Colonial Botany

Colonial Botany

When we speak of deconstructing or “decolonising” botany, unlike the artefacts of museums  – plants cannot be repatriated to their homelands. Their existence is interwoven into what we eat, wear, use for medicine, paper and furniture. For the past few years, I have been reading heavily into the history of my ancestors, in the islands, where black and white, congeal and clash. What happened on Xaymaca (Jamaica) between British, African and Arawak? Maybe it was intuitive, working in the industry, that all the stories I heard, lead back to plants. The more I searched, the larger my gaps in understanding. I suppose everybody was on the islands because of the plantations, but beyond slavery, what were the suppressed voices saying? Almost compulsively, I wanted to know why these voices were unattended and undervalued in horticulture today. And why they were being kept as hidden histories.

“the UK has led the world over many centuries in innovating and creating amazing gardens and now it is our time to lead again in the role of gardeners as the guardians of gardens and environmental and social sustainability.”

Keith Weed, the new president of the RHS, recently said “the UK has led the world over many centuries in innovating and creating amazing gardens and now it is our time to lead again in the role of gardeners as the guardians of gardens and environmental and social sustainability.”  So where exactly has Britain led from, through the centuries? 

Kew Gardens

It is clear there has been a collective amnesia to what the purpose of establishing some of these ‘amazing’ gardens were. Often spaces weren’t established for the dispossessed, the disenfranchised – they were created for the elites and upper classes to walk, picnic and indulge a past time of marvelling at “exotic” plants. Kew Gardens played a big role in this process, it was the propagation-palace of pirates’ plunder from the 1700s. Expedition ships were funded and numbered with persons seeking opportunities to accumulate seeds, cuttings & uprooted plants. These were returned to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (& other botanical gardens globally)  for further inspection. In the space of 400 years Britain had invaded practically every country on the planet , so unsurprisingly, these collections were welcomed and assembled en masse. Botanical gardens specifically became the depots of seed exchange, propagation in glasshouses where they were accessed for their possibilities of becoming cash crops, sustenance crops for the enslaved or pretty ornamentals. They were then shipped out to the colonies with the greatest variants of suitability, for the largest return on investment. 

“nature is reduced to shallow labels; an identity is simplified to the origin and a Latin name. no description of what this plant has meant in its original context – ecologically or culturally.”

At times, this process was undertaken in illegal and/or ruthless manners. With vast implications for ecosystems and locals alike. It could destabilize and devastate whole local economies, such as with Brazilian rubber. Smuggled rubber seeds returned to Kew in 1876, with the “collector” Henry Wickham . They were shipped south eventually, cultivated prolifically with the perennial free-labour of the colonies. And there was no more need to buy Brazilian rubber. Besides financial motivations, Richard Drayton has said, ‘the dream of possessing all nature in microcosm, and understanding its order, was comforting for those seeking earthly power.’  I believe we can see this legacy reflected in gardens today, nature is reduced to shallow labels; an identity is simplified to the origin and a Latin name. Potentially alongside an ‘explorers’ name, immortalised through the classification process. With a focus on the achievements of an individual, rather than a remembering of the whole story, the collective. Plants displayed outside of their original context – are often no longer in communion ecologically or culturally and we have to ask, what impact does that have? When there is no authentic integration in historical gardens of different cultures, what cycle does this perpetuate?  

“Slavery wasn’t orchestrated by random selection. The ancients were highly skilled and sought-after individuals, with expansive great knowledge”

Many don’t want to rehash the past. It can seem regressive. I argue, without honouring the past, where do you expect to grow too? The remembering of our roots is strengthening and cathartic. The remembering of our rhythms with land, the acknowledgement of divine nature which surrounds and which we are a part of is liberating. The phases of the moon, the shifts in seasons, the plentiful harvests – are all deserving of our recognition, are all integral to our ability to connect. Building on the work of the elders before us is essential.  Whilst reading ‘Secret Cures of Slaves’ and ‘Black Rice’ amongst so many other great books –  there was an awakening in my awareness. The stories which dominate, are not the sole truths. The hidden history, that my enslaved ancestors were not randomly plucked from the continent to the islands. That they were skilled and sought-after individuals, with expansive knowledge in; farming, gardening , ecology, medicine, land reverence and management. Knowledge accumulated by observation  of whole ecosystems and through intergenerational-processes.  Their deep gratitude and bond with land was expressed through their sowing and harvesting rituals, the songs they’d sing to tend to task and dances at communal times. Some see this as primitive, I see it as a horrendous loss of our reverence to land. In our continuous striving for progress we have lost so much. 

Revivalist Movement Growing

Today I see a revivalist movement growing. There are so many mentions of permaculture, organic and regenerative agriculture. Yet still in this wave of awakening, I see the erasure of our ancients globally, who have encouraged these relationships with earth, all along. Just without the scientific research to gain mainstream confidence. See, in botanical papers and through institutions, plants can be found, discovered and collected. This type of language further emphasising that when whiteness is not central to the narrative, the narrative ceases to exist. Those with the economic and social reach can structure the world around themselves, a position where white is central and therefore, equates to unquestionable power. Whiteness serves to disassemble the identity of all ‘others’ and in a self-conscious need to promote itself, disengaging with a past of domineering which lends itself to the present-day instability and displacement of communities in the global south and beyond.  Whiteness perpetuates the idea of native-inferiority, choosing to erase deep histories of resistance, disregarding the knowledge  of communities of colour and reducing plants to merely commodity of the collectors’ cupboards. Yes, many British innovations in design and botany have been useful and influential in improving our daily lives – but this is a slice of the story.

“Our ancestors in their adversity, were as adaptable as they were resilient… They were the farmers, the medicine men and woman, the midwives, the cooks.”

Kenneth Tafira, expresses that land in Africa, is ‘understood as embracing the ecological, cultural, cosmological, social and the spiritual.’ Today we see the consequences of companies and governments who function with the same arrogance towards nature, that has been demonstrated in the past. We know the planet cannot continue to be desecrated, butchered, polluted without the consequence of disturbing the earth further. With a new generation rising, I hope we can take stock of what we are building on. Whose work and what work we wish to do. Hope fully some which can detach from the notion that science and authoritative bodies reign supreme. Hope fully more where spaces feel inclusive and nurturing, to our different cultures and encouraging of our different perspectives. Where we recognise ourselves part of a lineage of ancients who have been the growers, the farmers, the medicine men and woman, the herbalists, the healers, the counsellors, the midwives , the cooks. And where we don’t feel the need to rebrand or reinvent – just where we can recognise the wisdom that has been with us, since the beginning.