Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

16 September 2010

Talking plants

Botanical Illus Sloane 
Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica....., London, 1707-25. Shelfmark: 38.f.4

Team America is very pleased to welcome our first guest blogger - Professor Miles Ogborn, Queen Mary, UOL: 

My current research seeks to understand the ways in which knowledge of the natural history of the Caribbean islands, especially Jamaica, was produced and communicated in the period between the late seventeenth century and the early nineteenth century. During that period, it was the plant life of those islands that was the prime focus for natural philosophers, many of whom were doctors interested in the medical uses of plants. There was also a concern to search for agricultural products that could play a profitable part in Britain’s imperial economy.

What I am interested in is the range of forms of communication of botanical knowledge. This involved speech, correspondence, collections of specimens (herbaria), and printed matter from newspaper articles to scholarly papers and elaborate volumes of botanical engravings. I want to know who communicated with whom about the plants of Jamaica and how they did so, thinking about both local discussions of plants and those which spanned the Atlantic world. I ask what the protocols were for these forms of communication? Who could be part of the ‘conversation’? And who the audiences were that they addressed. There are various elements to this: the role of polite sociability in the work of men of science in the Atlantic world; the particular forms of knowledge that were communicated between doctors and patients; attempts to make the knowledge of plants ‘public’, via both print and botanical gardens (and the intersection of the two in printed catalogues of the gardens’ collections); and the cross-cultural communication of botanical knowledge between Europeans and enslaved and indigenous people. Eighteenth-century Jamaica was a slave society based on deadly forms of agricultural labour on land which had been appropriated from its earlier inhabitants. It was a society of great brutality. Yet there was also an acknowledgement, albeit a circumscribed one, that enslaved Africans and Amerindians had knowledge of the botanical riches of the islands.

In doing the research it has been vital to be able to work across the range of material held in the Caribbean collections in the British Library. The communication of botanical knowledge depended upon images as well as many sorts of text. It has been crucial to the research to be able to consult, for example, the letters held in the manuscripts collections from Henry Barham (a Jamaican doctor) to Hans Sloane (then returned from Jamaica to London) as well as reading their published accounts of the natural history of the island. It has also been necessary to work between the manuscript correspondence of Thomas Dancer (the superintendent of Jamaica’s botanical garden) with Edward Long (a historian of the island who dealt in both ‘civil’ and ‘natural’ history) about the difficulties of getting public support for the island’s botanical garden, and the published garden catalogues and reports of speeches in newspapers in which Dancer celebrated the public spirit of this venture. It is only with such a range of material ready to hand that the range of forms of communication can become apparent, along with moments in which other voices are partially heard. For example, along with celebrating the contributions by European planters and plant collectors to the botanical gardens, in 1792 Dancer listed the Akee tree (a crucial part of Jamaica’s national dish of Akee and saltfish) as being an ‘African Fruit, introduced by Negroes in some of Mr. Hibbert’s ships.’ There is here a sense, albeit anonymous, of the African contribution to Jamaican botany, and to the talk about plants, their names and their uses.


Professor Miles Ogborn, School of Geography, Queen Mary, University of London

London Group of Historical Geographers


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