How a set of 19th century Tibetan maps came into possession of a travelling doctor

A recently discovered cache of letters could reveal how a set of Tibetan maps which were some of the first of their kind ended up in the possession of a doctor from Dundee.

During his life Thomas Alexander Wise managed to acquire a collection of hand drawn maps which are considered some of the first documents to chart Tibet.

There is still no conclusive evidence how Wise attained these maps and added them to his vast collection of Eastern antiquities which this summer was exhibited at the McManus Art Gallery Dundee.

But now a newly released cache of letters could shed light on how a Dundonian doctor ended up with these priceless artefacts in his possession.

Letters written by Dr Wise could explain how he acquired his collection of Tibetan maps
The priceless Tibetan maps in Dr Wise’s collection
The maps are some of the earliest depictions of Tibet to fall into European hands

One of the most comprehensive visual representations of Tibet

“The 55 ethnographic and cartographic images of the Wise collection are the most comprehensive set of large-scale visual representations of mid-19th century Tibet.”

Dr Diana Lange is a leading scientist in the field of Tibetan culture and historical cartography based at Humboldt University Berlin. She used Wise’s collection of artefacts to explore the culture that exists beyond the often closed borders of Tibet.

“The main goals of my research are using the Wise Collection as a case study examine the processes by which knowledge on Tibet was acquired and represented.”

Lange credits Wise with collecting one of the most detailed collections of 19th century Tibetan artefacts.

“The 55 ethnographic and cartographic images of the Wise Collection are the most comprehensive set of large-scale visual representations of mid-19th century Tibet.”

Wise’s collection includes artefacts from China, Japan and Egypt
The Wise collection was exhibited in Dundee this summer and has been put on display at the Welcome Trust London and Rubin Museum New York.

Dr Thomas Alexander Wise

Dr Thomas Wise was a physician in the East India Company who through careful study of many subjects became a polymath.

Wise was born in 1802 in Dundee. After graduating in medicine at Edinburgh University he became a physician in the East India Company in 1826.

Among his legacy Wise founded a college in Kolkata and built a vast collection of Eastern artefacts that are now in the possession of the British Library, British Museum and Dundee University.

Dr Thomas Alexander Wise married twice in his life and was made a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in both Edinburgh and London.

Wise and the Tibetan maps

It is still not exactly clear how Wise obtained his collection of Tibetan maps however during her studies Dr Lange discovered Wise may have purchased the maps off a Major in the military branch of the East India Company called William Edmund Hay.

Lange explains that while Wise is the owner of the maps it is Hay who had them made.

“Although Wise played a major role in my research it was William Edmund Hay who commissioned the maps and drawings. Wise acquired them after Hay returned to England.”

The maps are drawn in a pictorial rather than geographical style

Major William Edmund Hay

William Edmund Hay was born in 1805 and joined the army of the East Indian Company as a cadet aged sixteen.

In over twenty years service in the East India Hay rose to the rank of Major.

Hay’s time in the Company led to him travelling extensively across the Western Himalayas.

When he retired from military service he remained in the region becoming a merchant and assistant post master.

Due to his continual presence in the area and through his extensive travels Hay was able to do what very few Europeans had done in recorded history – have maps made that charted Tibet.

The maps drawn by a travelling lama depict the main passage through Tibet used by traders and pilgrims in the 19th century

Hay’s downfall

Hay is described as handsome, popular and a great sportsman in Dr Lange’s studies.

However he made an unfortunate marriage to which he referred in a letter written in 1845.

“I shall merely say that my wife disgraced me and to hide it tried to poison me with arsenic. Foresaid disgrace completely upset me, and sent me on a long travel.”

Along with Hay’s unfortunate choice in marriage he had expensive tastes that crippled him financially.

Hays financial insecurity along with leaving no children is believed to be the principle reasons which allowed Wise to purchase the maps.

Dr Lange says: “we assume Hay sold his Tibet collection including the later Wise Collection now held in the British Library.”

Newly announced letters that could provide the definitive answer to how Wise obtained the maps

The assumption of a transaction taking place between the two men could be confirmed in America.

Lucy Goodpastor, who resides in Indianapolis Indiana, happened to be reading an article written by Diana Lange and discovered that the central figure was her grandfather four times removed Dr Thomas Alexander Wise.

Lucy Goodpastor is Dr Wise’s great great great great granddaughter

A cache of letters written by Wise has been in Lucy’s mother’s possession since 1965.

A note left with an innocuous trunk that contained the letters, written by the wife of Thomas Wise’s grandson, went:

“Have put aside enclosed as interesting, the amazing work of one Thomas Wise. The trunk should not be scrapped without careful study. A man of wide education and so many papers touch on things which are so much of interest today.”

Lucy describes how her family ‘lucked out’ receiving the trunk, which was stored in the attic.

Dr Lange believes there is real possibility the letters could finally show why Hay gave up the maps.

“They could potentially reveal information on the circumstances of the acquisition of the maps and the lama who made them.”

Dr Wise’s letters are currently being examined in North Carolina

Discovering you’re related to a famous person

When asked what it’s like being related to someone of renown Mrs Goodpastor, who visited the Wise exhibit in Dundee, said it was exciting.

Lucy explained it inspires her being associated with a man whose collection, knowledge and travels contributed to understanding a segment of human history.

“It was exciting when we read that this man was of interest. It’s inspiring that this man did what he did. It makes me think ‘gosh, what can my kids do?’”

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