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James Forbes archive: A voyage from England to Bombay with descriptions in Asia, Africa, and South America

Call Number: MSS 66

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises thirteen manuscript volumes, each of which contains numerous illustrations as well as transcriptions of letters originally composed while Forbes was in India, with a particular concentration on the natural history of India. The manuscript was finished in 1800, although most of the drawings are those done at the time of the voyage, circa 1765-1776. Volume 1 includes a presentation page, dated 11 April 1800, in which Forbes gives the set to his daughter, Elizabeth Rose?e Forbes. Elizabeth would later edit and revise the second edition of Forbes's Oriental memoirs (1834).

Volume 1 includes Forbes's "Preface in finishing these volumes in the year 1800," which notes, "... six years have elapsed since I began these volumes ... I know well the numerous defects which the eye of criticism must discover in these epistles; they were commenced before the age of sixteen, and continued through various employments in the East India Company's service, during a series of eighteen years ... I sent the letters to my friends as they were written, and they are still in possession of the originals; they were chiefly intended to elucidate the drawings which accompanied them; and in these volumes I have preserved a numerous collection of my humble attempts to delineate the various subjects in natural history, from the imperial elephant to the smallest insect ..."

The recipients of the letters are not specified, though it seems there were several different recipients, and scholars suggest that some of the letters were also circulated once in England. The letters contain numerous transcriptions of poetry, ranging from translations of the classics to more contemporary selections. Forbes also includes a few poems authored by himself, most often addressed to specific individuals, such as his sister Elizabeth. Some letters include transcriptions of official communications, such as letters to local rulers discussing ongoing conflicts, or texts addressed to Forbes from local dignitaries thanking him for services. The volumes also include maps, both engraved and hand-drawn, Persian and Sanskrit transcriptions, and a wedding invitation from a local ruler.

The 13 volumes include almost 520 watercolor illustrations and a number of colored and uncolored engravings and engraved and manuscript maps. The illustrations fall into several categories. Many concern natural history, documenting the different plants and animals Forbes encountered throughout India and in his journeys to and from the subcontinent. While some images are clearly chosen for their curiousness—which Forbes notes in his letters—others represent a more systematic scientific or economic interest: in Gujarat, for example, Forbes provides drawings of most of the principal grains cultivated, alongside remarks on their utility or average yield.

The precise quality of the natural history drawings help explain Forbes's reputation as one of India's leading amateur naturalists of the period. Forbes's full-page drawing illustrating the mulberry, with butterflies and other insects, is a fine example of his work in the present volumes. He notes some basic facts about the plant: "In Hindoostan, we have not the large rich Mulberry common in England ... Ours grows on a much larger tree than the former, with a rich foliage, the fruit sweet and luscious, hanging like caterpillars on the branches, long and thin, varying in color of red, white, and brown" (letter 65, 1 June 1778, vol. 10, p. 16). At the bottom of this drawing, Forbes includes an excerpt from The botanic garden, the famous poem written in 1792 by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather.

Many of the other drawings are ethnographic, architectural, or topographical. Forbes includes views of Indian individuals in isolation—often labeled as a type, e.g., a mendicant or brahmin—as well as views of individuals engaged in religious practice and other everyday activity. He draws views of prominent buildings and structures, such as mosques or the cave structures at Elephanta, and includes them alongside prospects of specific areas, such as the Gujarat countryside, and of each of the cities he passes. While traveling to and from India, Forbes includes images of the shoreline, as well as the many islands and ports he passes along the way.

Some of the images pasted into the volumes are not by Forbes. Most notable are two sets of images in volume twelve. The first is a series of figures—primarily religious and military—drawn in isolation, as if on flash cards, and labeled in English, Persian, and Hindustani. Forbes ascribes the illustrations to an unnamed brahmin. The second is a series of drawings Forbes attributes to various Chinese artists: the images depict flowers, hunting trophies, and boats adorned with banners bearing Chinese text. Numerous prints by artist James Wales (1747-1795) also appear through several volumes.

The letters themselves present a relatively coherent narrative of Forbes’s time in India. They begin with Forbes’s departure from England, to assume his first position with the East India Company. The voyage is detoured by ship troubles, however, and the next segment of the narrative takes place in Brazil. Forbes observes Brazilian society, industry, and natural history before departing again for India. His voyage takes him through South Africa before landing him at Bombay.

From this point onward, much of Forbes’s writing consists of comments on his official duties, and observations on the natural history and local customs of each area he lives in or visits. He spends a considerable amount of time describing the religious practices of Hindus, and likewise comments extensively on Indian religious sculpture and architecture, both Hindu and Muslim. He then joins East India Company forces involved in the First Anglo-Maratha War as a secretary, and the ensuing letters recount the day-to-day development of the military campaign. Shortly after the conclusion of this period of hostilities, Forbes returns to England to recover his health.

Forbes’s letters resume when he departs again for India. He describes his journey and the stops along the way, as well as his trip to assume his post in Gujarat. His letters provide a wide array of details on the economic, natural, and religious life of the province, and many are organized by town, as Forbes gradually makes his way through each of the areas under his supervision. A few letters also include more detailed accounts of his administrative duties: they give fine-grained narratives of his interactions with local rulers, both in times of conflict and peace. The narrative concludes with the British withdrawal from Gujarat, at which point Forbes’s post is terminated and he returns to England, no longer in Company employ. The final letters describe his return journey, and his emotions on returning at last to his native country.


  • circa 1765-1800

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


40 Linear Feet (13 volumes)

Language of Materials


Persistent URL

Biographical / Historical

James Forbes (1749-1819) was born in London and educated at Hadley, Middlesex, in basic commercial skills before joining the East India Company and sailing for India. Once in South Asia, Forbes served in various capacities, including chaplain and secretary to Company forces involved in the First Anglo-Maratha War (1775-1782). Following these postings, Forbes returned to England to recover his health, though he travelled again to India in 1777, assuming a position in the province of Gujarat, where he oversaw revenue and agricultural production. His sister Elizabeth (1753-1812) accompanied him and married his close friend John Dalton (1748-1782), a connection which Forbes celebrates in his letters. After the Treaty of Salbai in 1782, the East India Company gave up control over Gujarat, a move which Forbes found tragic. His post no longer in existence, Forbes left with his sister for England, never to return to India.

Back in England, Forbes settled in Great Stanmore, Middlesex, married, and, in 1788, had a daughter. He installed a collection of Hindu religious sculpture on the grounds, one of the (if not the) first of its kind in England. He traveled throughout England and the continent, and spent much of his time transcribing and illustrating his letters from India in a series of 150 folio volumes. These manuscripts served as the basis for Forbes’s illustrated Oriental memoirs (published in 4 volumes, from 1813 to 1815), but do not seem to have survived. It appears likely that he dismantled them, copying text as he needed, and cutting out drawings and watercolors, either for an engraver to copy for publication or for remounting in other volumes, such as the set he presented to his daughter Elizabeth on her twelfth birthday (the present collection).

Forbes’s daughter eventually married Marc René de Montalembert, a Frenchman who had served in the British army, and who was later appointed the French ambassador to Württemberg. Forbes joined his son-in-law on his journey to his new post but, at Aix-la-Chapelle, grew sick and died.

Forbes had joined the East India Company during a period of volatility and change. His involvement with the Company occurred prior to Charles Cornwallis’s reforms—the latter’s appointment to the Bengal Presidency began in 1786—which attempted to institute stricter regulation of Company practices, such as the restriction of private trade. Prior to this, however, Company officials regularly engaged in private trade, various forms of corruption, and more fluid interactions with indigenous populations. Some British officials married Indian women, many of whom acted as critical mediators between the Company and local rulers. Forbes also describes his involvement in the First Anglo-Maratha War at length, a conflict which foreshadowed the coming dominance of the English in India’s military, economic, and political spheres. This dominance, however, was not yet entirely achieved: for example, Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), the “Tiger of Mysore,” would continue to offer armed resistance to British expansion until his death in combat in 1799.

Forbes’s return to England would also have come during a period of uncertainty and transition regarding public attitudes towards India and British imperial ambitions. Between 1788 and 1795, the attempted impeachment of Warren Hastings, former Governor-General of India, spurred widespread debate over precisely what role India would play in British life. The prosecution alleged widespread corrupt practices in India, a sentiment reflected in a general distaste for the new wealth that flowed back to the metropole, illicitly acquired by Company officials caricatured as “nabobs” (after the Indian term nawab).

Guide to the James Forbes archive: A voyage from England to Bombay with descriptions in Asia, Africa, and South America
compiled by Lewis West; edited by Francis Lapka
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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