Sir Albert Howard in India

By Louise E. Howard


Sir Albert Howard's career falls into two distinct periods, the period of scientific investigation in India and the period, following his return from India to England, when the last fifteen years of his life were devoted to the fight for restoring fertility to the depleted soils of the world. His own tireless industry during these years in speaking up and down the country, his many letters to the press, his readiness in debate, his instant success in personal interview, made a deep impression on the public; out of what might have been a leisurely official retirement he emerged as a reformer in the cause of a new conception of agriculture.

The principles for which he stood have become a matter of public knowledge and debate. The world has been rendered conscious of its sins in exploiting and misusing the natural riches of the soil; these matters have become history.

If my husband's influence had ended with his death there would have been nothing more to say. It might have been a tribute of affection to present him as a scientist, and some few would have been glad to examine with me the past and find him such. But his work did not end with helping to expose the character of modern husbandry, which in its ill-advised chase after profit alone from the fruits of the earth has originated evils, perhaps less dramatically described but not less disastrous than any which have accompanied the notorious rise of the industrial system and which so justly evoked their Shaftesburys. It is true Sir Albert was by no means the first critic of this late nineteenth-century decay and degeneration in farming outlook and practice, which is far more important than we have realized, but he was able to add something which not many could offer. His mind was essentially constructive and he never saw a problem but he knew or envisaged a remedy. In making further wide deductions from the facts, in bold suggestions for reform, in his challenge to vested interests, to accepted systems of teaching, to conventional results of previous research, he inevitably met bitter criticism and hostility. Some of the most important ideas which he stood for are discussed but doubted. It has not as yet, for instance, become a matter of agreement that quality in food production is as important as quantity and that the fear of not having enough to eat does not end the matter; it is not believed that the arid methods of statistics are usually an absurd approach to the living problems of agriculture; it is not admitted that the expenditure of public moneys on agricultural research needs a thorough overhaul; above all, it is denied that our health derives from the state of the soil on which we tread and which we cultivate and that our best chance of breeding and maintaining a healthy and happy human race is to breed and maintain the millions of unpaid workers, the invisible, silent and minute soil inhabitants, which Nature has chosen to dispose within the first few inches of decaying wastes strewn over the surface of our globe.

It is true that a great deal of progress has been made; indeed, the spread of ideas has been astonishing, which shows how greatly they were needed; our detractors are being pushed from one position to another in no uncertain manner. But one favourite argument still persists, that there is no adequate evidence for the claims advanced -- the word used is 'scientific'. In these circumstances it is important to show that what Sir Albert Howard himself said was based on what he himself did.

Nearly thirty years of the most exacting investigation, conducted on strict scientific lines, the results of which had to convince, and in fact did convince, the world of scientific opinion in the East, at that time in its heyday of keenness and success, were in themselves an achievement of great distinction, but their true importance emerges when it is realized that it was this slow building up of fact which made possible the later evolution of opinion. That complete assurance of view which so characterized Sir Albert Howard's speeches, that challenging certainty and biting criticism, that supreme contempt for the second-rate result, were essentially the outcome of years of intensive study and experiment. Because that study and experiment were carried on seven thousand miles away on a series of tropical problems not of obvious practical interest to the British public, because their results were embodied in a mass of papers contributed as official reports or printed in Indian technical journals difficult of access, it could not be expected that those who heard him speak in this country should be familiar with, or perhaps even be aware of, what had preceded those appearances on platform or in the press. To his audiences and readers he was the great champion and campaigner: as a scientist they took him for granted rather than knew what he had done.

The investigations thus carried out, which it is my purpose in this book to summarize and explain, are interesting in that they illuminate modern practice under tropical conditions; they will take the reader a little away from the routine round of British farm, field and garden. They have other claims to attention. Throughout the years passed by Sir Albert Howard in India an early and sustained interest was displayed in putting agricultural research into its right relation with the needs of the people; not for one moment, even in considering, for instance, the intricate genetics of the wheats, was this fundamental requirement forgotten. The social setting of husbandry, taking those words in their largest meaning, was always to the fore; only those results were useful which could be translated into terms of peasant or of zamindar practice, and only these were pursued. There was abnegation in this point of view. In refusing to spend time on the completion of elaborate results not of obvious practical bearing Sir Albert was perfectly clear-sighted; such final research needs to be done, and when called for can and must be handled by any investigator worthy of the name, and some periods during his own early years were spent on this type of enquiry. But as time went on such work fell into place as only part of a larger whole. To pursue primarily academic questions would not, in the view of the investigator, have been true to the terms of his appointment. He had been chosen to assist the peoples of India in their day-to-day agriculture on which their whole existence depended; to confront them with items of remote Mendelian or other theory would have been no use at all. Such topics are properly pursued at a university or other suitable centre of higher learning: an Experiment Station has quite different functions.

The nature of research and the way it is approached will depend on the aim pursued. The word 'scientific' is truly applied where correct and accurate methods are in use throughout, where previous knowledge is wide and abundant, where facts are never disguised but accepted and ranged as they emerge, where there is the ability at once to master detail and to read principle from the detail. To all these requirements the Howard researches conform generously; the work done was outstandingly fundamental, but, as time went on, less and less narrowly academic.

Rejoicing in his somewhat unusual title of Economic Botanist Sir Albert aimed at improving the crops grown and sold throughout the sub-continent of India. This practical aim was taken in no narrow spirit; even the, as yet, scarcely explored problems of monsoon cultivation, or the untouched sphere of improvement of tropical plant species, did not suffice for the whole programme. Were the grains, cotton, indigo, tobacco, fruits, nuts, fodders, when reaped to be eaten or consumed by the producer or were they to be stored, to be transported, to be sold at home or abroad? To pursue all produce to its ultimate destination and to see that it was so brought into existence as to satisfy whatever might be the further conditions of its handling or sale was as much the duty of the Economic Botanist as the obvious task of making things grow. This voluntary extension of his own duties was quite original in Sir Albert Howard. It drove him to curious initiatives -- intervention in the confused Indian railway system for the transport of fruit, technical devices for packing, drying of vegetables for army use, examination of peasant storage bins, prolonged contact with the British millers and final pursuit of his own wheats down to the form of the baked loaf on the breakfast table.

Such trade and technical aspects were actually only a part of his conception of the whole social setting of agricultural research in India. Among those western scientists who were brought to India to fulfil Lord Curzon's ideal of serving the Indian communities, Sir Albert Howard was one who deliberately and consciously started with this aim in front of him and stressed it more emphatically year by year. He never ceased to put to himself the question: were the final fruits of his work suitable for those to whom they were being offered? Was it within the scope and ability of the Indian cultivator to copy them? Had he the necessary tools? Were his oxen strong enough to draw the new implements? Could he afford the new seeds? Could he, illiterate as he was, be trusted to see with his naked eye in the field, without being expected to read a fly-sheet, that one wheat was better than another? Given the right answers Sir Albert had faith that any worthwhile suggestion would earn an immediate and lasting success and was adamant in opposing the fashionable complaint that the peasant must be 'educated' or even bullied into acceptance of Experiment Station results. He believed fundamentally in peasant shrewdness or perhaps he would have called it peasant wisdom, but was almost equally determined that from the other side only very clear improvements should be popularized for adoption, and entirely opposed to the stupidity of launching a stream of small Experiment Station successes, following rapidly on each other, all very much of the same kind, and thoroughly confusing to the average recipient. In this, as always, he showed great common sense and above all stood for a genuine and sincere relationship between experimenter and cultivator; nothing irritated him so much as the professional vanity which sacrificed this essential position to the temptation of publishing small temporary research triumphs.

It was from much the same point of view that towards the end of his career in India he adopted the unusual principle of recommending the discharge of well-trained and experienced manual and field workers from an Experiment Station staff. Most Stations would make a point of retaining such workers as indispensable. In Sir Albert Howard's view it was a duty to send them out as a constant stream, especially in a country like India where they would be the most natural and successful agents for the popularizing of knowledge. This idea was systematized at the Indore Institute of Plant Industry, where the giving of certificates was arranged, and where also 'cultivators' weeks' were started, to bring the neighbouring public into contact with the work accomplished.

Is it surprising that with these wide views in his mind, having tested and proved their worth, having been proclaimed as a pioneer in model Experiment Station management, Sir Albert Howard on his return to this country was horrified to find agricultural research elaborate, finicky, 'fragmented', and very much out of touch with the farming world (a condition which has since improved), in fact, to use one of his favourite phrases, devoted to 'learning more and more about less and less'? Add to this that it had become less concerned with the improvement of crops than with the salvage of what there was from disease and pest; that it was being recruited en masse by an army of workers who, from the nature of the case, could have but scant idea of the real problems to be solved. He launched out into frank criticism, which became more decided as he found to his astonishment that the world of Western agricultural science was a closed world to itself arrogating a superior position, very confident of its authority, and not at all willing to listen to any of the new ideas which experience abroad might suggest. This could have been called the battle of the frogs and mice had the results -- British agriculture -- been what they ought: the returned traveller found a falling-off so terrible as to cause him to recall with bitter contrast the old agriculture of his youth.

What would have been Sir Albert Howard's position had fate caused him to remain at home there to carry out his work? It is impossible to say. He might have fitted better into his surroundings and, assuming that he had acquired a leadership comparable to that he earned in India, might have done much to keep British agricultural research more on a level with practical needs. But much would have been lost. It was precisely because he worked away from Western agriculture that Sir Albert gained that enormously wide understanding, so much so that there was seldom a distant agricultural puzzle referred to him in later life on which he could not, in a letter from London, give some useful suggestion, often ideas both fundamental and ingenious. He himself never ceased to acknowledge the inestimable advantage he had gained by watching the operations of agriculture in tropical climates, where results are far more certain, usually more rapid, and where the sanctions of Nature on faulty practices are infinitely more devastating and therefore more instructive than anything that can be observed in temperate zones. This severe apprenticeship was, in Sir Albert's view, the making of a scientist, and to the end of his life he considered that fortune had apportioned to him an exceptional favour in putting him to work among the peasants of the East.

At first I had hoped that the best picture of my husband's work could be given by verbatim extracts from the scientific papers referred to. But examination showed this to be impossible. Papers were poured out at a rapid rate, as research went on, each new paper bringing something but also involving much repetition. Work was so intense that there seldom seemed time to pause and sum up, and although three books were written in India and another on leaving the country, two were short books mostly for students and two on quite special subjects. I have therefore made it my duty to go through all papers as carefully as possible in order to extract a general picture, incorporating as many verbatim passages in Sir Albert's own words as seemed possible. It is a disadvantage of which I am quite conscious not to have had a scientific training; at the same time it is not altogether absurd to see some value in being in exactly the same position as a number of my readers, namely, without special knowledge but profoundly interested in the subject. One thing has helped me, the fact that Sir Albert, even in his earliest days, wrote plain lucid English; his matter frequently lacks arrangement, due probably to pressure of work, but his meaning is always clear, and I am therefore able to offer my services, as was said on one famous occasion, in the spirit of 'the honest broker', towards the interpretation of his great work.

Next: 1. Career and Work in India

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