Getting the Wasp into the Cyanide Jar

In his address to the Bombay Natural History Society in 1893, Colonel Charles Thomas Bingham regaled the audience with stories from his recent trip along the Myawaddy Road that ran between British Burma and Siam collecting rare specimens of bird, butterfly and wasp. Using cliched imagery, he wrote of the region’s “unbroken forests” where “no white man has penetrated to their depths.”

Despite setting the scene as if he were an intrepid lone explore, Bingham’s account is no adventure story. His is not a story about brave white men proving their masculinity by overcoming fearsome predators and perilous situations—a theme common to many nineteenth-century imperial hunting narratives. Instead, his account is about minor frustrations and embarrassing moments. Rather than facing a tiger in a manly showdown ending in a gory, bloody death, Bingham writes instead about the more mundane irritating trials of getting a solitary wasp into his cyanide jar.

Illustration from C. T. Bingham, Hymenoptera, vol. 1: Wasps and Bees (Calcutta, 1897)
Source: Illustration from C. T. Bingham, Hymenoptera, vol. 1: Wasps and Bees (Calcutta, 1897)

He does not keep his cool in the face of this adversity. Warning his listeners that collecting insects is often “very trying for the temper”, he confessed that he had, on some occasions, unleashed “an eloquent, if not, elegant flow of language” and “uttered frightful anathemas”. His friend who accompanied him on his trip apparently used such “remarkable” language that “at the spot for hours afterwards the air had a most sulphorous and brimstonic smell about it.”

Nor are his descriptions of events always flattering. He described the sweaty, exhausted state they were in after running through the forest undergrowth chasing numerous evasive flying insects. There was no dignified sporting code involved in killing wasps. He notes that the best way to attract wasps and bees was with “liquid ammonia”, indicating the most “precise” manner of “pouring” it with reference to Hogarth’s Enraged Musician.

Hogarth's Enraged Musician. Source: The Works of William Hogarth: In a Series of Engravings by John Trusler (Project Gutenberg)
Hogarth’s Enraged Musician. Source: The Works of William Hogarth: In a Series of Engravings by John Trusler (Project Gutenberg).

Why did Bingham give such an unedifying description of the work of naturalists? I think that he was trying to connect with his audience. His fellow members of the Bombay Natural History Society would have recognized the trivial frustrations that he described. They may have laughed along knowingly on hearing his account of swearing at wasps and urinating on the ground. Most contributors to the Society’s journal were colonial officials who were amateur naturalists, like Bingham, who was himself an officer in Burma’s forestry department. This sharing of the tedium and indignity of their chosen hobby may have been part of generating a sense of community among them, one not based on their careers but based on scientific endeavors.

This sense of being a community was exclusive. Kept outside of this community were the Asian guides employed by imperial naturalists to find and identify the creatures studied by the Society. Bingham barely mentions his Karen and Burmese guides. As has been argued by Nancy Jacobs with reference to ornithology in early twentieth-century Africa, colonial science was shaped by a racial politics that determined who could and who could not be included in a scientific community. Bingham’s account should be located within this politics.

Five years before this talk, Bingham wrote a short piece for the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society describing some rare wasps and bees he had studied in Burma. One particular passage brings out the tenuous presence of colonized people within this scientific community. He was detailing Vespa Magnifica, a type of hornet that he noted “Burmans and Karen hold… in great fear”. Discussing these beliefs no further he described how, predictably, he was stung in the face in his attempt to take a closer look.

The pain was something dreadful; my whole face and head swoll[sic] up, nausea and violent retching followed, and it was not until twenty-four hours afterwards that the inflammation began to subside. For two months after I was stung I felt the effects, in a numbed feeling on the forehead and cheek, where the stings had entered.

There were somethings colonizers had to learn for themselves.

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