Winged Rajahs, Colonels and Dukes

Nov 17, 2010
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Why do Asian butterflies have names such as Sergeant, Red Admiral and Viscount? Because British military men came, collected and christened them.


217 A Commander having a meal at the Officers' Mess!


There are two ways of naming butterflies. The first way, the more formal one, is the use of scientific convention. The second is the so-called “common naming” of butterflies, which uses names that are more familiar or accessible to the layman.

The first method goes back to the 18th century, to the naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linne). Linnaeus pioneered binominal and trinominal – two-name and three-name – taxonomy in the classic work Systema Naturae, a catalogue of all the names of known animals and plants. The 10th edition of Systema Naturae in 1758 is usually regarded as the starting point for the biological classification of animals by family, genus and species.


218 A Cruiser anchored in harbour


But as more amateur hobbyists started collecting butterflies, and the layman began to appreciate nature's flying jewels, the use of English common names spread.


219 An Archduke surveys over his domain


The English common name given to butterflies, however, is always a subject for debate, as these names are coined by amateurs and layman enthusiasts. The well-meaning intention is to give easier and less daunting names that the general public can appreciate and endear themselves to. The downside of this is that we often end up with different common names for the same species across different countries, causing confusion. Hence although English Common Names are ideal for general enthusiasts, scientific names should always remain at the core of butterfly identification.


221 A Dot-Dash Sergeant alert!



How then, did these English Common Names start? In Asia, amateur collectors amassed large collections of insects, amongst which butterflies were undoubtedly a favourite. Many of these collectors were British, particularly from the military. Famous collectors who described new species and wrote articles and books on butterflies in the Indian subcontinent, Malaysia and Singapore were either from the military or were civilians interned during the Japanese occupation during World War II.


Amongst the collectors who were military men were:

* Brigadier William Harry Evans - a British officer who spent most of his commission in India

* Lt Col John Eliot - the “guru” who revised the 4th edition of the definitive book about butterflies of the Malay Peninsula by Corbet & Pendlebury

* Captain M K Godfrey

* Captain Stackhouse Pinwill

* Major J M Kerr

* Lieutenant A M Goodrich

* Lieutenant H Roberts


Others, who were in the service of British companies in East India and the “Far East”, were:

* Alexander Steven Corbet - a soil chemist and bacteriologist with the Rubber Research Institute of Malaya

* H Maurice Pendlebury - Director of Museums, Federated Malay States, and who was interned at Changi Prison during the war

* W A Fleming - a Scotsman who worked for a London-based rubber company and who was also interned during the war.

* R Morrell - also interned at Changi during the war



223 A Colonel with two Sergeants in attendance. Left: Colour Sergeant, Right: Malay Sergeant


It is therefore understandable that many of the English common names of butterflies were coined after British origins. In the first category, we have, obviously, the military titles and ranks – old world and new! For the butterflies in Singapore we have the Commander, the various Sergeants, Knight, Colonel, Lascars and Sailors.



224 A platoon of Lascars - clockwise from top left: Malayan, Perak, Burmese and Common Lascars


Whilst some of these ranks are clearly recognised, I had to do a bit of research into the origins of some others. The Lascar, for example, is an Indian sailor, army servant or artilleryman. As some of the British collectors were indeed military men stationed in India, they would have come across such titles.





227 Ahoy! the Navy - Sailors and a Yeoman. Top to Bottom: Chocolate Sailor, Banded Yeoman & Short Banded Sailor


Amongst the definitions for Yeoman, was this: a naval petty officer who performs clerical duties. The Sailors, too, generated some debate, as there are some quarters who believe that the common name should be "Sailers" – which originates from the way the Neptis species "sails" in flight. Of course, given the family of names of the armed forces, it could well be possible that there was every intention to call these species "Sailors" instead, so that the officers of the British Navy could also be recognised, and the butterflies named for posterity. And finally of course, we have to salute the Indian Red Admiral as the highest-ranking officer in the navy.



231 An Admiral and his Cruiser?


Another possible military association for a butterfly name is the Cruiser. Amongst the definition is: a large, fast moderately armoured and gunned warship.



233 Said the Viscount to the Duke, "Where are the ladies?" Top: Malay Viscount, Bottom: Purple Duke


In another category of common names, would be titles from Peerage – a system of titles in the UK representing the upper ranks of British nobility and aristocracy. Peers are of five ranks in descending order of hierarchy:

* Duke

* Marquess (or Marquis)

* Earl

* Viscount

* Baron




236 Said the Viscount to the Duke, "Where are the ladies?" Top: Malay Viscount, Bottom: Purple Duke


The title Archduke may be the odd one out, as it is an aristocratic title that originates from continental European countries. And for the Nawab (or Nabob), the definition would be: a provincial governor of the Mogul empire in India. Another from Indian origin would be the Rajah: the bearer of a title of nobility among the Hindus.