained close to the Scot’s heart until his death in 1921.