Image: A dra­wing of Tama­rix Arti­cu­la­ta from „The forest flo­ra of north-west and cen­tral India (1874)“ by Diet­rich Brandis

This is a trans­la­ted ver­si­on of the 2018 MIDA Archi­val Refle­xi­con ent­ry “Diet­rich Bran­dis (1824 – 1907) – Bota­ni­ker und Begrün­der der tro­pi­schen Forst­wis­sen­schaf­ten”. The text was trans­la­ted by Rek­ha Rajan.

Table of Con­tents
Biop­gra­phi­cal and Sci­en­ti­fic Back­ground   |   Inspec­tor Gene­ral of Forests   | Forestry and Forest Enter­pri­se in Bri­tish India  |   Archi­val Hol­dings   |  End­no­tes   |   Sel­ec­ted Biblio­gra­phy for the life and works of Diet­rich Brandis

Diet­rich Bran­dis is known to many forestry sci­en­tists and some fores­ters as the foun­der of the sci­ence of tro­pi­cal forestry. From 1856 till 1883 he was in Bri­tish-India whe­re he first stu­di­ed the teak forests in Bur­ma. From the time he beca­me Inspec­tor Gene­ral of Forests in Bri­tish-India in 1865, until his reti­re­ment from civil ser­vice, he was instru­men­tal in estab­li­shing forestry in India.

Howe­ver, owing to his work within the frame­work of the Bri­tish Empire, Bran­dis is also known in Cana­da and Aus­tra­lia. Bes­i­des this, he is also known in the United Sta­tes of Ame­ri­ca, whe­re his exper­ti­se and advice con­tri­bu­ted decisi­ve­ly to the deve­lo­p­ment of forestry in the Bri­tish Empire. Less well known is that Bran­dis was trai­ned as a bota­nist and that he pur­sued his bota­ni­cal inte­rests throug­hout his life. The Bran­dis her­ba­ri­um acqui­red by the Ham­burg Sena­te in 1907 and inte­gra­ted into the Insti­tu­te for Plant Sci­en­ces and Micro­bio­lo­gy of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ham­burg is an elo­quent tes­tim­o­ny to this.

Biographical and scientific background

Diet­rich Bran­dis came from an aca­de­mic fami­ly which was embedded in a wide fami­ly and fri­ends’ net­work of sci­en­tists, who lived and/or work­ed in Athens, Ber­lin, Kiel, Copen­ha­gen and Gӧt­tin­gen. Bran­dis, who as a youngs­ter and as a stu­dent had stay­ed in the­se places, gai­ned a broad inte­rest in bota­ny here. Howe­ver, in the first half of the nine­te­enth cen­tu­ry bota­ny had not yet been estab­lished as a sepa­ra­te disci­pli­ne but was com­bi­ned with rela­ted sub­jects like geo­gra­phy, geo­lo­gy and medi­ci­ne. In addi­ti­on, Bran­dis atten­ded lec­tures on clas­si­cal phi­lo­lo­gy, anci­ent phi­lo­so­phy, histo­ry, phy­sics and Pro­tes­tant theo­lo­gy. In 1849, Bran­dis began working as a bota­nist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bonn, whe­re he was appoin­ted as a lec­tu­rer for phy­to­che­mis­try until 1855. Howe­ver, his later care­er seems to have been blo­cked for unknown reasons. In 1855, he estab­lished cont­act with Major Gene­ral Sir Hen­ry Have­lock through his wife Rachel, who was Havelock’s sis­ter. He reques­ted Have­lock, who was ser­ving in the Bri­tish-Indi­an army, to find him a posi­ti­on as a bota­nist in or near Calcutta.

Within six months Bran­dis and his wife were in Bri­tish India whe­re Diet­rich Bran­dis took up his posi­ti­on as Super­in­ten­dent of Forests of the Pro­vin­ce of Pegu (Lower Bur­ma) in Janu­ary 1856. Two years later, the pro­vin­ces of Ten­as­se­rim and Mar­tab­an on the wes­tern edge of the Malay pen­in­su­la were added to the regi­on under his con­trol. Here, in com­ple­te igno­rance of local forest con­di­ti­ons, Bran­dis deve­lo­ped a sys­tem to record the tree-popu­la­ti­on, the so-cal­led “line­ar valua­ti­on sur­veys” or “strip sur­veys” as well as the local­ly prac­ti­ced sys­tem of “gird­ling” (scrat­ching the bark around the trunk in order to inter­rupt the nut­ri­tio­nal inta­ke) on the basis of the age and the trunk cir­cum­fe­rence of a tree in order to then let it dry out on the trunk until it was rea­dy for felling. Along with a clas­si­fi­ca­ti­on of forest are­as for future forestry use, Bran­dis work­ed out prin­ci­ples of sys­te­ma­tic forest manage­ment. The­se would be based on sci­en­ti­fic publi­ca­ti­ons and annu­al reports and be car­ri­ed out by well-trai­ned sci­en­ti­fic personnel.

Inspector General of Forests

During the next quar­ter of the cen­tu­ry, Bran­dis would be enga­ged in the deve­lo­p­ment of forestry in Bri­tish India, the aim of which was to gua­ran­tee the colo­ni­al state’s immense requi­re­ment of wood for lay­ing rail­way lines in the sub­con­ti­nent and for the export of tro­pi­cal wood, main­ly teak, deo­dar and sal. In 1865, the first Forest law was pas­sed, after Bran­dis had gathe­red suf­fi­ci­ent exper­ti­se in Bur­ma and had been appoin­ted as the Inspec­tor Gene­ral of Forests. The task now was to set up the office and a cor­re­spon­ding depart­ment (Forest Depart­ment) of the colo­ni­al admi­nis­tra­ti­on and to crea­te an appro­pria­te legal basis for future action inclu­ding for legal pro­blems that might ari­se. Legis­la­ti­on initi­al­ly regu­la­ted the pro­tec­tion of forests and their use, wher­eby exis­ting legal rela­ti­onships, inclu­ding cus­to­ma­ry rights, were respected.

Colo­ni­al forest law cul­mi­na­ted in the Forest Act of 1878, the main fea­tures of which are valid even today. Legis­la­ti­on based on the then most pro­gres­si­ve Euro­pean forest admi­nis­tra­ti­ons of the Ger­man-spea­king count­ries and France divi­ded the forests of Bri­tish India into three zones, name­ly pro­tec­ted, reser­ved and vil­la­ge forests, and regu­la­ted access of the local popu­la­ti­on espe­ci­al­ly to the last one. With a sin­gle stro­ke of the pen it annul­led all exis­ting legal rela­ti­onships, inclu­ding cus­to­ma­ry rights, and declared the colo­ni­al sta­te to be the sole owner of all such desi­gna­ted forest are­as. The colo­ni­al admi­nis­tra­ti­on had a ves­ted inte­rest in secu­ring unhin­de­red access to the natu­ral, and con­se­quent­ly, fis­cal resour­ces in the future. Alt­hough the law did not dif­fer essen­ti­al­ly from exis­ting Euro­pean forest laws, it was uni­que in its seve­ri­ty. Bes­i­des this, the inher­ent flaw in this law was that it trans­plan­ted Euro­pean prin­ci­ples of forest admi­nis­tra­ti­on into a non-Euro­pean con­text wit­hout ade­qua­te­ly taking local con­di­ti­ons into account.

This was cer­tain­ly not Bran­dis’ inten­ti­on becau­se the forest and forestry legis­la­ti­on in cen­tral and wes­tern Euro­pe was by far not so rigid. Moreo­ver, in Bri­tish India he was depen­dent on the coope­ra­ti­on of the local popu­la­ti­on if the forest admi­nis­tra­ti­on was going to be pro­fi­ta­ble for sil­vicul­tu­re and reve­nue. At the very least Bran­dis was able to ensu­re a broad-based trai­ning of the forest per­son­nel in bota­ny, geo­gra­phy, geo­lo­gy, zoo­lo­gy and che­mis­try. This indi­ca­tes the holi­stic approach of the trai­ning and points to the func­tion of the forest admi­nis­tra­tor as a gene­ra­list, an ide­al that would chan­ge after the turn of the cen­tu­ry in favour of the eco­no­mic spe­cia­list. After con­sul­ting the Indi­an minis­try and the colo­ni­al secre­ta­ri­at in India, Bran­dis was able to recruit two forest offi­ci­als from Hes­sen and Han­no­ver, Wil­helm Schlich and Ber­told Rib­ben­trop, to help him in his mani­fold and almost impos­si­ble tasks. They later also suc­cee­ded Bran­dis in the office of Inspec­tor General.

Forestry and Forest Enterprise in British India

In addi­ti­on to other Ger­man forestry experts or bota­nists like Sul­piz Kurz from Augs­burg, a gro­wing num­ber of Eng­lish­men found employ­ment in the upper gra­des of the forest ser­vices in Bri­tish India, among them James Sykes Gam­ble and Dr. James L. Ste­ward, both of whom made a signi­fi­cant con­tri­bu­ti­on in cata­lo­guing the syl­van bota­ny of South Asia. In the same year in which the Forest Act was pas­sed, Bran­dis estab­lished the Impe­ri­al Forest School in Dehra Dun, which exists even today, for trai­ning local per­son­nel. Alre­a­dy in 1875, under his lea­der­ship as Inspec­tor Gene­ral of Forests, The Indi­an Fores­ter, a jour­nal, or rather a maga­zi­ne with sci­en­ti­fic essays direc­ted at a broad rea­der­ship, was laun­ched. Bran­dis hims­elf published regu­lar­ly in The Indi­an Fores­ter, a total of 35 artic­les, seve­ral of which were on forest admi­nis­tra­ti­on, the trai­ning of forest per­son­nel as well as on teak and bam­boo. His artic­le on mea­su­ring the requi­re­ment of rail­way slee­pers for the rail­ways tracks in Bri­tish India is well known. (The Indi­an Fores­ter 4, 4 (1879), pp. 365–85).

Along with his exten­si­ve work as the hig­hest forest admi­nis­tra­tor and com­bi­ned with his con­stant publi­ca­ti­ons about the work being done, Bran­dis was hard­ly able to pur­sue his bota­ni­cal inte­rests. Occa­sio­nal­ly he com­plai­ned to his col­le­agues that he did not get around to coll­ec­ting plants, let alo­ne iden­ti­fy­ing them bota­ni­cal­ly. Howe­ver, his two big books on the flo­ra of Bri­tish India bear wit­ness to his inti­ma­te know­ledge of South Asi­an flo­ra and bota­ny. One of the­se is the book begun by the afo­re­men­tio­ned Dr. Ste­ward on the Forest Flo­ra of North-West and Cen­tral India which was com­ple­ted by Bran­dis and final­ly published in 1874. Bran­dis com­ple­ted the book in the two years that he spent at home to cure his fai­ling health, and it was uni­ver­sal­ly prai­sed for its tho­rough­ness with regards to flo­ra, fau­na, cli­ma­te and geo­gra­phy. Bran­dis had alre­a­dy gai­ned a repu­ta­ti­on with his artic­le “Rain­fall and Forest Trees in India”, published in 1871, in which he had empha­si­zed the con­nec­tion bet­ween the geo­gra­phi­cal dis­tri­bu­ti­on of trees and the cli­ma­tic con­di­ti­ons of a regi­on and had illus­tra­ted this with a map that remain­ed unsur­pas­sed for a long time (Oce­an High­ways 4 (1872), pp. 200–206. Reprin­ted in Tran­sac­tions of the Scot­tish Arbo­ri­cul­tu­ral Socie­ty 7 (1873), pp. 88–113 and The Indi­an Fores­ter 9 (1883), pp. 173–83 and 221–33).

Bran­dis’ magnum opus Indi­an Trees which was published one year befo­re his death (1906), also remain­ed unmat­ched. Bran­dis spent at least eight years struc­tu­ring and pro­ces­sing the mate­ri­al coll­ec­ted and pro­vi­ded. Indi­an Trees covers more than 4,400 spe­ci­es of trees, bus­hes, cree­pers, vines, bam­boos and palms of the Indi­an sub­con­ti­nent inclu­ding the Anda­man and Nico­bar Islands, giving them their cor­rect bota­ni­cal names, syn­onyms, their col­lo­quial names, bota­ni­cal descrip­ti­ons as well as rela­ted flo­ra. Over­all, the book is a monu­ment of sci­en­ti­fic meti­cu­lous­ness and of scru­pu­lous bota­ni­cal work, which estab­lishes Diet­rich Bran­dis as an emi­nent bota­nist, even if this was not ack­now­led­ged during his life­time or even today. Fur­ther work on archi­val docu­ments as well as on Bran­dis’ own publi­ca­ti­ons will con­tri­bu­te to a new under­stan­ding of the per­son and the bota­nist Brandis.

Archival Holdings

The annu­al report of the Ham­burg Sta­te Insti­tu­te of Bota­ny for 1908 men­tio­ned under the rubric “purcha­ses” that the Sena­te of the Sta­te of Ham­burg had acqui­red Diet­rich Bran­dis’ exten­si­ve bota­ni­cal coll­ec­tion. Howe­ver, one does not know why par­ti­cu­lar­ly the Ham­burg Sena­te purcha­sed Bran­dis’ her­ba­ri­um and why no other high-ran­king Euro­pean bota­ni­cal insti­tu­te was inte­res­ted in it. Evi­dent­ly, during his life­time,  Bran­dis was famous only as a forestry sci­en­tist, which is why his exten­si­ve bota­ni­cal acti­vi­ties with their cor­re­spon­ding publi­ca­ti­ons were soon for­got­ten.[1] The fact that Bran­dis was an excep­tio­nal­ly gifted and keen bota­nist can be seen in the man­ner in which he moun­ted and sys­te­ma­ti­zed 19,000 lea­ves in his her­ba­ri­um, which could the­r­e­fo­re be easi­ly inte­gra­ted into the her­ba­ri­um of the Ham­burg Bota­ni­cal Insti­tu­te. This could also be a reason why the lea­ves are not lis­ted indi­vi­du­al­ly. Alre­a­dy in 1911, the enti­re hol­ding was incor­po­ra­ted, sor­ted as it was into spe­ci­es.[2]

Litt­le is known about the fur­ther fate of Bran­dis’ her­ba­ri­um. After the Insti­tu­te for Appli­ed Bota­ny was estab­lished in 1913, Bran­dis’ wood coll­ec­tion was kept the­re. The Insti­tu­te of Gene­ral Bota­ny, estab­lished in the same year, took over not only the Bota­ni­cal Gar­den but also the her­ba­ri­um of the Ham­burg Bota­ni­cal Muse­um. Parts of the exten­si­ve and bul­ky wood coll­ec­tions are in the Xylo­the­que of the Thü­nen Insti­tu­te. In 2012, the Insti­tu­te for Gene­ral and Appli­ed Bota­ny was mer­ged with the Bio­cen­ter Klein Flott­bek. Fur­ther infor­ma­ti­on on the Bran­dis her­ba­ri­um can be obtai­ned from the pre­sent head cura­tor of the Her­ba­ri­um Ham­burgen­se, Dr. Mat­thi­as Schultz (matthias.schultz[at]


[1] Ham­bur­gi­sche Bota­ni­sche Staats­in­sti­tu­te. Jah­res­be­rich­te 1908. Aus dem Jahr­buch der Ham­bur­gi­schen Wis­sen­schaft­li­chen Anstal­ten 26 (1909), p. 10.

[2] Ham­bur­gi­sche Bota­ni­sche Staats­in­sti­tu­te. Jah­res­be­rich­te 1910. Aus dem Jahr­buch der Ham­bur­gi­schen Wis­sen­schaft­li­chen Anstal­ten 28 (1911), p. 8.

Selected Bibliography for the life and works of Dietrich Brandis

Guha, Rama­ch­andra, “An Ear­ly Envi­ron­men­tal Deba­te: The Making of the 1878 Forest Act”. Indi­an Eco­no­mic and Social Histo­ry Review 27, 1 (1990): pp. 65–84.

Hölzl, Richard, “Der ‚deut­sche Wald‘ als Pro­dukt eines trans­na­tio­na­len Wis­sen­trans­fers? Forst­re­form in Deutsch­land im 18. und 19. Jahr­hun­dert”. dis­cus­sions 7 (2012), 29 pp. https‌://‌pr‌ae.‌pers‌p‌e‌ct‌iv‌ia.‌net‌/publikationen/discussions/7–2012/hoelzl_wald.  (Last acces­sed on: 03-09-2020).

Hes­mer, Her­bert, Leben und Werk von Diet­rich Bran­dis 1824–1907. Begrün­der der tro­pi­schen Forst­wirt­schaft, Begrün­der der forst­li­chen Ent­wick­lung in den USA, Bota­ni­ker und Öko­lo­ge. Abhand­lun­gen der Rhei­nisch-West­fä­li­schen Aka­de­mie der Wis­sen­schaf­ten: 58. Opla­den: West­deut­scher Ver­lag, 1975.

Negi, S.S., Sir Diet­rich Bran­dis: Father of Tro­pi­cal Forestry. Dehra Dun: Bis­hen Sing Mahen­dra Pal Singh, 1991.

Prain, David, revi­sed by Mahe­sh Ran­ga­ra­jan, “Bran­dis, Sir Diet­rich (1824–1907)”. Oxford Natio­nal Bio­gra­phy (1915, online edn 2004). Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/32045

Rajan, Ravi, “Impe­ri­al Envi­ron­ta­lism or Envi­ron­men­tal Impe­ria­lism? Euro­pean Forestry, Colo­ni­al Fores­ters and Agen­das of Forest Manage­ment in Bri­tish India, 1800–1900”. In: Richard H. Gro­ve, Vini­ta Damo­dar­an, Sat­pal Sang­wan (eds.) Natu­re and the Ori­ent. The Envi­ron­men­tal Histo­ry of South and Sou­the­ast Asia. Delhi: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1998, pp. 324–371.

Rawat, Ajay S., “Bran­dis: The Father of Orga­ni­zed Forestry in India”. In: Ibid. (ed.) Indi­an Forestry: A Per­spec­ti­ve. New Delhi: Indus Publi­shing Com­pa­ny, 1993, pp. 85–101.

Sald­an­ha, Indra Mun­shi, “Colo­nia­lism and Pro­fes­sio­na­lism: A Ger­man Fores­ter in India”. Envi­ron­ment and Histo­ry 2, no. 2 (1996): pp. 195–219.

Bran­dis, D., Forest Flo­ra of North-West and Cen­tral India, A Hand­book of the Indi­ge­nous Trees and Shrubs of tho­se Count­ries. Com­men­ced by the late J.L. Ste­ward, con­tin­ued and com­ple­ted by D. Bran­dis. Pre­pared at the Her­ba­ri­um of the Roy­al Gar­dens, Kew. Published under the Aut­ho­ri­ty of the Secre­ta­ry of Sta­te for India in Coun­cil. Lon­don: Wm H. Allen & Com­pa­ny, 1874.

——–, Indi­an Trees. An Account of Trees, Shrubs, Woo­dy Clim­bers, Bam­boos and Palms Indi­ge­nous or Com­mon­ly Cul­ti­va­ted in the Bri­tish Indi­an Empire. Lon­don: Archi­bald Consta­ble & Co. Ltd, 1906.

Archival Holdings

Her­ba­ri­um Ham­burgen­se, Insti­tu­te of Plant Sci­ence and Micro­bio­lo­gy, Uni­ver­si­tät Hamburg

Ger­man Let­ters 1858–1900, Archi­ves, Roy­al Bota­ni­cal Gar­dens, Kew


The Indi­an Fores­ter 

Micha­el Mann, IAAW, Hum­boldt-Uni­ver­si­tät zu Berlin

MIDA Archi­val Refle­xi­con

Edi­tors: Anan­di­ta Baj­pai, Hei­ke Liebau
Lay­out: Mon­ja Hof­mann, Nico Putz
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