The forgotten letters, the doctor from Dundee and the collection of rare Tibetan maps

-Dundonian doctor Thomas Wise’s hand drawn 19th century Tibetan maps
-Some of the first of their kind to come into European possession
-Newly revealed letters could explain how Wise came to own the maps

A recently revealed cache of letters could help explain 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 but a newly released cache of letters could shed light on how a Dundonian doctor ended up with these rare artefacts in his possession.

The maps are believed to have been drawn by a travelling lama
The letters, written by Wise in the 19th century could reveal how he came to own the maps

A collection of Tibetan maps and the mystery over how Wise acquired them

“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, a Tibetologist and historical cartography expert from Humboldt University Berlin 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.”

The sheer amount of artefacts collected and the means by which Wise accumulated them has helped explain much about how Europeans first gained access to the closed borders of Tibet at a time when the need for information was paramount in a political dispute between the Russian and British Empires known as the Great Game.

Dr Lange explains: “In the mid-19th century very little was known about Tibet and during the so-called Great Game competing empires tried to get access to the region and collected all available information (“knowledge”) about the area. The Wise Collection represents a case study of such knowledge and its production.”

Dr Diana Lange a Tibetologist from Humboldt University Berlin led studies on the Wise Collection

Wise was born in Dundee in 1802 and graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University. In 1826 he joined the East India Company and was stationed near Kolkata.

While in India Wise became an expert in many subjects and collected a vast array of Eastern objects including a set of maps charting Tibet that were some of the first of their kind to fall into European hands.

But there is still an ongoing mystery how Wise acquired these maps. Dr Lange explains while Wise is credited as the former owner and donator of the maps he was not involved in their creation.

“Wise was the name giver of the collection. It was a man called William Edmund Hay who commissioned the maps. Wise acquired them after Hay returned to England.”

Wise donated the maps to the British Library.
Drawn in a pictorial style the maps highlight infrastructure, rivers and monasteries

The letters left in the attic

A newly announced collection of letters which were stored in a tin-lined trunk owned by one of Wise’s direct descendants could reveal how the maps ended up in Wise’s hands.

The letters are currently in North Carolina

The letters were kept in England where Wise’s son Frederick lived and Dr Lange says they could reveal intimate details about how the maps changed hands.

“The letters could potentially reveal information on the circumstances of the acquisition of the maps and objects from Tibet brought back by Wise.”

Family now in the USA

Through a coincidence that took place almost four thousand miles from Dundee it could soon be revealed how these Tibetan maps ended up in Wise’s possession.

Lucy Goodpaster, based in Indianapolis Indiana, is the great great great granddaughter of Thomas Wise and it was her strain of the family who inherited the letters.

Lucy explains while she knew her great great great grandfather was important due to the designation letters listed on the brass plate attached to his portrait she had no idea of how much significance Wise was until she ‘googled’ him.

“I had not fully comprehended the significance of his 19th century polymath status until earlier this year when I googled his name to see if there was anything on the internet about him.”

Lucy Goodpaster is Dr Wise’s great great great grandaughter

It was through this internet search that Lucy discovered Dr Lange and the extensive research being done into Wise.

“That search brought me to Diana Lange who shared with me her writings and she let me know about the exhibit that was being held at The McManus Museum in Dundee.”

Lucy, who was one of the VIP guests at the exhibit this summer, described being related to a noted figure of the past as ‘inspiring’.

“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?’”

Find out more about Thomas Wise’s life and how the maps were created in The life of a historic polymath, the Great Game against Russia and the army Major forced to give up a set of rare maps‘.

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