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Vol. 9(5), pp. 12-16The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalMay 2008

The Story of Paphiopedilum spicerianum

Greig Russell

I have devoted much effort in sorting out the facts from the fancy in the story of the collection of Paphiopedilum spicerianum in About Orchids, a Chat (1893) and The Woodlands Orchids (1901) and I present here my idea of what the real story is, using Boyle's Woodlands version as the basis, replete with its wonderful Victorian prose, and changing only those facts which I have found to be incorrect; incorporating material from the Chat version, the version in Arthur Swinson's Frederick Sander: the Orchid King and my own research presented above. It was not necessary to make very many changes, and most of this writing is exactly as Boyle set it down.


by Frederick Boyle, revised by Greig Russell

The annals of Paphiopedilum spicerianum open in 1878, when Mrs. Sarah Spicer, a lady residing at Putney Heath Highlands, Surrey (later to become part of Greater London), asked Messrs. Veitch to come and see a curious flower, very lovely, as she thought, which had made its appearance in her son Herbert's green-house in Godalming, Surrey, and which he had just brought up to show her. Harry James Veitch came; with no extravagant hopes perhaps, for experience might well make him distrustful of excessive enthusiasm. But in this instance it was more than justified, and, in short, he carried off the marvel, leaving a cheque for seventy guineas behind. I may remark that paphs are easy to cultivate. They are also quick to increase. Messrs. Veitch hurried their specimen along, and divided it as fast as was safe. To say that the morsels fetched their weight in gold would be the reverse of exaggeration--mere bathos.

Importers sat up. The circumstances gave no clue, Messrs. Spicer were and are large manufacturers of paper; there is no visible connection betwixt paper and Indian orchids. Importers were, however, not without a hint to direct their search in this case. It was said that the treasure had arrived amongst a quantity of Paph. insigne. Therefore it must be a native of the Himalayan region--Assam, Darjeeling, or Sikkim, no doubt. There are plenty of persons along that frontier able and willing to hunt up a new plant. A good many of them probably received commissions to find Paphiopedilum spicerianum.

At St. Albans, they were more deliberate. It is not exactly usual for ladies residing in Putney Heath Highlands to have a stunning new species of orchid to hand. When such an event happens, one may conclude that they have relatives or intimate friends in the district where those orchids grow, and it will hardly be a waste of time anyhow to inquire. Frederick Sander called on Mrs. Spicer in Putney sometime in the late spring of 1881. Aside from his all-consuming passion for orchids, he had a father- and brother-in-law who were in the paper making business, so there was much of common interest to chat about with Mrs. Spicer. Turning the discussion to the East, Mr. Sander was able to discover that this lady's son was a tea-planter, with large estates in the Cachar district of Assam. With the address in his pocket, Sander returned triumphantly to St Albans and immediately dispatched Mr. Ignatz Förstermann, a newly-engaged, 27-year-old collector of Prussian origin, to India by next mail.

In the autumn of 1881, Ignatz Förstermann arrived at Pathemara Tea Estate, 18 km. east of the town of Silchar in Cachar district, a property bordering onto the Barak River. Orchids must be classed with ferae naturae in which a landowner has no property. But it is not to be supposed that a man of business will tell the casual enquirer where to pick up, on his own estate, weeds worth seventy guineas each. Förstermann did not expect it. Leaving his baggage at the dak bungalow, he strolled afoot to the large and handsome mansion indicated. Mr. Spicer was sitting in the verandah, and in the pleasant, easy way usual with lonely men who very rarely see a white stranger of respectable appearance, he shouted, "Are you .looking for me, sir? Come up!"

Förstermann went up, took an armchair and a cheroot, accepted a comforting glass, and sketched his experiences of the road before declaring even his name. Then he announced himself as an aspirant tea-planter, desirous to gain some practical knowledge of the business before risking his very small capital. In short, could Mr. Spicer give him a 'job'?

"I'm afraid not," said Mr. Spicer. "We have quite as many men in your position as we can find work for. But anyhow you can look round and talk to our people and see whether the life is likely to suit you. Meantime, you're very welcome to stay here as my guest. If you've brought a gun, my manager will show you some sport; but he's away just now. Oh, you need not thank me. In my opinion it's the duty of men who have succeeded to help beginners along, and I am sorry that I can't do more for you."

Förstermann remembers a twinge of conscience here. It may be indubitable that orchids are ferae naturae. But they have a distinct money value for all that, and to remove them from the estate of a man who gives you a reception like this! Anyhow, he felt uncomfortable, but to find the thing was his first duty. Possibly some arrangement might be made, though he could not imagine how.

The invitation was accepted, of course, and a week passed very pleasantly. But Förstermann could not bring his host to the point desired. Several times they observed Paphiopedilum insigne whilst riding or driving about the neighbourhood. Mr. Spicer even remarked, when his attention was called to it, that he had sent a number of plants home; but nothing followed. Then the manager returned, and the same night an appointment was made to go after duck on the morrow.

Förstermann turned out at dawn, but his companion was not ready. He gave the explanation as they rode along.

"We had another chelan last night--you have learnt the meaning of that word, I daresay!--a faction fight among our people. The workers on this estate come mostly from Chota Nagpur, and thereabouts. They're good workers, and not so troublesome as the local Assamese once they've settled down. But there's generally a bother when a new gang arrives. We tell our agents to be very careful in recruiting none but friendly clans. Young Mice and Fig Leaves we find best among the Oraons, Stars and Wild Geese among the Sonthals." Forstermann was puzzled, but he did not interrupt. "It's no use, however. They take any fellow that comes along--and between ourselves, you know, considering how many of those scamps bolt with the contract-money and never enlist a soul, we haven't so very much to complain of. It's a bad system, sir!"

"Well, when they get here, a mixed lot, they find half a dozen mixed lots established. We have, to my knowledge," reckoning on his fingers, "Tortoises, Tigers, Crows, Eels, Grass-spiders, Fishing-nets--ay, and a lot more, besides Stars and Wild Geese, Of course, they quarrel at sight, and we don't interfere unless the chelan gets serious.

What's the good? But, besides that, there is a standing provocation, as you may say. Some of our workers have been with us many years. They don't care to go home--for reasons good, no doubt, but it is not our business.

Well, two of these fellows have married--one, a Potato, has married the Stomach of a pig--" [See Note 1 at the end of this essay.]

"Eh?," Förstermann could not contain himself.

"Those are their families, you know." The manager, quite grave hitherto, laughed out suddenly. "Of course, it seems mighty droll to you, but we're accustomed to it. Each clan claims to be descended from the thing after which it is named. You mustn't ask me how the Stomach of a pig can have children. That's beyond our understanding. The point is that certain of these stocks may not intermarry under pain of death--that's their law. So you may fancy the rumpas when strange Potatoes arriving here find one of their breed--" he laughed again. "It does sound funny, when you think of it! Last night, however, when the usual disturbance broke out - a new gang arrived yesterday, you know--Minjar, the Eel, who is the other fellow that has married some girl that he ought not to, declared that he had made blood-brotherhood with the chief of the Lushais across the river, who would come to avenge him if he were hurt, and I fancy that's not quite such nonsense as you would think. I saw Minjar there that time I got the orchid they're making such a fuss about at home."

Förstermann heard no more of the tale. The orchid! They reached the pool, and he shot ducks conscientiously, but his thoughts were busy in devising means to lead the conversation back to that point.

There was no need of finesse, however. At a word the manager told everything. He it was who found the Paphiopedilum which had caused such a fuss, when shooting on the other side of the Barak River--beyond territory over which the British could exert any control.

Struck with its beauty, he gathered a plant or two and gave them to Mr. Spicer. It took him several days to reach the spot, but he was shooting by the way. Tigers abounded there--so did fever. The Lushais were as unfriendly as they dared to be. For these reasons Mr. Spicer begged him not to return. The same motive, doubtless, caused the planter to be reticent towards others. With a clear conscience and heartiest thanks Förstermann bade his host farewell next day. He had a long and painful search before him still, for his informant could give no more than general directions. The plant grew upon rocks along the bed of a stream to the south-west of Mr. Spicer's plantation, not less than two days' journey from the river--that was about all. The inhabitants of the country, besides tigers, were savages.

Many a stream did Förstermann explore under the most uncomfortable circumstances, wading thigh-deep, hour after hour, day after day. I am sorry that I have not room even to summarise the long letter in which he detailed those adventures.

To search the upland waters would have been comparatively easy; he might have walked along the bank. But the Paphiopedilum grew in a valley; and nowhere is tropical vegetation more dense than in those steaming clefts which fall from these northern spurs of the Lushai hills. To cut a path was out of the question; the work would have lasted for months, putting expense aside. It was necessary to march up the bed of the stream.

Förstermann ascended each tributary with patient hopeful­ness, knowing that success was certain if he could hold out.

And it came at length to one so deserving; but the manager had wandered to a much greater distance than he thought. After wading all the forenoon up a torrent which had not yet lost its upland chill, Förstermann reached a glade encircled by rocks steep as a wall--so steep that he had to fashion rakes of bamboo wherewith to drag down the masses of orchid which clung to them. It was Paphiopedilum spicerianum!

Then arose the difficulty of getting his plunder away. After much journeying to and fro, Förstermann engaged thirty-two Lushais, half of them to carry rice for others along those hill tracks, where 25 lbs, is a heavy load. So they travelled until, one day, after halting at a village, the men refused to advance. The road ahead was occupied by a tiger--I should mention that such alarms had been incessant; in no country are tigers so common or so dangerous as in this region. Forstermann drove them along; at the next bit of jungle eight threw down their loads and vanished. He found himself obliged to return, but eight more were missing when he reached the village. There was no other road. Gradually the poor fellow perceived that he must abandon his enterprise or clear the path. At sunset, they told him, the brute would be watching--probably in a tree, described with precision. Förstermann spent the time in writing farewell letters--making his will, perhaps. Towards sunset, he took a rifle and a gun and sallied forth.

The Lushais assured him that there was no danger--from this enemy, at least--until he reached the neighbourhood of the tree; but we may imagine the terrors of that lonely walk, which must be repeated in darkness, if he lived, or if the tiger did not show. But luck did not desert a man so worthy of favour. He recognised the tree, an old dead stump overhanging the path, clothed in ferns and creepers. Surveying it as steadily as the tumult of his spirit would allow, in the fading light he traced a yellow glimmer among the leaves. Through his field-glass, at twenty yards' distance, he scrutinised this faint shadow. The tiger grew impatient--softly it raised its head--so softly behind that screen of ferns that a casual wayfarer would not have noticed it. But it was the hint Förstermann needed. With a prayer he took aim, fired--threw down his rifle and snatched the gun. But crash--stone-dead fell the tiger, and its skin is a hearthrug in Mrs. Sander's drawing-room on which I stood to hear this tale.

Thus it happened that on Thursday 26 January 1882 a small pot of Paphiopedilum spicerianum was sold, as usual, for sixty guineas at Stevens's. On Thursday 16 February, 1882, 410 plants came under the hammer, allowing the buyers to acquire large plants of this treasure for ten guineas, and smaller ones for much less.

Note 1: Why may a Potato not marry the Stomach of a pig?

To answer this fascinating question, it is necessary to understand something of the ethnology of those people who laboured on the Indian tea plantations.

British tea-planters were a shrewd bunch. They realised that by employing local Assamese workers in their tea gardens, it would be too easy for such workers to up and leave as it suited them, as their homes would be virtually around the corner. Labour was rather brought in from quite some distance, the distance creating a situation tantamount to an indentured labour system.

It was found that the aboriginal tribes from Chota Nagpur in central India were best suited to the needs of tea-planters. These tribes included the Oraons, who speak a Dravidian language and the Santals and Bhumijs, who speak dialects of the pre-Dravidian Munda language, a language more closely related to certain tongues spoken in parts of Myanmar and the Malay Peninsula than anything heard elsewhere in India. These tribes are each divided into a number of clans or septs that are totemistic and derive their names from natural objects, mostly fauna and flora. The clan members ascribe their origin to such objects and must protect the object that forms the totem. Amongst the Oraons, clans are matrilineal, whereas amongst the Munda-speakers they are patrilineal. In both cases, however, the rules regarding marriage state that one must marry outside of one's clan, but within one's tribe; there are also other specific clan-combinations which are disallowed. These rules tend to be overlooked these days, but were still firmly entrenched in the 19th century.

In modern India, clan names have frequently become the surnames of people derived from these tribes. Amongst the clan names mentioned in the Boyle piece, most can be verified as valid, such as these given here in transliteration and translation.


Sunthals Bhumijs

It soon becomes obvious that the marriage between a Potato (Bhumij) and a Stomach of a pig (Oraon) is inter-tribal, and was therefore definitely disallowed. It amazes me how accurate and detailed Boyle's writing is regarding information on these clans and tribes. G.R.

Copyright © 2008 Greig Russell