Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Edward Hamilton Aitken
born 16 August 1851 in Satara, India, died 25 April 1909 Edinburgh.
Edward Hamilton Aitken was a humorist, naturalist and writer of books especially on the wildlife of India. He was well known to Anglo-Indians, by his pen-name of Eha, as an accurate and amusing writer on natural history subjects.
Eha was born at Satara in the Bombay Presidency on August 16, 1851. His father was the Rev. James Aitken, missionary of the Free Church of Scotland. His mother was a sister of the Rev. Daniel Edward, missionary to the Jews at Breslau for some fifty years. He was educated by his father in India. His higher education was obtained at Bombay and Poona. He passed M.A. and B.A. of Bombay University first on the list, and won the Homejee Cursetjee prize with a poem in 1880. From 1870 to 1876 he was Latin Reader in the Deccan College at Poona, which accounts for the extensive acquaintance with the Latin classics so charmingly manifest in his writings. That he was well grounded in Greek is also certain, for the writer, while living in a chummery with him in Bombay in 1902, saw him constantly reading the Greek Testament in the mornings without the aid of a dictionary.
He entered the Customs and Salt Department of the Government of Bombay in April 1876, and served in Kharaghoda (the Dustypore of the Tribes), Uran, North Kanara and Goa Frontier, Ratnagiri, and Bombay itself. In May, 1903, he was appointed Chief Collector of Customs and Salt Revenue at Karachi, and in November, 1905, was made Superintendent in charge of the District Gazetteer of Sind. He retired from the service in August 1906.
He married in 1883 the daughter of the Rev. J. Chalmers Blake, and left a family of two sons and three daughters. His daughter Rhona Aitken also became a writer and wrote a book on Indian cooking The Memsahib's Cookbook
He travelled through the jungles on the hills near Vihar around Bombay and wrote a book called The Naturalist on the Prowl.
In response to an appeal for information on rats due to plague in Bombay, he wrote an article for The Times of India (July 19, 1899), in which he threw a flood of light on the subject of the habits and characteristics of the Indian rat as found in town and country. He was the first to show that Mus rattus, the old English black rat, which is the common house rat of India outside the large seaports, has become, through centuries of contact with the Indian people, a domestic animal like the cat in Britain.
In 1902 he was deputed, on special duty, to investigate the prevalence of malaria at the Customs stations along the frontier of Goa, and to devise means for removing the Salt Peons at these posts, from the neighbourhood of the anopheles mosquito, by that time recognised as the cause of the deadly malaria, which made service on that frontier dreaded by all.
It was during this expedition that he discovered a new species of anopheline mosquito, which after identification by Major James, I.M.S., was named after him Anopheles aitkeni. During his long service there are to be found in the Annual Reports of the Customs Department frequent mention of Mr. Aitken's good work. He was asked to study the malarial conditions prevailing on the frontier of Goa; and when during the last two years of his service he was put in literary charge of The Sind Gazetteer. In this book one can see the light and graceful literary touch of Eha frequently cropping up amidst the dry bones of public health and commercial statistics, and the book is enlivened by innumerable witty and philosophic touches appearing in the most unlikely places, such as he alone could enliven a dull subject with.
On completion of this work he retired to Edinburgh. He died after a short illness on April 25, 1909.
He refused to be depressed by his lonely life. "I am only an exile," he remarks, "endeavouring to work a successful existence in Dustypore, and not to let my environment shape me as a pudding takes the shape of its mould, but to make it tributary to my own happiness." He therefore urged his readers to cultivate a hobby.
It is strange that Europeans in India know so little, see so little, care so little, about all the intense life that surrounds them. The boy who was the most ardent of bug-hunters, or the most enthusiastic of bird-nesters in England, where one shilling will buy nearly all that is known, or can be known, about birds or butterflies, maintains in this country, aided by Messrs. B. &. S., an unequal strife with the insupportableness of an ennui-smitten life. Why, if he would stir up for one day the embers of the old flame, he could not quench it again with such a prairie of fuel around him. I am not speaking of Bombay people, with their clubs and gymkhanas and other devices for oiling the wheels of existence, but of the dreary up-country exile, whose life is a blank, a moral Sahara, a catechism of the Nihilist creed. What such a one needs is a hobby. Every hobby is good—a sign of good and an influence for good. Any hobby will draw out the mind, but the one I plead for touches the soul too, keeps the milk of human kindness from souring, puts a gentle poetry into the prosiest life. That all my own finer feelings have not long since withered in this land of separation from 'old familiar faces,' I attribute partly to a pair of rabbits. All rabbits are idiotic things, but these come in and sit up meekly and beg a crust of bread, and even a perennial fare of village moorgee cannot induce me to issue the order for their execution and conversion into pie. But if such considerations cannot lead, the struggle for existence should drive a man in this country to learn the ways of his border tribes. For no one, I take it, who reflects for an instant will deny that a small mosquito, with black rings upon a white ground, or a sparrow that has finally made up its mind to rear a family in your ceiling, exercises an influence on your personal happiness far beyond the Czar of the Russias. It is not a question of scientific frontiers—the enemy invades us on all, sides. We are plundered, insulted, phlebotomised under our own vine and fig-tree. We might make head against the foe if we laid to heart the lesson our national history in India teaches—namely, that the way to fight uncivilised enemies is to encourage them to cut one another's throats, and then step in and inherit the spoil. But we murder our friends, exterminate our allies, and then groan under the oppression of the enemy. I might illustrate this by the case of the meek and long-suffering musk-rat, by spiders or ants, but these must wait another day. ... The 'poor dumb animals' can give each other a bit of their minds like their betters, and to me their fierce and tender little passions, their loves and hates, their envies and jealousies, and their small vanities beget a sense of fellow-feeling which makes their presence society. The touch of Nature which makes the whole world kin is infirmity. A man without a weakness is insupportable company, and so is a man who does not feel the heat. There is a large grey ring-dove that sits in the blazing sun all through the hottest hours of the day, and says coo-coo, coo, coo-coo, coo until the melancholy sweet monotony of that sound is as thoroughly mixed up in my brain with 110° in the shade as physic in my infantile memories with the peppermint lozenges which used to 'put away the taste,' But as for these creatures, which confess the heat and come into the house and gasp, I feel drawn to them. I should like to offer them cooling drinks. Not that all my midday guests are equally welcome: I could dispense, for instance, with the grey-ringed bee which has just reconnoitred my ear for the third time, and guesses it is a key-hole—she is away just now, but only, I fancy, for clay to stop it up with. There are others also to which I would give their congé if they would take it. But good, bad, or indifferent they give us their company whether we want it or not.
He was an indefatigable worker in the museum of the Bombay Natural History Society, which he helped to found, and many of his papers and notes are preserved for us in the pages of its excellent Journal, of which he was an original joint-editor. He was for long secretary of the Insect Section, and then president. Before his retirement he was elected one of the Vice-Presidents of the Society.
He maintained an aquarium and made Sunday-morning expeditions to the malarious ravines at the back of Malabar Hill to search for mosquito larvae to feed its inmates. Mr. Aitken investigated the capabilities for the destruction of larvae, of a small surface-feeding fish with an ivory-white spot on the top of its head, which he had found at Vehar in the stream below the bund. It took him some time to identify these particular fishes (Haplochilus lineatus), and in the meantime he dubbed them "Scooties" from the lightning rapidity of their movements, and in his own admirable manner made himself a sharer of their joys and sorrows, their cares and interests. With these he stocked the ornamental fountains of Bombay to keep them from becoming breeding-grounds for mosquitoes, and they are now largely used throughout India for this very purpose. It will be recognised, therefore, that Mr. Aitken studied natural history not only for its own sake, but as a means of benefiting the people of India, whom he had learned to love, as is so plainly shown in Behind the Bungalow.
T. R. Bell (a naturalist-crony and co-worker of Eha) writing of him after his death said: "He was a good man in every sense of the word; a strongly religious man, a pleasant companion, broad minded, exceedingly tolerant of the weaknesses of others, gentle and lovable and a rare example of a man without a single enemy." This, some may say, is praise "in the language of the tombstones", but even to those who know him well only from his books the praise does not appear exaggerated. In the company of his fellow men Eha was a quiet person--the observer rather than the talker-which is what one might expect. Also, perhaps for that reason, he was an ideal companion on rambles into the country. "He whose ear is untaught to enjoy the harmonious discord of the birds, travels alone when he might have company"--so Eha himself wrote and with him as companion his friends, we may be sure, never suffered from this form of loneliness. In his home he always kept many pets and a friend, Surgeon-General Bannerman, often found himself having to go on unpleasant trips to the "primeval forests of Cumballa Hill" to look for mosquito larvae to feed the fish. In appearance Eha has been described as a "long, thin, erect, bearded man...with a typically Scots face lit up with the humorous twinkle one came to know so well." A photo- graph taken in 1902 shows a fringe of hair encircling a baldhead--a condition which "Kemp’s Equatorial Hair Douche" appears to have been unable to prevent.
His books include
- The Tribes on my Frontier
- An Indian Naturalist's Foreign Policy (1883)
- Behind the Bungalow (1889)
- The Naturalist on the Prowl (1894)
- The Common Birds of Bombay (1900)
Preface to Eha's CONCERNING ANIMALS AND OTHER MATTERS by Surgeon-general W.B. Bannerman I.M.S., C.S.I.
Preface to Eha's COMMON BIRDS OF BOMBAY by W. T. Loke
Rhona Aitken, The Memsahibs Cookbook. ISBN 0861888855
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