Botany in the 317 years-long century…

The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century. Yota Batsaki, Sarah Burke Cahalan and Anatole Tchikine (Editors). Dumbarton Oaks, 2016.

Notwithstanding the importance of botany to the future well-being and survival of mankind on this planet via appropriate management of plants and crops (i.e. agronomy and agriculture), the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen the virtual extinction of botany as a named academic discipline and the extirpation of botany as a titled degree from our universities and seats of so-called higher learning. How refreshing then to read tales from a time – admittedly long ago – when botany was actually revered; when it was the way to empower nations, and where the botanist was an important, even an heroic, figure in that enterprise. And how much starker therefore is the contrast between those older, glorious times and the present day. Still, let’s not dwell too much on how much worse it seems today; instead, let’s concern ourselves with the 1700s, and Batsaki et al’s The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century [hereafter referred to as Empires of Botany]. So, what does this botanist make of Empires of Botany?

Titular confusions

First, it’s got botany in the title. That is always a good start; after all, plants, what’s not to like? And it’s got a date, which gives a historical dimension to the topic. Which is also good for anyone who is interested in the plants-and-people interaction side of things. But, what does the long 18th century mean? For a straightforward botanist, surely a century’s a century – a period of time that’s 100 years long? A hint that that’s not so comes on page 15 of Empires of Botany where we are told that the 18th century written of in this tome actually extends to Paul-Émil Botta’s Red Sea Expedition of 1836-39; i.e. well into the 19th century. But, nowhere could I find the term ‘long 18th century’ actually defined in Empires of Botany. My researches on the trusty interweb of stuff revealed that the long 18th century runs from 1688 to 1815(!). Not only that, and even more imprecisely and confusingly, the long 18th century overlaps with the similarly-styled ‘long 19th century’ (which runs from 1789 to 1914/1917)! Maybe the long 18th century isn’t defined in Empires of Botany because historians – the collective term I’ll use for the book’s expert contributors [purely out of convenience and to contrast with botanists] – know this fact already (although seemingly they can’t agree whether it ends in 1815 or 1836/39…). Well, that may be, but it’s worth stating – and early on in the book – for the benefit of potential readers, such as botanists, who are trying to make sense of it all, what the period covered by Empires of Botany is.

And what of the ‘Empire’ in the book’s title? This term – which is often seen as derogatory by those who’ve been on the receiving end of the empire-building of others – embraces, on the one hand, those relatively small countries with far-flung, colonial-expansionist ambitions such as France, Spain, the United Kingdom. On the other, it encompasses those vast nation states of empirical dimensions, e.g. Russia and China. But Empires of Botany also considers smaller political entities in between those extremes, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan, and the world of Mongolian materia medica. But the limits of any one empire are not fixed for all time; their boundaries shift with the years, their borders wax and wane. A graphic reminder of that is provided by the late 18th century map showing the extent of Spanish ‘possessions’ in the Americas, which included approx. half of continental USA, Mexico, and about 50% of South America. How different is the ‘empire’ of Spain in 2017! But, one way or another, contributions to Empires of Botany encompass the whole globe.

Technical stuff

Empire of Botany’s 400-plus 2-columned pages are adorned with 174 colour illustrations, 6 halftones, 1 line illustration, 1 map, and 1 table, and includes 14 pages of Index (with entries from A to Z, but no X…), and 4 pages of enlightening contributor’s biographies. Apart from chapter 1 “Introduction”, which is co-written by the book’s Editors, each of its remaining 15 chapters is sole-authored, and grouped into 4 Parts: Botanical Ambitions; Agents of Empire?; Botanical Itineraries; and Cultivating Identities.

Aim of the book

As the Editors state, the aim of Empires of Botany is to “sketch an inclusive and nuanced picture while avoiding predominantly Eurocentric interpretations of the meaning of botany – and natural history more generally – during the period under consideration.” In my view it achieves that. It also aims to put botany in a better context that the rather limited scientific pursuit of plant biological knowledge it could be perceived as being. This mighty tome contains lots of great material to share with one’s students – and the wider audience one might be trying to reach – in encouraging a better appreciation of botany and its pivotal role in shaping our world. But what better way to share those insights than to recommend that they too read the book? If only to see the role of botany and botanist in a different light.

(Some)Things you will learn

The role of botanical gifts in international diplomacy. Although French may be the lingua franca of diplomacy, people it seems would rather say it with ‘flowers’… an eminently empirical approach in itself?

That botanical science is cast as complicit with 18th century colonial enterprise. Which casts a rather dark shadow across a pursuit which is often seen as no more harmful than mere ‘flower-pressing’. And, more than one tale is told which “nuances the portrayal of 18th century naturalists as agents of empire”, however unwilling or unwitting.

That a botanist is – also? – ”one in possession of a strong constitution but also firmness, ardour, gaiety, finesse, and exquisite senses attuned to the natural environment”.

The importance of improved techniques for transporting plants, the ultimate in global translocation.

That 25,000 plant species were known at the end of 1790 (which compares to an estimate of 369,400 angiosperms in 2016).

That French botanist François le Vaillant resisted Linnaean binomials (and that Linnaeus was scathing of the use of diagrams to illustrate his sexual system of plant classification).

That accurate representation of plants was crucial to successful global exploitation of these vegetable riches.

That the Yemenis practised a form of biological control in protecting the date crop from insect ravages.

That a one-time opium trader became addicted to flowers and created a garden of unearthly delight on the edge of the British world – New Zealand.

That the 18th century scope of Empires of Botany extends beyond 1845 and the repeal of the Glass Tax in Great Britain (and which allowed the glass-sided Wardian case to become the premier plant protector and translocator of empire).

That expansionist empirical plans could be thwarted by captains of the ships that carried the precious plants – and those that tended to them – but who might have agendas of their own which were incompatible with the botanists and their ‘green’ agendas.

That the word for balsa, the common name of both a tree and its extremely light-weight wood, comes from the Spanish word for raft. Rafts fashioned from balsa were a major vehicle for maritime transport along the Pacific coast of Ecuador and Peru, and whose significance is considered in McEwan’s contribution to Empires of Botany

Note for the unwary botanist

I read the book as a botanist, but the separate chapters are set out in a way that is probably not familiar to botanists or others of a scientific background. Some words of caution are therefore in order.

Whilst the scholarly articles that constitute Empires of Botany are evidence-based, and those sources are given at the end of each chapter, they are not references as one may be used to in, or recognisable from, a scientific paper, using the Harvard Referencing System for example. That is because this is not scientific writing but ‘history’ writing. Accordingly, sources are not identified in-text individually; rather, one – usually more – like sources are lumped together bibliography-wise as ‘ideas clusters’ at the end of the piece. The in-text placement of these ‘clusters’ is indicated by use of superscripted numbers amongst the text. As unfamiliar as that may be, it is good to have indications of further reading to take one’s studies further. But, botanists, beware.

Chapters in Empires of Botany are very well written, as they should be, and as one might expect from scholars of a more literary/artistic leaning. But, sometimes terms are used that are atypical of the lexicon of the average botanist, e.g. chapter 13 and its “Allegories of Alterity”. Or that “botanical illustrations can also serve as an agent of memory, inward meaning, and otherness” (p. 161). That is not necessarily something to be suspicious of, but do prepare to have your word power challenged (and hopefully increased…).


… are few. But, the book is about botany and its impact upon society (and, arguably, vice versa…). Accordingly (and rightly so), many disciplines here contribute to the assessment of that subject. Thus, amongst the contributors we have scholars of: comparative literature; history; media studies; botanical and medical gardens; languages and writing; art history; history of science; landscape architecture, garden and landscape studies; and Middle-eastern studies. However, curiously – and rather sadly in this botanist’s view – there is not one contributor who is identified as a botanist (nor even a plant scientist or biologist…). Neither is there any evidence that a botanist has given the contributions a look-over. Is that important? Isn’t botany more about its impact upon societies, etc. than the merely plant-specific? Probably, but a botanical input is important. And a clear demonstration of its need is in the ginseng chapter by Kuriyama where knowledge of the plant’s habitat in China was used in a biogeographical prescient way to predict its likely residence in similar conditions in North America. Lo! ‘ginseng’ is found in North America, but American ginseng [Panax quinquefolius] is not the same species as Chinese/Asian ginseng [Panax ginseng]. But, with no mention of any botanical binomial names – only use of the common name ‘ginseng’ – one might easily get the impression that the two plants are the same species (and maybe that chapter’s contributor is of that view?). Interestingly, this imprecise use of a common name rather contradicts the assertion elsewhere in Empires of Botany that Linnaean binomials had become the lingua franca of plantspeople by the end of the 18th century. Maybe it was amongst botanists, but evidently not universally amongst those who write of the import of botany in that period. That’s a pity because otherwise Kuriyama’s contribution was a really great, fact-packed, fascinating read. Although botanical binomials are provided elsewhere in Empires of Botany (e.g. in Glenn’s contribution on le Vaillant, and Beattie’s chapter on Thomas McDonnell – and which extends ‘the long 18th’ into the 1850s…), scrutiny of the Index shows that only 11 are listed. As a botanist I’d like to see all of the plants indexed.

In similar vein, and although abundantly illustrated, the identities of the plants in the figures are not always disclosed, e.g. the gorgeous image on p. iii, of ‘Asian fruits’ (but which looks like breadfruit – Artocarpus altilis to me…), and Fig.  1.16. Botany – and representations of botanics – is the raison d’être of this scholarly work; let’s have as much plant information as possible!

Final words:

Empires of Botany is based on a symposium, which, like the century it celebrates, has now long gone. But, the book endures, just as the legacy of botany and empire of the 18th century extends far beyond that 100 year period to the present day, thereby making that century probably the longest on record!

I really enjoyed Empires of Botany. Every chapter contains little nuggets of botanical ‘gold’ just waiting to be plucked and spread before a student audience as tempting tit-bits to inspire them to dig deeper into the subject and its human dimension. Empires of Botany has a broad scope, and displays a breath-taking botanical sweep of global history and geopolitics. It is an illuminating text that all botanists would benefit from reading, especially if they want to appreciate a time when Botanist was more than just a quaint job title, but was truly a life-defining role, with global relevance.