Spotlight: General Gordon’s Tree of Life

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By | From the Collections

Welcome to Spotlight, a regular series of blog posts that shine a light on some of the treasures in the Wellcome Library. You’ll be able to explore our ever-growing range of digitised materials, hear more about our new acquisitions and discover things you never knew we had.

Artocarpue incisa (breadfruit). Ink and Watercolour 1882 By: General Charles George Gordon Published:  -

Artocarpue incisa (breadfruit). Ink and watercolour by General Charles George Gordon, 1882. Wellcome Library ref. no. WMS.6899/13.

General Charles George Gordon (1883-1885 ), ‘Gordon of Khartoum’, was not the only Victorian Englishman obsessed with investigating the actual sites of the stories in the Bible, but he was certainly the most famous. Where had Noah’s Ark come to rest after the Flood? Where was Golgotha, the place of Christ’s burial? Above all, where on earth could the Garden of Eden have been?

While commanding the Royal Engineers in the British island colony of Mauritius during 1881-2, Gordon drew this fine sketch of a Breadfruit branch with cross section of the fruit (Western MS.6899/13). At the top right-hand corner he penned the following lines from Paradise Lost:

“And all amid them stood the tree of life
High, eminent, blooming ambrosial fruit
Of vegetable gold”.

For Gordon was convinced that he had solved this greatest of all biblical mysteries by discovering the site of the Garden of Eden in the Indian Ocean.

This was an odd location, you might think, so far from the known sites of biblical events. But Gordon developed a hypothesis, based on close reading of the book of Genesis, geographical knowledge, and place name etymology that the original Garden had been none other than the small island of Praslin in the Seychelles, some one thousand miles north of Mauritius.

Praslin is the only place where Lodoicea Maldivica – the Coco de Mer – grows: this Gordon supposed was the Tree of Knowledge, whose forbidden fruit Adam and Eve ate. But what of the Tree of Life, whose fruit sustained the first humans in the Garden? This Gordon identified as the Breadfruit tree- Artocarpus Incisa – a tree admittedly not unique or even indigenous to the region, but for him a plausible candidate in view of its nutritious fruit and abundance in Mauritius.

But how could the Garden of Eden have been located in the middle of an ocean? The answer was the Flood, which had clearly drowned the surrounding land.

The sketch was acquired by Sir Henry Wellcome together with a number of other items relating to General Gordon, mainly autograph letters (MSS.6894-6901), in the 1920s and 30s. Gordon, the Victorian hero who gave his life for the people of the Sudan, was a figure close to Sir Henry’s heart. Whether he would have had any truck with his biblical theories is another matter.

Author: Dr Richard Aspin is head of Research and Scholarship at the Wellcome Library.

Richard Aspin

Richard Aspin

Dr Richard Aspin is Head of Research in the Wellcome Library. An archivist and manuscripts curator by training, he has spent many years working with the Library’s collections, as both custodian and researcher. His main motivation for studying the past is to help rescue forgotten lives from the enormous condescension of posterity.

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