Evans, Evans, Evans and Elephants

A week or so ago I resolved a case of mistaken identity. I managed to separate three different men called Evans, whom I had originally thought were one man. All three had connections to elephants in Southeast Asia in the late-nineteenth century and early-twentieth century.

Evans number one was Griffith H Evans. He was a Welsh vet who lived from 1835 to 1935. He had radical religious views and was sympathetic to the cause of women’s suffrage. During the last decades of the nineteenth century he worked in British India, including Burma, were he was a pivotal in the pioneering bacteriological research that uncovered the parasite trypanosome, which is responsible for a disease called surra in horses, mules and elephants, and sleeping sickness in humans.

Someone, at sometime in the past, has attributed the book Elephants and their Diseases to him, and the attribution has stuck. Elephants and their Diseases was originally published in 1901, with a fully revised second edition appearing in 1910. It is still cited by veterinary studies into the animals. In modern reprints, Griffith is named as the author, as he is in library catalogues across the world. But he didn’t write it.

The 1910 edition gives ‘G H Evans’ as the author, with his title the Superintendent of the Civil Veterinary Department Burma. This would have made Griffith 75, if he were the author, which stuck me as a bit too old to be holding the post of Superintendent. A little research revealed that in 1910 Griffith was in fact lecturing in McGill University in the United States of America. A quick look at the Indian Biographical Dictionary of 1915 showed that instead the author and Superintendent was a man called George H Evans. These two G H Evans, both imperial vets who worked in Burma, have become conflated.

And then, there is the third Evans, about whom I still know little. This one is J H Evans. The image below was attributed to him on the Wellcome Trust’s online image library.

'A newly discovered and captured white elephant, Siam; suckled by a human being' J. H. Evans (Credit: Wellcome Library, London)
‘A newly discovered and captured white elephant, Siam; suckled by a human being’ J. H. Evans (Credit: Wellcome Library, London)

British imperial writers on a number of occasions claimed that Burmese women breastfed animals. This was a claim that was used to portray them as too close to animals, and to justify racist characterisations of the Burmese as backwards. This early-twentieth-century photograph was attempting to give these apocryphal stories some substance, but it is clearly a staged photograph – the scene is set up for the photographer. It is not a candid shot of a local practice. It is an exploitative fabrication.

Given that this was an elephant from Burma’s neighbour Siam, and given the similarity in name, I wondered whether this might have been actually taken by one of the other two Evans. However, after email correspondence with the Wellcome Trust librarians, it seems that it was acquired by the library in 1930 from one J Hamilton Evans from Tipperary (along with a photograph of two elephants having sex, and a deformed Filipino child). Neither Griffith nor George had Hamilton as a middle name.

So, where at one point I thought there might be one Evans, there were in fact three. I’m not sure that this is interesting or useful to anyone else, but I got a lot of satisfaction from disentangling them.


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