The maps and diaries listed above follow the explorations of Dr. Johann W. Helfer in the Mergui Archipelago from 1838 to 1839. Then, as now, these islands off the southern coast of Myanmar remained largely a mystery to the outside world. Remote, ungovernable, a hiding place for both pirates and their victims, the archipelago was usually viewed as a dangerous navigational hazard to be avoided.
As a naturalist hired by the British East India Company, however, Dr. Helfer had a unique opportunity to explore the region in its natural state. With a dedicated crew of local people from the port of Mergui, he spent months investigating a world that had been closed for decades by wars between Burma and Siam. Then in 1840 he explored the equally remote Andaman Islands, where tragedy struck this intensely curious young scientist from Prague.
The purpose of our project is to document his voyages, but more importantly to serve as a portal for knowledge of the islands. Always isolated and often forbidden, the Mergui Archipelago offers rich sources of study in the wide variety of subjects investigated by Dr. Helfer. Geography, botany, zoology, marine biology, geology, history, archaeology, cultural studies, linguistics, ethnography—nothing was beyond his interest, and neither was he blind to the human aspect of the islands in all their triumph and tragedy. As the archipelago begins to open to the world again, we hope our project will assist people in understanding this beautiful, unique, fascinating region.
The text of Dr. Helfer's voyages was derived primarily from an 1841 copy of his journal found in the British Library (reference below). Hand-written in English, this document was entered into East India Company correspondence shortly after Dr. Helfer's murder. The journal's primary purpose was to report on natural resources which could be exploited to defray the enormous cost of the British occupation of Tenasserim. Yet it was also intended as a contribution to knowledge and science, and thus was sent to the Asiatic Society in Bengal for publication.
Unfortunately, the copy was lost, and the journal was never published in its original form. Though a faulty German translation was made in 1859, the words transcribed here are those written by Dr. Helfer himself. Corrections deemed necessary for clarity have therefore been kept to a minimum.
The Andaman voyage, however, is a translation of the 1859 German text in the Mitteilungen der Kaiserlich-Königlichen Geographischen Gesellschaft, vol. III. This seems to have been taken directly from Dr. Helfer's unedited field notes, which are substantially different in tone and provide a better look at the explorer in addition to his explorations. No other copy of the Andaman voyage has thus far been found, though the details are confirmed in other documents of the India Office Records.
A diverse team of scholars, students, researchers, and other knowlegeable people have generously contributed their time to explain the material. Their comments and photographs can be found throughout the text, while more photos and geographical details are located along the route maps. Please hover over underlined words or click a point on the map to open the relevant pop-up window.
A very special thanks also goes to Patrick Oswald and the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) / OneMap Myanmar for their support in developing and hosting these WebApps and maps.
We'd like to also express our gratitude to the British Library, in particular to Dr. Margaret Makepeace and the librarians and staff of the Asian & African Studies Reading Room. Without their kind assistance, these IOR documents and many others needed to make sense of them could never have been located.
Further appreciation goes to the Library of the University of California, Los Angeles, in particular to Imaging Services and the Southern California Regional Library Facility. The beautiful map on this page is an example of their fine work.
Gratitude is also due to Paul Strachan and Pandaw Cruises, whose Andaman Explorer now provides a fantastic way to experience the Mergui Archipelago in person. Mr. Strachan has been an indefatigable friend of Myanmar history and culture for decades.
We are also very thankful to all the people who have so generously assisted our efforts, including the Myeik Regional Guide Association, Tam Aungkohtwe of Green Neco Travel & Tours (Myeik), André Schneegaß of Life Seeing Tours (Myeik), Professor William Gervase Clarence-Smith of SOAS, University of London, Professor Susanne Renner of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Dr. Richard Šípek of the National Museum in Prague, Anthony Leslie of UCLA, and the maps department of the National Library of Scotland. This list is far from complete, but we will continue to improve it as the project continues.
The text of this work is based primarily on two documents from the India Office Records of the British Library : “Report on the Islands of the Mergui Archipelago by the Late Dr. Helfer” (IOR/F/4/1926/82649) , and “Further papers on the researches of Dr. Helfer, and the murder of him by hostile natives in the Andaman Islands” (IOR/F/4/1852 ; coll. 78316), which are courtesy of the British Library. These documents contain public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
The journal of Dr. Helfer's Andaman voyage is a translation from the relevant section of “Dr. Johann Wilhelm Helfer's gedruckte und ungedruckte Schriften über die Tenasserim Provinzen, den Mergui Archipel und die Andamanen-Inseln.” This was published in Mittheilungen der Kaiserlich-Königlichen Geographischen Gesellschaft, volume B, third issue. Franz Foetterle, editor. (Vienna; 1859). It can be found on archive.org here.
Background map: "Tenasserim Province, District of Mergui." Pharaoh & Co., Madras. An Atlas of the Southern Part of India. (Engraved by J. & C. Walker; London; 1854). Image courtesy of the Library of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dr. Helfer's Voyages will always remain a work in progress as our knowledge continues to evolve.
Any suggestions, contributions or corrections can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Susanne S. Renner, Department of Biology, University of Munich (LMU), 80638 Munich, Germany, email email@example.com
Jan Vilém, Johann Wilhelm, or John William Helfer was born in Prague on 5 February 1810 and studied medicine at the universities of Prague, Vienna, and Trieste. In 1833, he married Mathilde Pauline Baroness des Granges (c. 1801– 9 July 1881; Pataky, 2014), and the couple decided to travel from Trieste through the Middle East towards India (Nostitz, 1873, 1877, 1878). Their first collections were made near Smyrna, now Izmir (Turkey) from where the Helfers continued to Aleppo (Syria). There, Helfer was invited to join an expedition under the command of Colonel Francis Rawdon Chesney (1789–1872) as the expedition’s biologist. The goal was to explore a faster trade route to India, as the Suez Canal had not yet been built (Jones, 1921). The expedition departed down the Euphrates on 22 March 1836, stopping in Balis (Syria) from 19 April to 7 May, which permitted Helfer to send two crates of specimens to the British Museum, but these were never received (Jones, 1921; Mlíkovský, 2012). On 21 May, a tornado caused one of the two ships to catch fire and sink, destroying Helfer’s remaining collections from this region (Naumann, 2006; Mlíkovský, 2012; Guest, 2013). Even so, Helfer’s observations from 1836 are valuable and indicate that, since then, several bird species, including the Bald Ibis, Chukar Partridge and Common Starling, have stopped breeding along the Euphrates (Mlíkovský, 2012, with a map of Helfer’s Euphrates observation stop-overs).
The Euphrates Expedition continued, but the Helfers left it while travelling from Syria to the Persian Gulf to begin the six-week voyage to Calcutta (Nostitz, 1878). They stopped in Baghdad (Iraq) and Bushire, now Bushehr (Iran) followed by a prolonged stop in Muscat (Oman) from where they arrived in Calcutta via the Hooghly River on 20 August 1836. Arriving in Cassipoor (now Kashipur or Cossipore, a suburb of Calcutta), they stayed with acquaintances of Colonel Chesney and later at the Chowringhee Boarding House in Calcutta, where Helfer botanized and lectured on natural history. His lectures caught the attention of John Clark Marshman (1794–1877), editor of the weekly Friend of India, who encouraged the East India Company (EIC) to hire Helfer (Nostitz, 1878). One of the EIC’s earliest business interests were nutmegs and other spices produced by British settlements in Penang, Malacca, Amboina, Sumatra, and further islands of the Malay Archipelago, and the importance of these plant resources had led the Company to recommend the founding of a Botanic Garden in Calcutta in 1787, which became the nucleus of the modern botanical exploration of India (Desmond, 1992; Thomas, 2006).
Following Marshman’s recommendation, the EIC hired Helfer and tasked him with reporting on the natural resources of the Tenasserim provinces, which Britain had acquired as a result of the Anglo-Burmese war 1824–1826 (Zöllner, 2002), an area including Martaban (now Moke Ta Ma), Yeh (Ye), Tavoy (Dawei), Mergui (today the city of Myeik in the Tanintharyi Region), and the Mergui Archipelago, all in present-day Myanmar, the interior of which was, scientifically-speaking, terra incognita. Of particular interest to the EIC was the potential for teak forestry, tin mining, and agriculture.
The Helfers left Calcutta on 21 January 1837 aboard the Elizabeth and travelled down the Hooghly River and across the Bay of Bengal to Moulmein (Mawlamyine), the British headquarters, where they arrived on 8 February (Zöllner, 2002). Fulfilling his obligation to the EIC, Helfer wrote a series of detailed reports on his observations in the provinces (Helfer, 1838a, b, 1839, 1840a, b, 1858), which describe his discovery of tin near Lake Loadut (Inle), 110 miles NNE of Moulmein and in the region north of the Packchan (Kraburi) River, on Domel (Letsok-aw) Island, and along the Boukpeen (Bokpyin) River. Helfer also reported that the timber trade was causing the destruction of the teak forests and that state intervention was needed to prevent further damage – a report that contributed to the development of sustainability goals in Indian forestry (Bryant, 1994).
Sometime during 1837, the Helfers started a plantation near Mergui (with the land ownership unclear; Zöllner, 2002), focusing on palm trees, coffee and nutmegs. On 13 of January 1840, Helfer departed from Mergui with his wife’s brother for what would turn out to be his last and fateful trip to the Andaman Islands. When on 30 January 1840 the ship’s party was visiting a beach on the western side of the Andamans, most likely in the vicinity of Paget Island, they were attacked by a group of natives. Everybody managed to swim back to the ship, except for Helfer who was struck by an arrow while swimming and drowned. His body was never recovered (Nostitz, 1878, p. 241. Helfer, 1859, pp.388-90)
Helfer’s insect, bird, and plant collections reached Europe by two routes. The first was via the Bohemian Museum in Prague, today in the Czech Republic, the second was through the EIC (below). Following her husband’s death, his widow Pauline executed his will, which he had signed on 16 April 1835, before their departure and donated her husband’s collections to the Bohemian Museum (Palacký, 1843; Frankl, 1844). In 1844, she married Count Joseph Dittmar von Nostitz-Rokitnitz (1794–1871). She also published two widely read volumes recounting their travels and adventures in the Middle East and Indo-Burma, originally in German (Nostitz, 1873, 1877), then in an English translation (Nostitz, 1878). A reprint came out in 2004, this time illustrated with eight watercolors by Pauline and J.W. Helfer, inherited by descendants of Pauline’s sister. These show an Armenian woman painted by Pauline, the harbor of Port William near Jarabulus, Syria, on 11 December 1835; two views from the mouth of the Pakchan River (today Kraburi River on 13 April 1839, both painted by Helfer himself; a site near Bokpyin, painted by Helfer on 16 April 1839; the Tenasserim Mergui Archipelago near Kawye Island, painted by Helfer on 17 April 1839; and two views of the Lenya River, painted by Helfer around 9 March 1839. The Nostitz archive in Pilsen likely to contains more documents on Helfer’s work and collections (Wolcott and Renner, 2017).
The animal and plant collections were shipped from Mergui to Prague and comprised 55,249 natural history specimens, representing 47,833 beetles belonging to 1,700 species, 609 bird skins, 14 mammal skins, 508 Lepidoptera, and 6086 herbarium specimens or collections, representing at least 574 species (Palacký, 1843). It is possible that Helfer made up to 10 duplicates per collection (6,086 divided by 574), but it is more likely that he made fewer duplicates and recollected the same plant species several times (Wolcott and Renner, 2017). Because of his inconsistent, or lacking, specimen numbering and absence of labels, the precise number of his collections and specimens remains unclear, however, the number of c. 600 plant species seems fairly certain, as this is also the number collected by Helfer given by J.F. Royle in a report to the EIC in 1849 (Desmond, 1992: 191). More details on Helfer’s botanical material in Prague and Munich can be found in Wolcott and Renner (2017).
Eighteen years after Helfer’s death, in 1858, the East India Company was abolished and “eleven wagon-loads” of dried plants and many drawings were shipped from the cellars of East India House from Calcutta to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew near London (Desmond, 1992). Kew’s director, Joseph Hooker, supervised the identification of the material and the distribution of duplicates, which were given Kew distribution numbers and labels with Helfer’s name as the collector but without any location more precise than ‘Tenasserim and Andamans’. Furthermore, Helfer’s specimens were combined with those of William Griffith and Hugh Falconer, and so cannot be distinguished in the catalogue published by Hooker (Hooker, 1865). The Kew archives have no information on the precise number of Helfer collections received from Calcutta (Philippa Lewis, Kew Library, Art and Archives, email to S.S.R. of 5 February 2016). However, the volume and quality of the Helfer herbarium is apparent from Hooker’s (1865) assessment, “his collections were contained in four immense cases, and [as] these had never been opened, their contents had fared better than those of Griffith and Falconer. These specimens are large and excellent, generally speaking well preserved and packed, and though injured by damp, are in very good condition.”
The collections were distributed from Kew to important herbaria worldwide, including M (herbarium acronyms here follow the Index Herbariorum (http://sweetgum.nybg.org/science/ih/), where 2,200 specimens collected by Griffith and Helfer were received in 1869 (Wolcott and Renner, 2017) and CAL, where they arrived in 1862–1863 (this range is printed on the Kew-produced labels of Helfer’s EIC specimens). Based on JSTOR Global Plants (https://plants.jstor.org), duplicates of Helfer specimens (mostly types, and all distributed by Kew) are to be found in the following herbaria: A, B, BM, BR, BUT, C, CAL, CM, F, G, GB, GH, GOET, K, KIEL, L, LCU, LE, LZ, M, NMW, NY, P, S, and W.
Helfer is one of the earliest botanists to collect in Burma, the Andaman Islands, and the Mergui Archipelago (Frodin, 1984). Of Helfer’s 6,086 plant specimens or collections, representing at least 574 species from near Calcutta, Burma (Tenasserim), Mergui, and the Andaman Islands (Frankl, 1844), the majority appears to reside in Prague (PR), coming from his personal herbarium that Pauline had shipped from Mergui to Prague. Most PR Helfer material was never distributed, however, and no Helfer notebooks or other written material have been located in the herbarium archives (O. Šída, curator of PR, personal communication to S.S.R., January 2016).
Many of the plant species Helfer collected on the Andamans turned out to be new species (e.g., Mathew, 2000), although it is not known how many species from there he collected in total. Thus, JSTOR Global Plants (https://plants.jstor.org/) contains 92 images of Helfer specimens, at least 71 of them type specimens. In addition, some 140 species of plants are named in Helfer’s honor (IPNI https://www.ipni.org, accessed on 25 October 2015), and I believe that most or all of them are based on his collections. The flora of the Andamans is still incompletely known (Prasad & al., 2009; Reddy & al., 2004).
Why did Helfer’s collections from southern India, Burma, and on the Andaman Islands, made extremely early (between 1836 and 1840), receive less attention than those of, for example, Hooker, Griffith, and Falconer from India? Several aspects appear to have contributed to Helfer’s historical obscurity. First, at the time of his murder, most of his collections, both those stored at his house in Mergui and those on the premises of the EIC, were inadequately labelled and, inevitably, unidentified. Second, while numerous duplicates were distributed from Kew, the more abundant material in Prague appears not to have been separated and distributed. Third, Helfer’s few surviving labels rarely indicated a collecting locality, and even when they did, this information was usually not transcribed to duplicate labels. Even the small number of his specimens that have been digitized and made available online shows that Helfer’s Burmese and Andaman herbarium contains early records of economically important plants in which he was particularly interested.
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