The gardens of appropriation

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Monday 15 August 2005

-- Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the 'Improvement' of the World by Richard Drayton Orient Longman New Delhi 2005

Till the mid-1990s, historians studied the British Empire as a set of disparate colonies. South Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australia were seen as isolated entities. Of course, historians did trace administrative ideas of colonial governments to intellectual tendencies in the metropolis. But the influence of the colonies on the metropolis remained unstudied, as did the impacts of the colonies upon each other. To go beyond a region and look at the whole remained a Herculean task given the uniqueness of each theatre.

The trend began to change in the late 1990s. Richard Grove's, Green Imperialism was among studies that showed colonial governance impacted the metropolis. Grove showed that the Portuguese, British and Dutch colonies in the Indian Ocean were the first sites of modern conservation techniques. The tactics of land and water control that originated here from the 17th century onwards influenced intellectual tendencies in Europe. The book under review follows a similar line of thinking: it shows that modern Britain was as much a product of the processes of the empire as India, Australia or the Caribbean islands.

The Yale University Press published Nature's government in 2000. Though the book received critical acclaim in Europe and the us, it remained out of reach of readers in South Asia. This edition will fill in the gap.

Drayton announces his intentions in the preface: "The drama under our lens is woven from the histories of knowledge and the use of plants, and of Britain and its empire." He then goes on to offer the hypothesis that "it was over the long eighteenth century that the natural sciences and political economy became inflected...into an idea of government in public and cosmopolitan interest; and that it was over the 19th century that this ideology came to guide administration, at home and abroad".

A long history But the European preoccupation with natural sciences is much long. Drayton traces it to the botanic ideas of fourth century bc G reece. The philosopher Theophrastus urged the government of Athens city-state to encourage the study of useful plants. T heophrastus even set up a herbarium in Athens to classify plants. The Hellenic ideas reached Europe via the Arab world in the 13th century and these were modified when European seafarers tapped the botanical repositories of the Americas, the Indian subcontinent and the Pacific Ocean islands in the 15th and 16th centuries. The resources -- and indeed the knowledge -- of the 'new world' had great influence on the works of pioneer European botanists such as Carl von Linnaeus and Geroges Buffon.

By mid-16 th century, botanic gardens and apothecaries sprung up in many parts of Europe. They appealed to both the Christian theologists and the humanist scientist. For the former, gardens were a means through which God's power could be understood for the latter they were means of mustering "divine creation" for human purpose.

The two found royal patronage easy to come and by mid-18th century, the idea of a herbarium as a meditative retreat, experimental station and a playground for the royals began to take shape. Around the same time, the British monarch George iii commissioned the creation of the Royal Gardens at Kew, London. In the early 19th century, these gardens became the centre of "economic plants" collected from the new world: sugarcane from India and the Caribbean; spices from Ceylon; rubber from Brazil. Under a succession of resourceful directors --William Hooker, his son Joseph Hooker and Thiselton Dyer -- Kew became a central institution of the British Empire. It helped entrepreneurs plant empires of sugarcane, rubber, coffee palm oil and rubber. By early 20th, it stood at the centre of a network of botanical gardens -- including one in Calcutta.

But Drayton's is no simple story of resource transfer. At the heart of such transfer, argues the author, lay the marginalisation of diverse claimants: farmers in Bengal and Jamaica and aborigines in Australia. Transfer of resources are always governed by power relations, argues Drayton. This is an aphorism that many have forgotten today.

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