Lady Amherst, Sarah, Countess Amherst

At a Glance:

Countess, Naturalist, Botanist

Nationality:

British

Bird Names: 1

Region: India

Portrait of Sarah Amherst, 1st Countess Amherst, Thomas Lawrence [link]

CONTENT NOTE: THIS PROFILE CONTAINS DISCUSSION OF GERM WARFARE, XENOPHOBIA, GENOCIDE AND COLONIALISM

The Birds

Lady Amherst’s Pheasant (Chrysolophus amherstiae

Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, Charles R. Knight [link]

The Name:

Lady Sarah Amherst (1762-1838) is a figure who is in some ways fairly unusual among the names listed – while the number of women to be honoured in species names is drastically lower than men, Lady Amherst combined both naturalist and aristocracy, an to be an ideal pairing to position her to have a species named for her. 

However, while there is little readily accessible information regarding Lady Amherst herself, what is far better documented is the terrible history of the Amherst family. Her being in a positions to do this unfortunatly cannot be extricated from her connections to two men. The first, her second husband Baron William Amherst, Colonial Governer of India. But in turn, he attained his position thanks to his immediate predecessor and the man who founded the Amherst Barony on a legacy of genocide; Jeffery Amherst.   

Unfortunately in regards to Sarah herself, though there is reference to her love of ornithology and botany, only a few snippets of details remain. There are mentions that she kept detailed notes on the plants of the botanical gardens in Shibpore and brining back 500 species worth of specimens when she returned to England. Otherwise most accounts focus on the pheasants that bear her name. Two male birds were received as after a series of gifts from the King of Ava (within modern day Myanmar) to a man named Sir Archibald Campbell, who in turn gifted them to her. She kept these two alive for two years before bringing them back to England. Sadly, they only survived a few weeks in London Zoo after arrival.

What this most oft repeated story omits is the context for this gift.  

Sarah’s husband William Amherst had a history of performing badly in positions of power. In 1817-1818 he had lead the British Embassy to China, which utterly failed upon the Jiaqing Emperor refusing to meet him.This is attributed entirely to his refusal to perform the Kowtow ceremony and the embassy was immediatly dismissed from court. This complete diplomatic failure lead to worsening Sino-British relations, helping set the scene for the Opium War.

File:Sir Thomas Lawrence - Lord Amherst - Google Art Project.jpg
Baron William Pitt Amherst by Thomas Lawrence [link]

Yet, this did not prevent him from recieving further influential positions. Following the dismissal of his predecessor, William was dropped into the role of Governer-General of India in 1823. Not long following his arrival India, the Burmese invaded several British controlled territories in Eastern India and Amherst retaliated in what would turn into a long and complex war. Initially believing it would be a short campaign, it ended up a long and costly one resulted in the deaths of approaching a third of the British troops involved and cost so much that it caused an economic crisis in India. Amherst would have suffered severe political reprocussions if it hadn’t been for the intervention of his friends then Prime Minister George Canning and the Duke of Wellington. But to connect this back to the story at hand, a small part of the peace offerings from the King of Ava, a Northern part of Burma, was a gift of the two pheasants.

Yet even before William, the Amherst family was founded upon a basis of colonialist genocide by his immediate predecessor – Jeffery, the First Baron Amherst.  He was a soldier in numerous campaigns including the Seven Years War, expeditions into the Carribean and others. But most infamously was the Pontiac’s War, a conflict where he strongly advocated for genocide against Native Americans, including by the use of early germ warfare.

“Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.”

Letter from Jeffrey Amherst to Colonel Henry Bouquet

“ Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race. I should be very glad your Scheme for Hunting them Down by Dogs could take Effect, but England is at too great a Distance to think of that at present.”

Letter from Jeffrey Amherst to Colonel Henry Bouquet, 16th July 1763

Despite this, Jeffrey he would continue to advance in the British Military, and gaining increasing power including being made a member of the Privy Council and being made a Baron in 1788. This came with the specific caveat that he would be allowed to pass the title to his nephew William.

There is little that directly implicates Lady Sarah in specific wrongdoings on her husband or his uncle, but it cannot be ignored that her marriage into the Amherst family implies an acceptance of some of the most ruthless of British colonialism.

Alex Holt

Sources:

  • The Illustrated London News. 4 April 1857. p. 306. [link]
  • Lady Amherst and her Pheasant, Ahmedabad Mirror, Jan 28th 2019 [link]
  • On an undescribed Species of the Genus Phasianus, by Mr. Benjamin Leadbeater, Dec 2nd 1828 [link]
  • The “Inner Kowtow Controversy” During the Amherst Embassy to China, 1816-1817, Henry Gao
  • Lord Amherst and Pegu: The Annexation Issue, 1824-1862
  • The Journal of Jeffery Amherst, 1758-1763 [link]
  • Jeffrey Amherst and the Smallpox Blankets; Letters discussing germ warfare against American Indians [link]