Edward Hamilton Aitken, the author of the following sketches, was well known to the present generation of Anglo-Indians, by his pen-name of Eha, as an accurate and amusing writer on natural history subjects. Those who were privileged to know him intimately, as the writer of this sketch did, knew him as a Christian gentleman of singular simplicity and modesty and great charm of manner. He was always ready to help a fellow-worker in science or philanthropy if it were possible for him to do so. Thus, indeed, began the friendship between us. For when plague first invaded India in 1896, the writer was one of those sent to Bombay to work at the problem of its causation from the scientific side, thereby becoming interested in the life history of rats, which were shown to be intimately connected with the spread of this dire disease. Having for years admired Eha's books on natural history—The Tribes on my Frontier, An Indian Naturalist's Foreign Policy, and The Naturalist on the Prowl, I ventured to write to him on the subject of rats and their habits, and asked him whether he could not throw some light on the problem of plague and its spread, from the naturalist's point of view.
In response to this appeal he wrote a most informing and characteristic article for The Times of India (July 19, 1899), which threw a flood of light on the subject of the habits and characteristics of the Indian rat as found in town and country. He was the first to show that Mus rattus, the old English black rat, which is the common house rat of India outside the large seaports, has become, through centuries of contact with the Indian people, a domestic animal like the cat in Britain. When one realises the fact that this same rat is responsible for the spread of plague in India, and that every house is full of them, the value of this naturalist's observation is plain. Thus began an intimacy which lasted till Eha's death in 1909.
The first time I met Mr. Aitken was at a meeting of the Free Church of Scotland Literary Society in 1899, when he read a paper on the early experiences, of the English in Bombay. The minute he entered the room I recognised him from the caricatures of himself in the Tribes. The long, thin, erect, bearded man was unmistakable, with a typically Scots face lit up with the humorous twinkle one came to know so well. Many a time in after-years has that look been seen as he discoursed, as only he could, on the ways of man and beast, bird or insect, as one tramped with him through the jungles on the hills around Bombay during week-ends spent with him at Vehar or elsewhere. He was an ideal companion on such occasions, always at his best when acting the part of The Naturalist on the Prowl.
Mr. Aitken was born at Satara in the Bombay Presidency on August 16, 1851. His father was the Rev. James Aitken, missionary of the Free Church of Scotland. His mother was a sister of the Rev. Daniel Edward, missionary to the Jews at Breslau for some fifty years. He was educated by his father in India, and one can well realise the sort of education he got from such parents from the many allusions to the Bible and its old Testament characters that one constantly finds used with such effect in his books. His farther education was obtained at Bombay and Poona. He passed M.A. and B.A. of Bombay University first on the list, and won the Homejee Cursetjee prize with a poem in 1880. From 1870 to 1876 he was Latin Reader in the Deccan College at Poona, which accounts for the extensive acquaintance with the Latin classics so charmingly manifest in his writings. That he was well grounded in Greek is also certain, for the writer, while living in a chummery with him in Bombay in 1902, saw him constantly reading the Greek Testament in the mornings without the aid of a dictionary.
He entered the Customs and Salt Department of the Government of Bombay in April 1876, and served in Kharaghoda (the Dustypore of the Tribes), Uran, North Kanara and Goa Frontier, Ratnagiri, and Bombay itself. In May, 1903, he was appointed Chief Collector of Customs and Salt Revenue at Karachi, and in November, 1905, was made Superintendent in charge of the District Gazetteer of Sind. He retired from the service in August 1906.
He married in 1883 the daughter of the Rev. J. Chalmers Blake, and left a family of two sons and three daughters.
In 1902 he was deputed, on special duty, to investigate the prevalence of malaria at the Customs stations along the frontier of Goa, and to devise means for removing the Salt Peons at these posts, from the neighbourhood of the anopheles mosquito, by that time recognised as the cause of the deadly malaria, which made service on that frontier dreaded by all.
It was during this expedition that he discovered a new species of anopheline mosquito, which after identification by Major James, I.M.S., was named after him Anopheles aitkeni. During his long service there are to be found in the Annual Reports of the Customs Department frequent mention of Mr. Aitken's good work, but it is doubtful whether the Government ever fully realised what an able literary man they had in their service, wasting his talent in the Salt Department. On two occasions only did congenial work come to him in the course of his public duty—namely, when he was sent to study, from the naturalist's point of view, the malarial conditions prevailing on the frontier of Goa; and when during the last two years of his service he was put in literary charge of The Sind Gazetteer. In this book one can see the light and graceful literary touch of Eha frequently cropping up amidst the dry bones of public health and commercial statistics, and the book is enlivened by innumerable witty and philosophic touches appearing in the most unlikely places, such as he alone could enliven a dull subject with. Would that all Government gazetteers were similarly adorned! But there are not many "Ehas" in Government employ in India.
On completion of this work he retired to Edinburgh, where most of the sketches contained in this volume were written. He was very happy with his family in his home at Morningside, and was beginning to surround himself with pets and flowers, as was his wont all his life, and to get a good connection with the home newspapers and magazines, when, alas! death stepped in, and he died after a short illness on April 25, 1909.
He was interested in the home birds and beasts as he had been with those in India, and the last time the writer met him he was taking home some gold-fish for his aquarium. A few days before his death he had found his way down to the Morningside cemetery, where he had been enjoying the sunshine and flowers of Spring, and he remarked to his wife that he would often go there in future to watch the birds building their nests.
Before that time came, he was himself laid to rest in that very spot in sure and certain hope of a blessed resurrection.