Invited in 1835 to review the state of agriculture in South India, the Scottish botanist Robert Wight was not short of ideas for its improvement. One proposal, outlined in a letter to the Government of Madras, was to employ convicts as agricultural labourers. Both convict and State, Wight suggested, would benefit: the convict by acquiring a useful skill, the state from the likely increase in crop production. But the right tools for the job were essential. Recollecting the successful introduction of the wheel-barrow and the long hoe, Wight recommended ‘the most perfect implement of the plough kind that has hitherto been produced’. This was Wilkie’s plough, manufactured by the Wilkie family at Uddingston in Lanarkshire, and the winner in ploughing contests across lowland Scotland. This sketch shows the plough’s innovatory tilt: the blade cut the furrow at an angle, which allowed the wheel to roll through the furrow more steadily.
Wight also sought to help skilled convicts. He recommended that prisoners keep up their trades and be given the latest equipment: hammers for blacksmiths, fly-shuttles for weavers. Such tools, he insisted, would ultimately produce ‘better men, and better Artists’. The Government of Madras was less convinced, but agreed to deploy a small number of prisoners to work on government farms.
Wight never forgot the value of proper implements. In later years, when setting up experimental cotton farms at Coimbatore, Madras, he rewarded Ram Sing, who had procured some Bourbon cotton seeds for him, with a complete set of ‘Ploughs, Harrows, Hoes, Yokes and Gear’ (IOR/F/4/1964/86089 folio 37r).
The file about convicts can be read at IOR/F/4/1815/74864.
These files have been digitised as part of the “Botany in British India” project. A complete list of digitised material is available.
H. J. Noltie, The Life and Work of Robert Wight (Edinburgh, 2007)