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The Rise of the Raj and the Fall of Shergotty

The farmer who witnessed the fall of Shergotty prays over the impact hole. “Shergotty” is written in Sanskrit around the Hindu god of the sky, Varuna. Painting by Dorothy Norton.

“I at first doubted whether it was a true aerolite or not, in consequence of the colour being different from the one that fell in the Furreedpore District in 1850… but I find from Mr. Peppe, the Sub-Deputy Opium Agent, that there can be no doubt of its being a true aerolite, as he has seen two that fell in the District…”

This account is found in a deposition submitted in late 1865 by W.C. Costley, Deputy Magistrate of Shergotty, India to  his supervisor A. Hope, Magistrate of Behar.

Had Mr. Peppe not been in the neighborhood that day to oversee the opium crop, perhaps W.C. might have tossed the “wrong-colored” rock into the River Ganges.

The deposition was accompanied by an aerolite, and both were presented to the Asiatic Society of Bengal by S.C. Bailey, Officiating Secretary to the Government of Bengal, during their meeting of December, 1865. He also gave them communication No. 829, “with enclosures from the Commissioner of Patna, containing some particulars connected to the fall of the stone…”.

The nearby city of Patna was the British government’s opium processing center for product bound for China.

Bailey was fulfilling a government edict hoping, “… your Society will be good enough to cause all the particulars of interest connected to this Aerolite to be communicated to the authorities of the British Museum.”

That was code for “send the rock to Story-Maskelyne, Keeper of the Minerals”.

Theater from the Sky

The farmer’s field where Shergotty landed was just a gritty corner of a grand stage stretching from somewhere on Mars to London, Calcutta and Shanghai. The actors you will meet in this performance filled roles both memorable and execrable.

Before the lights dim, let’s open the playbill and review the literature regarding the fall of Shergotty.

The Calcutta Gazette was quoted in the August, 1866 Report of the 36th Meeting of the British Assoc. for the Advancement of Science, “A stone fell from the heavens accompanied by a very loud report, and buried itself in the earth knee-deep. At that time, the sky was cloudy and the air calm, no rain. The stone has been forwarded by the government to the Asiatic Society of Bengal.”

The Costley deposition and aeolite are mentioned in The New Englander, New Haven and Yale Review vol XXVII, P. 134, 1868.

Referenced in “The Academy and Literature” vol.2, p 540, 1871, an analysis by Dr. F. Crook in 1868 purported to be of Shergotty is discovered to be of a specimen from another fall.

On February 22, 1872, Von G. Tschermak submitted the first analysis of the achondrite writing of its recovery, “There is no information on the accompanying circumstances.”

Shergotty is found to the south in this map of Bihar, India

Most recently, Charles Meyer’s (NASA) Mars Meteorite Compenium relates, “The Shergotty achondrite fell on August 25, 1865 at 9:00 a.m. near a town called Shergahti in Bihar State, India after detonations were heard (Graham et al. 1985). Duke (1968) refers to several stones with fusion crusts, but this has not been confirmed.

But the 1865 Costley account was the missing Rosetta stone, archived somewhere in the British library.

In this issue of the Meteorite Times, almost one-hundred and fifty-five years after the fact,  you will read the first complete description of the fall of Shergotty, the namesake of the largest class of meteorites from Mars- shergottites.

Shergotty Meteorite on display in Vienna

But before we discover how Shergotty was saved from the meteor-wrong pile by a government-employed drug dealer, it’s imperative to understand the political and cultural environment of the era surrounding this event and examine the key role India’s first scientific associations played in revolutionizing historic attitudes.

Shergotty as written in Sanskrit. Drawing by Dorothy Norton

The Asiatic Society of Bengal Births a National Collection of Meteorites

Sir William Jones (1746 – 1794) founded the Asiatick Society in Calcutta on January 15, 1784, advising thirty European invitees, “The bounds of investigations will be the geographical limits of Asia, and within these limits its inquiries will be extended to whatever is performed by man or produced by nature.”

What evolved into The Asiatic Society of Bengal became instrumental in collecting and studying meteorites. First, those from India, then others acquired in exchange from around the world, breaking an intensely competitive duopoly formed by the British and Vienna museums. Shergotty became one of the first Indian meteorites not to be wholly and dutifully transported by the British bureaucrats governing India to the Natural History Museum in London.

For fans of trivia, besides the Shergotty meteorite fragments and the report of its fall, other gifts to the Society during the fateful meeting included:

  • a “brass image of the Dhurm Rajah of Bhotan”, a populist leader worshipped by the Bhooteas (Bhutanese). The statue was “preserved from destruction” when the British captured a fort on the frontier of India.
  • twelve copies of “a brief analytical review of the Administration of Lord Mornington, afterwards Lord Wellsley.”
  • and lastly, “from Babu Rajendra Mullick, a dead Gayal.”

A gayal was an oxen never put to work, treated well, then slaughtered and eaten.

Society founder Jones was not born into wealth even though his father was the mathematician who devised the symbol for pi. William graduated from Oxford and became a recognized “Orientalist”, writing history books and articles about past Asian societies. Preceding the American Revolution, Jones journeyed to Paris and met with Benjamin Franklin, but was unable to negotiate a work-around to the Colony’s’ demands. Assigned to Calcutta, he sat as a judge and was knighted for his service.

After Jones’ death, the Asiatic Society opened India’s first public library in 1808 and the country’s first public museum in 1814. In 1829 the Society integrated, opening its membership to Indians.

Libraries amass books and papers. Museums amass collections of objects. The pursuit of these needs resulted in the end of England’s colonial practice of harvesting every object of historic or scientific value from the sub-continent for its own institutions.

By the time of the fall of Shergotty in 1865, the Society was India’s most influential scientific organization, their publications in demand by scholars in Europe. Besides those who sought to belong to this group, the Asiatic Society increased its prestige by offering honorary memberships to influential persons in Europe. Some members of note included:

  • Major H.H Godwin-Austin, famed for performing a difficult topographical survey of India, he had the world’s second highest mountain (now called K-2) named after him;
  • W.J.Herschel, the son of the astronomer, who realized fingerprints could be used for identification;
  • Allan Hume, the ‘father of Indian ornithology’ was the founder of the Indian National Congress, the country’s powerful political party;
  • Isaac Newton;
  • Charles Darwin;
  • H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh.

Meteorite Legends of the Sub-Continent

Meteorites have long influenced Indian culture.

One story tells of two merchants who offer Buddha food and request a souvenir to commemorate the occasion. He gives them a hair and pieces of his nail clippings. Buddha tells them that should a stone fall from the sky, they should erect a pagoda on the site and worship the hair and nails as if they were Buddha himself.

In 1867, a meteorite fall of many stones near a small town in India causes the local people to suspect they are objects of vengeance from an offended God. They gather the fragments, pound them into dust, and throw the pieces into the wind.

Concurrent with the fall of Shergotty is a report of “meteor stones which fell in this Talook” near Bangalor on September 21, 1865. After describing the angle of incline, the witness Mahamed Ali investigates whether the stones were put there by villagers maliciously attempting to alarm their neighbors. Because no similar colored stones are nearby, he is convinced that they are  meteorites.

Kenda, another eyewitness, is picking grass only 200 meters from where one of the stones fell. He had heard the “report of a cannon fired three times” before watching something fall from the sky. He was “extremely terrified, his eyes were closed up from the rush of the smoky dust which rose directly after the fall of the stone, he did not go close to it, because he thought that some calamity had descended from the heavens.” Kenda eventually took yet another eyewitness to the spot were they found something black, half of which was buried in the sandy soil of the field.

“They touched it with a stick. When they found it was safe enough, he took it out of the hole with his hands and brought it to the village.”

It was turned over to the authorities. That meteorite is Maddur L5, two specimens with a combined weight of about two kilograms remain extant.

We also have an account by Bakerooddin Shaikh of the fall of Gopalpur, a stone donated to the Asiatic Society earlier in 1865.

“I had been to the field to fetch home my cattle. All of a sudden a hissing noise… the sound was like that made by the flight of a buzzard. I saw something dark falling on the earth… we picked up the stone, it had buried itself seventeen or eighteen ungoolies (15”) deep under the ground. The stone was not visible from above the hole. I could feel it with a stick. When we picked it up it was warm, not very hot. I picked it up after it had been in the hole for about one dundo, or the time occupied by walking eleven russees (400m) for a khunta, which had to be brought from a neighboring house before we could dig it up.”

An additional account of the event by Alif Shaikh ascribes mythology to this H6 specimen of 1.6 kilograms. “Bakher kept it in a new earthen pot as something extraordinary. We did not make poojah (an offering) to it, we knew not what it was, but as Hindus have several idols, we thought it must be one of them.”

Introducing Adversaries
Thomas Oldham and Nevil Story-Maskelyne

By the 1800’s, England, under the auspices of the East India Company, treated India as private property, managing its resources and establishing and controlling its civil service with a spirit of benign condescension. The sun would never set on an independent India. This style of organization extended to the scientific community, their various disciplines headed by British nationals.

But with the advent of the Asiatic Society, then of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), a change came about. The British colonists heading these organizations realized that they were qualified researchers capable of studying the material at hand. With the opening of India’s first museum in Calcutta, it was felt that items collected in India should remain in India. This included meteorites.

India was considered an unequaled venue to observe falls. Clear skies and a dense population allowed for multiple observations of a single event. As soon as a meteorite fell, researchers, government officials, even the police were sent to retrieve specimens. All haste was made to collect pieces before the indigenous population had a chance to worship or destroy the meteorite. Witnesses were  interrogated as if the strewn field were a crime scene, leaving behind observations both accurate and dubious but an excellent historic record of the times.

These depositions, often coerced under threat, led to recovery of specimens that would otherwise have been lost. Government officials, both British subjects and their Indian counterparts, were strongly encouraged to collect fallen meteorites and take depositions.

The first Indian meteorite to enjoy this complete cycle of observation, deposition and recovery was Akbarpur H4, with 1.8 kg recovered in 1838.

The person most instrumental in acquiring, studying and curating India’s meteorites was Irish geologist Thomas Oldham. Beginning in 1851, Oldham elevated the Geological Survey of India from a collection of papers filling a shoebox to a world-class organization. His countryman Joseph Portlock once said, “I have found him possessed of the highest intelligence and the most unbounded zeal.”

Both the GSI and the Asiatic Society worked to earn a reputation for professionalism and built important connections with researchers and museums throughout Europe and America, much to the chagrin of the British, who believed they owned a monopoly on the study and ownership of all important Indian natural history objects.

Oldham successfully cultivated a relationship with meteoriticist William Haidinger of the Imperial Geological Institute of Vienna, even hiring Austrian geologists to work for the GSI.  But no mention of meteorites appeared in the GSI literature until 1865 and all Indian meteorites not yet forwarded to England remained with the Asiatic Society. Oldham was focused on the regions’ coal reserves and fossils.

While the right to maintain a collection of meteorites in a proposed national museum in Calcutta was a concept gaining popularity, a larger movement was afoot. Many levels of Indian society were growing weary of British dominance.

The first instance of Indian independence was manifest in 1857 when a series of unrelated religious and duty issues sparked spontaneous mutinies within the mixed ranks of the military. For a brief time, small areas within India returned to autonomous rule.

And with these successes, landowners, discouraged by limited social and business opportunities while suffering from outrageously high taxes –  60% to 90% of the “gross produce of the soil”- were encouraged to take up arms.

During a disorganized rebellion, atrocities were committed by both sides. When British troops regained control they sought vengeance. Indian captives were tied to the front of cannons and the fuses were lit. Such stories of unspeakable retribution were received back in Britain as justified revenge.

The East India Company was dissolved in favor of the powerful British Raj (reign in Hindi), and Queen Victoria ruled the land. She wrote of her “feelings of horror and regret as the result of this civil war” and felt that by India becoming part of the Empire, this “should breathe feelings of generosity, benevolence and religious tolerance”.

While the British blamed Muslims for instigating these rebellions, they blamed themselves for trying to institutionalize economic schemes that destroyed the fabric of Indian culture. They now installed policies inclusive of India’s former political hierarchy while simultaneously opening universities and  educating an Indian elite less influenced by the past.

But coincident with Victoria offering opportunity and equality to her Imperial subjects, Nevil Story- Maskelyne was being appointed Keeper of the Minerals for the British Museum. Someone forgot to copy him on her message.

Keeper of the Minerals, Nevil Story-Maskelyne

Story-Maskelyne’s efforts to grow the National Museums’ meteorite collection to be the world’s largest were uncompromising. Proclaiming that he and his staff could best study and curate meteorites, his papers reflect an attitude akin to divine authority. He would claim for Britain everything that fell out of the Bengal sky, “Meteorites have no nationality.”

He and Thomas Oldham were soon to become well acquainted.

The Meteorite Wars Begin –
Colonial Calcutta v Imperialist London

In his seminal paper, “Science and politics of colonial collecting: the case of Indian Meteorites 1856-70”, Savithri Preetha Nair writes, “Story-Maskelyne employed a multi-pronged effort to acquire Indian meteorite specimens in the early 1860s by using science as an alibi to perpetuate an unequal exchange economy. To enhance its national collection of meteorites, the British Museum, represented by Story-Maskelyne, influenced the Government of India to control the activity of meteorite collecting through coercive and legislative means. Collectors, magistrates, police inspectors and medical officers were all enrolled in this extensive collecting network.”

The British Museum Trustees urged the Asiatic Society “to cooperate in improving the National collection… which is only one or two points inferior to that in the Imperial Collection (Vienna)”, and was told to give up its duplicate meteorites, limiting the Society’s ability to trade these for others. For best effect, meteorites would be skillfully sliced in London, not hammered apart in Calcutta.

Acting quickly after his appointment, Story-Maskelyne was able to convince England’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to direct the government of India to turn over all meteorites and depositions to the British Museum. Parnallee LL3.6 and Dharamsala LL6 were the first meteorites to arrive in London under this decree.

After slicing, the Natural History Museum retained twenty-eight pounds of Dharamsala.

One pound was returned to the Indian Museum.

The Bustee Aubrite (courtesy of USNM)

Story-Maskelyne’s exchanges were unashamedly one-sided.  He received three pounds of the Bustee aubrite and twenty-four pounds of Yatoor H5 from the Asiatic Society while returning to the Society mere ounces of both.

Yatoor H5 (courtesy of Peter Marmet)

In 1861 and 1862, the Asiatic Society responded to relentless requests from Story-Maskelyne and sent off eight more meteorites. The British Museum would cut them after preparing casts, and specimens and casts would be distributed to Calcutta and Vienna. Again, the returned “gifts” were modest.

Even the recent advent of not-so-rare-after-all NWA meteorites being traded by dealers for European museums’ prestigious, historic specimens pales besides Story-Maskelyne’s ultimate coup.

An eager, new British governor of Madras would send the entire mass of Parnallee to London in return for a cast.

When Story-Maskelyne heard this news he was ecstatic. To seal the deal, he threw in “two or three good specimens of duplicate meteorites both of iron and of stone”.  The museum in Madras was left with a fragment of Parnallee weighing about three ounces while Story-Maskelyne had acquired the main mass of 130 pounds.

His research on acquired material was not without results, and his other achievements were notable. He developed the reflective light microscope and opened the science to the study of opaque minerals.  This directly helped him discover the mineral enstatite in Yatoor H5. Then in 1862 he named a new mineral in the Bustee aubrite ‘oldhamite’, his intent in honoring ‘competitor’ Thomas Oldham unknown.

But Maskelyne also seemed focused on accumulating as much material as possible, and tripled the meteorites in the national collection.

Now he grew discontented even with the depositions taken from eyewitnesses. When four separate named meteorites were later found to fit perfectly together, he demanded a review of the fall ten years after the fact. George Osbourne, a government official in India, blamed the shoddy reporting on shifting assignments for those in charge, worsened by the rebellion of 1857-1858. Another official blamed  errors in the depositions on the “apathy of Natives and their natural carelessness in noting such events”.

In 1863, Story-Maskelyne transmitted revised instructions to the responsible agencies in India, a precise methodology for preparing depositions and collecting aerolites, all for the benefit of the National Museum in London.

The friction between Oldham and Story-Maskelyne ignited in 1865. Oldham, using his influence as head of the Geological Survey of India, convinced the Indian government to purchase a collection of 223 meteorites from a mineral dealer in England. Upon receipt, India’s meteorites rivaled the collections of Vienna and London as defined by the number of specimens.

Following a proposal by the Asiatic Society, the Indian Museum opened in Calcutta in 1866. The substantial Society holdings in materials biological and mineralogical had found a home and were merged with the GSI mineral and meteorite collections. Shergotty was among the objects transferred to the new site.

Oldham grew bolder. He rewrote the protocols for preparing depositions and collecting aerolites  authored by Story-Maskelyne. Oldham requested that new falls be brought to Calcutta “for distribution” to other institutions.

In 1867 Oldham toured European institutions on a fact-finding mission, realizing that his compatriots doing research in India were as qualified as their European peers.

When Oldham returned home, he and the trustees of the India museum turned the table on Story-Maskelyne making a gift of four meteorite fragments, including Shergotty, to the British.

Story-Maskelyne did not hesitate to publicly rebuke Oldham. In a letter, he made it clear that in the future, Oldham would not be ‘selecting’ anything. There would be no more ‘gifts’, all meteorites would be sent to London where researchers’ abilities surpassed those stationed in Calcutta. Properly cut specimens might be returned as presents to India.

And exhibiting pettiness, he explained that the collection the GSI purchased from the English mineral dealer was unimportant since it only consisted of small examples.

Documents reveal that Story-Maskelyne had negotiated to acquire some specimens of that collection and was outbid at the last moment when Oldham’s group purchased it all.

The nefarious superintendent of the British Museum (National History) Richard Owen approved of these demands, calling it “a great moment in the elucidation of one of the most interesting and obscure problems of Meteorology and Mineralogy’. Owen is best remembered for denouncing the theories of Charles Darwin.

The Asiatic Society didn’t feel Story-Maskelyne’s remarks worthy of comment and ignored them except to suggest that “good science could come from small specimens”.

Their reply maintained that were India to hand over all its meteorites to the British, there would be no incentive for anyone to collect them. The India Museum’s trustees sought “a museum worthy of the Capital of India and a center from which a knowledge of the natural sciences, and interest in their pursuit, may radiate throughout the land”.

In the concluding acts of “The Rise of the Raj and the Fall of Shergotty” you will become a tourist in 19th century Shergotty, Bihar and visit the meteorites’ strewn field, enhanced by an illustration by Dorothy Norton, where the identity of the man who witnessed the fall will be revealed.

Von G.Tschermak’s discovery of a new mineral and the more recent discovery of seifertite in the meteorite will be discussed.

We will detour to Mars at Rover site Meridiani Planum to meet Shergotty’s cousin, Bounce.

The final curtain will fall after an agent of the British opium trade saves Shergotty, adding this tale to the ranks of meteorites’ greatest legends.

Opium Poppy drawing by Dorothy Norton

Kevin Kichinka meditates among the mangoes, due south of Aguas Zarcas, Costa Rica.

Om mani padme hum…

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