Whose Wednesday: Allan Octavian Hume

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Today we celebrate the birthday of the British ornithologist Allan Octavian Hume.

Hume was born on 6 June 1829 at St Mary Cray, England, the son Maria Burnley and Joseph Hume, a radical member of the Parliament. He was educated at home until he was 11 and then attended the junior school of University College London (UCL) from 1840 to 1844. Later he attended the UCL itself from 1844 to 1846, studying medicine and surgery, and then spent two years at the East India Company College, Haileybury, from 1847 to 1848.

In 1848, Hume sailed to India and joined the Bengal Civil Service at Etawah in the North-western Provinces (currently Uttar Pradesh), serving as a district officer. In 1853, he married his wife Mary Anne Grindall.

Having shown interest in natural history from early life, Hume started a personal collection of bird specimens in India. Nine years after arriving in the country, he has started 181 free schools in Etawah with more than 5 thousand students. The same year, he faced the Indian Rebellion of 1857, becoming involved in several military actions. During this time, his bird collection was destroyed, but he started it afresh after the incident and planned to survey and document the birds of the Indian subcontinent. From 1856 to 1867, he was Collector and Magistrate of Etawah and during this time he made several expeditions to collect birds, leading him to accumulate the largest collection of birds in the world, which was housed at his home in Rothney Castle on Jakko Hill, Simla. In 1863 he stated that imprisoning juvenile deliquents only turned them into hardened criminals and led to the creation of juvenile reformatories for those individuals.

From 1867 to 1870, Hume was Commissioner of Customs for the North West Province and in 1870 became the Director-General of Agriculture. He was supported by Lord Mayo, the viceroy of India at the time, and made many suggestions to improve agriculture in the country. With the help of Lord Mayo, Hume negotiated with the Secretary of State of India for setting up a Department of Revenue, Agriculture and Commerce and Hume was made secretary of this department in 1871, moving to Shimla. Lord Mayo was murdered in 1872 and Hume lost support for his work, but he continued reforming the department.

In 1873, Hume started to publish the journal Stray Feathers, a journal of ornithology for India and its dependencies. In his works published in the journal he described many new bird species.

Hume was very outspoken and did not fear to criticize the government when he thought it was wrong. This reduced his freedom when Lord Northbrook succeeded Lord Mayo as the viceroy and the situation worsened even more when Lord Lytton succeeded Lord Northbrook. In 1879, while going again against the authorities, Hume was dismissed from his position as secretary by Lord Lytton’s Government.

Moving back to the North-West Provinces, Hume did not resign immediately from service, apparently because he needed the salary to be able to publish The Game Birds of India on which he was working at the time. In 1883, one year after retiring, he wrote an open letter to the graduates of the Calcutta University and called them to form their own national politival movement and this led to the first session of the Indian National Congress in Bombay in 1885. Later, in 1887, he stated that he considered himself a Native of India.


Hume in 1889.

Still in 1883, while returning from a trip, Hume discovered that many pages of the manuscripts that he maintained over the years had been stolen by a servent and sold off as waste paper. This let him completely devastated and made him began to lose interest in ornithology. Things got even worse when a landslip caused by the heavy rains damaged his museum and many specimens. He then wrote to the British Museum, wishing to donate his collection, but imposed certain conditions, one of which was that the collection should be inspected and packed by the zoologist Robert Bowdler Sharpe (1847–1909) and that Sharpe’s rank and salary should be raised due to the work he would have. The British Museum couldn’t afford all the demands. In 1885, however, after finding out that Hume himself destroyed almost 20 thousand specimens (because they were damaged by beetles), Sharpe got alarmed and the Museum’s authorities let him visit India to supervise the transfer of the specimens to the British Museum. The material consisted of 82 thousands specimens, of which 75,577 were placed in the museum.

Hume left india in 1894 and settled in London. He died on 31 July 1912, aged 83, and his ashes were buried in the Brookwood Cemetery.

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Collar NJ, Prys-Jones RP (2012) Pioneer of Asian Ornithology, Allan Octavian HumeBirdingAsia 17: 17–43.

Wikipedia. Allan Octavian Hume. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Octavian_Hume >. Access on June 6, 2018.



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