“Is it a snake with legs, or a lizard without them?”: The Strange and Wondrous Case of the Biscobra

Alice Perrin’s anthology of gothic short stories, East of Suez (1901), concludes with a rather unsettling story called “The Biscobra.” Perrin’s “The Biscobra” is a rare instance in Anglo-Indian fiction where the biscobra is the central concern. Here, the eponymous Indian animal—strange, wondrous, and deadly—devastates the domestic life of a young Anglo-Indian couple, the Kreys. The biscobra, in this story, does some narrative heavy lifting: it falls on a pregnant Nell Krey’s shoulders, frightening her to death; becomes the reincarnation of Nell’s prematurely born daughter; and eventually drives Frank Krey into madness. “The Biscobra” was originally published in the 1894 Christmas Number of London Society. While both versions of this story have the same plot and characters, the periodical version is slightly longer than the anthologized one. Substantial omissions include a shortening of the episode of Nell’s sudden death and a complete elimination of the Kreys’ Indian servant, Beni’s, detailed description of the biscobra. The role of the biscobra in the devastation of imperial white domesticity and reproductive futurity is, therefore, rewritten such that while the biscobra retains its titular gothic importance, it nonetheless loses the near-mythical power that its Indian interlocutors assign to it. In this essay, I will explore the imperial intrigue of the biscobra—an animal whose existence, veracity, and characteristics were much debated by those interested in Indian natural history in the nineteenth century. This will demonstrate how the biscobra, in all its ambiguity, became at once a racialized metric of scientific knowledge and a potent metaphor for the imperial gothic.

The Biscobra: Between a Dragon and a Basilisk

The biscobra in the nineteenth century referred not to an animal but rather to the idea of an animal that animated a number of cultural conversations. When reptile taxonomists in Britain and amateur naturalists in India[1] discussed the biscobra, they pictured the Varanus dracæna, commonly known as the Indian Monitor. There was some debate among imperial authorities on the natural sciences regarding the true nature of the biscobra. The German-born British zoologist, Albert C.L.G. Günther, known primarily for his compendious works in reptile taxonomy, in his 1864 book The Reptiles of British India calls the Varanus dracæna The Common Indian Water Lizard (italics in original).”[2] Günther observes that this lizard is the “most common species in British India” and is found in Bengal, Nepal, different parts of Southern India, and Ceylon.[3] Writing for the Journal of the Asiatic Society in 1869, A.C.L. Carlleyle of the Archaelogical Survey of India expresses confusion with Günther’s classification of the dracæna as a “water lizard” when “they have nothing to do with water, and are always found in the driest places (italics in original).”[4] There was nonetheless scientific consensus that the Varanus dracæna was a non-venomous lizard.

Figure 1: Illustrations of different subspecies of the Genus Varanus. From The Fauna of British India, Including Ceylon and Burma, ed. by W.T. Blanford, (London: Taylor and Francis, 1890): 162.

The mapping of the mythical biscobra on to the monitor lizard, however, leads to a great deal of confusion. H.F. Hutchinson notes in Nature the “virtually mythical” qualities of the biscobra in which “we easily recognize…the originals of the flame-breathing dragon and deadly basilisk.”[5] He further writes about conducting an adventurous garden experiment where he held up a biscobra to a “horror-stricken” but intrigued audience of his Indian servants who “like the barbarians of old” waited anxiously to see if any harm befell him. When nothing happened to Hutchinson, his servants “quietly dispersed.” He calls this a most “satisfactory” experience.  However, it remains unclear from this retelling if the servants are convinced of the biscobra’s non-venomous nature or if they simply see Hutchinson’s whiteness as exceptionally immune to its venom. Edward Hamilton Aitken, better known by the moniker Eha, a civil servant and naturalist who founded the Bombay Natural History Society, in 1881, is vexed by the biscobra: “is it a snake with legs, or a lizard without them?”[6] He classifies the biscobra into one genus with snakes, scorpions, and centipedes on the common basis that they “carry about with them an instrument to be used for the purpose of injecting a poisonous liquor into our persons.”[7] In this regard, the imperial obsession with the biscobra can be seen as a part of a larger preoccupation with Indian poisons and venoms, in general, and venomous snakes, in particular.[8] Ultimately for Eha, however, the biscobra, though capable of provoking much terror among both Indians and Europeans, remains a scientific mystery.

Figure 2: Illustration of the appearance of a biscobra in Eha’s garden as his Indian servants try to catch it. From: The tribes on my frontier: an Indian naturalist’s foreign policy; illustrated by F. C. Macrae, 8th ed. (London: W. Thacker, 1894): 206. Source: Wellcome Collection.

Yet other natural historians dismiss the existence of the biscobra altogether as an erroneous act of philological mis-mapping. In 1888, G.W. Vidal in The Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society states that the biscobra is a “mis-nomenclature” of the various kinds of monitor lizards that abound in India.[9] He mocks previous assumptions of its venomousness. Vidal expresses absolute disbelief in claims of death due to biscobra venom: “I believe that nothing is more certain than that grossly ignorant and superstitious subjects, bitten by harmless snakes and even by lizards, do occasionally die from pure fright.”[10] In the same issue of the journal, J.A. De Gama traces the anachronistic usage of the word “bis-cobra.” As opposed to the widely accepted Hindustani origin of the word “biscobra,” from bish meaning poison and khoprā meaning “a shell or skull,”[11] De Gama believes it to be of Portuguese origin, where bis derives from bicho meaning something that bites, and cobra from the Latin word for snake, coluber.[12] Biscobra, he believes is the eventual contraction of Bicho-de-Cobra. De Gama states that Portuguese missionaries first used “biscobra” to denote a reptile that crawled on its belly which they encountered on their arrival in India in the sixteenth century. On account of their rudimentary knowledge of the Natural Sciences, the Portuguese classified the biscobra as a snake. This, according to De Gama, is what is now known as the mongoose, indicating that the biscobra was perhaps also imagined, at least by some, as not a lizard at all. As the term mongoose emerged, the Portuguese bis-cobra fell into oblivion but “among the natives the idea of the poisonous reptile Bis-cobra still remained, and it has been handed down together with the exaggerated accounts of its tremendous poisonous properties.”[13] The biscobra, in these accounts, becomes an accretion of centuries of linguistic colonization on an overactive “native” imagination.

By the end of the century, discussions of the biscobra constructed it as a racialized symbol of epistemic differences. John Lockwood Kipling, classifying the biscobra as the Varanus dracæna, writes about the mythical strength attributed to it. He notes that the biscobra is believed to have helped the Maratha king and general, Shivaji, to escape a fortress that he was confined in by dragging him down the wall. Moreover, it is also apparently kept by burglars for similar purposes of scaling walls. Kipling, however, disproves such claims of the biscobra’s strength by attesting to his own experience in keeping “one of these harmless animals.”[14] He has been “assured by natives of its vast strength and deadliness” while “holding it [the biscobra] in one hand.” The belief in the biscobra’s strength over humans becomes a touchstone of racialized rationality: while Indians, assured of the biscobra’s power, draw on fictional and apocryphal evidence,[15] Kipling infers its harmlessness empirically. Moreover, the biscobra’s strength, easily disproved by the scientifically bent Englishman, is a symbol of a chapter in India’s storied history that is now lost: the hypermasculinity of India’s past rulers like Shivaji. The ambiguous nature of the biscobra in imperial discourse—its etymology, existence, and essence (venomous/harmless)—provides a particularly fecund resource for the imperial gothic as a genre of animal horrors to draw from.

The Biscobra and the Imperial Gothic

The British empire in India was an empire of not just humans ruling humans but also of humans ruling animals. The border between humans and animals where the dialectic of domination and exploitation plays out has shaped such foundational works in Victorian animal studies as Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate. Given this nature of empire as a “multispecies arena,” animals were important to imperial representation.[16] While there exists a substantial bibliography on imperial animals like tigers and crocodiles, little is written about the biscobra—perhaps in part because of its entirely discursive vitality. Melissa Edmundson has examined Perrin’s East of Suez as “animal gothic.”[17] Such a framing is helpful for ways in which it centers the animal in Perrin’s gothic imaginary. Here, I look at how the “abanimality”[18] of the biscobra is imported into the literary genre of the gothic.

The biscobra’s limited presence in Indian Anglophone fiction, a tradition that is otherwise preoccupied with Indian animals, may be a result of the biscobra’s discursive indeterminateness. In the nineteenth-century scientific and literary imaginary, the biscobra occupies much the same space as the sea serpent.[19] The doyenne of Anglo-Indian fiction, Flora Annie Steel, in her “epic of the race,”[20] On the Face of the Waters (1896), uses the biscobra as a metaphor for effeminacy and impotence. The Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar lets out a traditional women’s cry “Ouée, Umma!” when he fears a biscobra on his couch cushions.[21] The gullible king is reassured by his scheming spiritual adviser that this is “no carnal creature”: “It was an emissary of evil made helpless by prayer.”[22] Steel’s narrator dismisses it as the “fabled bis-cobra” which frightens the “foolish old King.”[23] By the 1890s then, biscobras in the Anglo-Indian popular imagination frightens a very specific group of people on the Indian subcontinent—naïve and feminine Indians—while the discerning and hypermasculine Anglo-Indians are exempt from such fabulous beliefs. The poetic Bahadur Shah, who jumps at even the suspicion of a mythical animal’s presence, will eventually be bested by the sporting Anglo-Indians, who are cognizant not just of the reality of the animals they hunt and dominate but also of the metric of animality. In Steel’s “Mutiny” novel, animality is an important metric as the Revolt of 1857 was characterized as an “animalistic instinct,” a “passing madness,” and as “behavior beyond human reason” as opposed to a systematic resistance to British rule; it allowed for “an animalized reply” where ordinary restraint could be justifiably suspended in favor of excessive violence and brutal force.[24]

Figure 3: Frontispiece of the 1894 Christmas Number of London Society in which “The Biscobra” first appeared. Source: Google Books.

Perrin’s gothic story, “The Biscobra,” unlike Steel’s historical novel, must retain the biscobra’s ambiguity in order to emphasize its horror. In the London Society version of the story, the Kreys’ Indian servant, Beni, introduces the biscobra as follows: “A biscobra is a terrible beast…It carries a sting in its tail so deadly that those who are struck by it lose their reason and die in great and fearful agony.”[25] Beni further describes the Indian beliefs surrounding the biscobra—that it flees to the nearest water body after stinging its victim and the only way to survive a biscobra sting is if the person who has been bitten plunges into water before the biscobra, in which case the human lives and the animal dies. Beni recounts his personal confrontation with the biscobra’s dangerous power: “I with my own eyes, have seen a man die from the sting of a biscobra. He was my brother’s wife’s nephew, and his body swelled and became white like a leper’s, and his mouth foamed like that of a mad dog—.”[26] Here, Frank, who notices the increasing nervousness on Nell’s face, admonishes Beni to be quiet. In the version that is later anthologized in East of Suez, neither the reader nor Nell is told anything about the biscobra beyond Frank’s dismissal of it. Frank tells Nell that biscobras are “only big lizards” and while “[N]atives are awfully afraid of them because they are so uncanny-looking, and have a head like a snake’s,” they are “perfectly harmless.”[27] By editing out the dominant presence of the biscobra, the anthologized version does not present Beni’s “native” belief of the biscobra as deadly but instead retains Frank’s Anglo-Indian version of the biscobra as harmless.

In thus eliminating the Indian version of the biscobra—or what the reader is told is the Indian version of the biscobra—the 1901 version sensationalizes the white heroine’s death. Nell dies not from a dangerous animal which is noted for its ability to kill humans but from an animal which is really “only a harmless lizard.”[28] As Nell points her lantern to the rafters, the light disturbs a family of bats and owls, who noisily chatter and swoop down. Then, there is “a slight scratching sound directly overhead,” followed by the biscobra’s heavy fall onto Nell’s shoulder, leading to her immediate swoon to death. In the absence of the context originally provided by Beni in the 1894 version, this death is much more surprising. The biscobra is not built up as a dangerous animal here. Its horror rests no longer in its imaginative currency but more strictly in the surprise it provokes from its Anglo-Indian audience. Without Beni’s testament of the biscobra’s widely believed powers, Nell dies from the sheer shock of having the harmless lizard fall on her.

“The Biscobra” also depicts networks of sympathy between Indian animals and animalistic Indian servants. On the night of Nell’s death, Beni, who looks “like a mummified monkey, with his wrinkled brown skin, sunken black eyes and wizened features,”[29] is busy violently poking at the thatch of the Krey cottage with a bamboo stick. He informs the Kreys that there is a biscobra in the roof. Whereas in the 1894 version, he then tells Nell about the powers of the creature, in the 1901 version, Frank dismisses it as a harmless lizard. After the biscobra falls on Nell and shocks her to death, Frank begins to lose his mind. Beni and the Kreys’ Anglo-Indian neighbors look after the prematurely born Krey child. Upon the child’s death, Frank leaves the station, and Beni begs to stay behind to take care of the Kreys buried in the cemetery. The biscobra lives in their grave and comes out every night to be nourished by Beni: “Every night had the babba left the grave and I have fed her with goat’s milk.”[30] He believes the biscobra to be the transmigrated soul of the dead Krey infant. When Frank sees the biscobra come out to drink the milk offered by Beni, “[H]e felt as if he were dreaming, and a vague horror oppressed him.” As he makes “a dash at the creature’s snake-like head with his stick, and beat it to a pulp with all his strength,” Beni, who has so long nourished the biscobra, is horrified. With the death of the biscobra and “the soul of the child,” the sick and feverish Beni also chokes on a “rattle in the old man’s throat” and dies in a paroxysm of grief. The simian servant, who enters the narrative when Nell is first pregnant, lives in the text only so long as the child identified as the biscobra and the biscobra identified as the child does. The “vague horror” that oppresses Frank therefore comes from both, the biscobra and the human whose imagination animates the biscobra’s horror, the simian Beni. The biscobra, in conjunction with its Indian interlocutors, drives the young Englishman to insanity. In Perrin’s short story, this is the gothic power of the biscobra—its capacity to overwhelm the rational English imagination.

The ambiguity surrounding the biscobra is but one instance of the ambiguities that construct seemingly definitive imperial scientific knowledge and discourse. It also tells the story of a failure of the imperial imagination to grasp the richness of Indian epistemologies of the natural world whereby creatures exist as both material and myth. The incommensurability of imperial forms of classification to the real and fabulous powers and characteristics of Indian animals becomes clear in the study of the intrigue of the biscobra. The biscobra, though minor, is nonetheless a significant figure in Anglo-Indian fiction as well for it embodies the difficulties of representing authentically but also comprehensibly a world that resists Western generic codes. It is thus not surprising that the biscobra’s most substantial appearance is in the imperial gothic: a genre whose very impact on its readers depends on its interpretative mystery and difficulty.

Meghna Sapui (@MeghnaSapui) is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Florida. She works on representations of food and eating in nineteenth-century Indian Anglophone literatures. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Victorian Review, The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women’s Writing, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, and Victorian Literature and Culture.

Notes & references

[1] I am grateful to Aviroop Sengupta for pointing me to the historical discussions about the hierarchization of naturalists in India as amateurs and zoologists in the metropole as professionals. George Basalla’s infamous Eurocentric diffusionist model of Western science places the development of amateur science in the colony as one of the constituent stages in the development of “colonial science.” David Arnold offers a robust and insightful critique of Basalla and problematizes such hierarchization. More recently, John Mathew identifies the “translocate” as an expatriate who assumes an “inflection of specialization” and mediates the flow of knowledge between seemingly incommensurate systems. See George Basalla, “The Spread of Western Science,” Science, no. 156 (1967): 611-622; John Mathew, ‘To fashion a fauna for British India’, PhD thesis, Harvard University, 2011; David Arnold, Science, Technology, and Medicine in Colonial India, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004).

[2] Albert C.L.G. Günther, The Reptiles of British India. (London: Robert Hardwicke, 1864): 65.

[3] Günther, 66.

[4] A.C.L. Carlleyle, “Descriptions of Two New Species belonging to the genera Varanus (Psammosaurus) and Feranioides, respectively,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, XXXVIII, nos. I to IV (1869): 195.

[5] H.F. Hutchinson, “The Bis-cobra, the Goh-sámp, and the Scorpion.” Nature, 20 (1879): 553.

[6] E.H. (EHA) Aitken, The Tribes on My Frontier: An Indian Naturalist’s Foreign Policy, Sixth edition. (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1898): 204.

[7] Aitken, 193.

[8] David Arnold notes the importance of snake venom in India’s toxic history and the colonial administrative and research endeavors to curb venomous snakes and study snake poison. Pratik Chakrabarti also writes about the centrality of snake venom in animal experimentation in colonial India. See David Arnold, Toxic Histories: Poison and Pollution in Modern India (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016): 41-79; Pratik Chakrabarti, Bacteriology in British India: Laboratory Medicine and the Tropics (Rochester: U of Rochester Press, 2017): 113-141.

[9] G.W. Vidal, “The Bis Cobra” (Read at the Society’s Meeting on 4th January, 1888). The Journal of the Bombay Natural History, III, no. 2 (1888): 73.

[10] Vidal, 81.

[11] Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell. “Biscobra.” Hobson-Jobson: A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive. New ed., edited by William Crooke, B.A. (London: J. Murray, 1903): 570.

[12] J.A. De Gama, “Notes On the Origin of the Belief in the Bis-Cobra (Read at the Society’s Meeting on 7th May, 1888). The Journal of the Bombay Natural History, III, no. 3 (1888): 155, 158.

[13] De Gama, 164.

[14] John Lockwood Kipling, Beast and Man in India: A Popular Sketch of Indian Animal In Their Relations With The People. (London: Macmillan and Co. Limited, 1904): 317.

[15] Kipling recounts the importance of biscobras to Maratha folktales about Shivaji correctly, but his account is inaccurate. In the popular Maratha “powada” (oral poetic form of heroic commemoration) about the martyrdom of Shivaji’s general Tanaji Malusare, it is Tanaji who is dragged up the fort of Sinhagad by a ghorpad (the Maratha name for the monitor lizard) to recapture the fort from the Mughals. See Prachi Deshpande, Creative pasts: historical memory and identity in western India, 1700-1960, (NY: Columbia UP, 2019): 58.

[16] Parama Roy, “The Strange Ecologies of Empire,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 49, no. 1 (2021): 74.

[17] Melissa Edmundson, Women’s Colonial Gothic Writing, 1850-1930. (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018): 157.

[18] Here, I draw on Jesse Oak Taylor’s idea of the “abnatural” to signify both “nature’s absence and its uncanny persistence,” a movement rather that an object’s presence or absence, and above all moments of forceful acknowledgement that “the world does not comply with our ideas of nature.” Similarly, the biscobra as “abanimal” signifies the ways in which the biscobra puts into question the imperial understanding of what a lizard or a snake is as it resists scientific veracity and classification; it captivates the naturalist imaginary in ways that scientific knowledge is forced to reckon with its own limitations. See Taylor, The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf (Charlottesville: U of Virginia Press), 5-6.

[19] Aitken, The Tribes on My Frontier, 204.

[20] Flora Annie Steel. The Garden of Fidelity: Being the Autobiography of Flora Annie Steel 1847-1929. (London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1930): 226.

[21] Flora Annie Steel, On the Face of the Waters. (NY: Macmillan, 1897), 95.

[22] Steel, 96.

[23] Steel, 98.

[24] Keridiana Chez, “The Man-Eating Tiger: Wild Animal Politics and Colonial Indian Identity.” Victorian Review, 46, no. 2 (2020): 285, 286, 288.

[25] Alice Perrin, “The Biscobra.” London Society, Christmas Number (1894): 50.

[26] Perrin, “50-51.

[27] Alice Perrin. East of Suez, edited by Melissa Edmundson Makala. (Brighton: Victorian Secrets Ltd., 2012): 170.

[28] Perrin, 170.

[29] Perrin, 168.

[30] Perrin, 174.

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