Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Reservations about Coult

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Dominik Wujastyk <wujastyk@gmail.com>
Date: Wed, Jul 11, 2012 at 11:02 AM
Subject: Re: TO: vaccination historians FROM: Arthur Boylston
To: John Buder <johnbuder@gmail.com>


Dear John,
Many thanks for attaching the Boylston article. 

Boylston says (2012: 4),
Conclusions
There are two unequivocal accounts of inoculation
in the middle of the 16th century, one Chinese and
one Indian, and each gives a specific place and
name to the initial inoculators. Whether it was in
use before about 1550 is entirely speculative.

The account of Coult isn't "unequivocal" I'm afraid.  Coult says that he has been told that inoculation has been known in Bengal for 150 years, "as near as I can learn."  This is vague.

Then he says that Brahmana records give the first Indian inoculator as "Dununtary."  This is a version of the Sanskrit name that is scientifically transliterated as "Dhanvantari" or in Devanagari as "धन्वन्तरि".  This is the name of a mythological progenitor of the science of medicine.  This assertion is equivalent to claiming, say, that Aesclepius did inoculation.  It cannot be taken at face value as historical evidence, and should be treated as an appeal to a mythological past age by someone who assumed that the ancient sages knew all of medical science.

Coult, writing in Calcutta, placed Dununtary in Champanagar: "a physician of Champanager, a small town by the side of the Ganges about half way to Cossimbazar."  This can't be a place in Bihar.  It has to be somewhere north of Calcutta.  Cossimbazar is in the northern outskirts of modern Berhampur.  So we're looking for a place that used to be called Champanagar, and is somewhere round about Ranaghat, Santipur, Nabadwip or Plassey (as in, "battle of").  Wherever this Champanagar is, if it's between Calcutta and Cossimbazar, it's in Bengal. 

The trouble is, Campanagar (Campā, Campānagara, Campāpura, etc) is normally a reference to the well-known place in Bihar, as Boylston assumes.  I think it's most likely that Coult is wrong about something.  Either he's wrong about the name "Champanagar" or he's wrong in locating it between Calcutta and Cossimbazar.   But the whole thing's moot, really, since Dhanvantari is a mythical character.

With Robert Coult, in 1731, we apparently have a real witness, and a fairly early one.  But before relying on Coult's report, which we get through Dharampal, I would feel more comfortable having eyes-on confirmation of the Coult document.  Years ago, I tried to follow Dharampal's references to the Coult document,
but I drew a blank.  Dharampal says, "It is on ff.271v-272r in Add Ms. 4432 amongst the Royal Society papers in the British Museum."  Now, things are easier because of the internet and the BL's cataloguing.  This reference takes us to item 44 in Add MS 4432.  Could someone who lives in Bloomsbury go and look at the Coult document and get confirmation of it's content?  It's important, since it is our earliest dated account of inoculation in India.  Dharampal was a good scholar, but it would be good to see the original document.

Ralph W. Nicholas's book
Fruits of Worship: Practical Religion in Bengal, (2003), pp. 172-177, gives a good survey of the early sources, and refers to the European accounts from the 18th century onwards, Coult's (again from Dharampal), Hollwell's, and others.

I would not say that we have historical evidence for inoculation in India before Coult, i.e., early 18th century. 

I have a dim memory from the time I was writing "Pious Fraud" that there was some evidence that sounded worth investigating in early VOC accounts in Dutch.  But I was not able to follow that up at the time.

I've addressed this to you directly; please circulate it as you see fit.

Best,
Dominik

No comments:

Post a Comment