Plant Imperialism

Plants and Empires
'The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,' wrote Thomas Jefferson. The movement of plants by human agency has affected the course of history. New staples have prevented famines, as when New World maize and sweet potato were introduced into China in the Sixteenth Century; they have supported population explosions, as when the Andean white potato spread throughout northern Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and fed the workers in tile burgeoning industrial cities. New plantation crops have helped to make some nations rich and others poorer, when a local plant-based industry was undermined by a plant transfer.

Seeds have been one of the most precious and easily transported cultural artefacts. They have been exchanged in local and long distance trade, have prompted voyages of discovery, and have been carried thousands of miles by migrating peoples. Only one hundred years ago, the 'Turkey red' strain of hard winter wheat, a basic bread wheat, was brought to the United States by German Mennonite immigrants from the Russian Crimea, who carried the seeds in earthenware jars across the Atlantic to their new home in Kansas.

The archaeologist, Kent Flannery, suggests that transhumant bands of food collectors were instrumental in domesticating the first grains in the Middle East over ten thousand years ago by the simple process of carrying them from a niche that was hard to reach, such as the talus slope below a limestone cliff, and planting them in one that was more accessible, such as the disturbed soil around their camp on a stream terrace. In the new niche, the pressures of natural selection were relaxed and human selection was applied. This principle underlies all successful plant transfers. In a new environment selected and shaped by humans, the plant's natural enemies are left behind, and human attention tries to ward off new ones.

Natural plant monopolies have been short-lived. Being small and easily concealed, like diamonds or gold, seeds have often been smuggled. Until very recently, plant hunters and their sponsors, whether national governments, botanic gardens, commercial nurseries, or pharmaceutical houses, have treated plants as part of nature's bounty, theirs for the taking. Yet any plant worth taking has already been identified and put to use in a local ecosystem. Modern ethnobotanists are more ready than old-time plant hunters to acknowledge the scientific value of local lore, to consult with local experts, and to make suitable arrangements with local or national institutions. It is now generally agreed that rare plants, like minerals, are part of the natural resources of the country in which they are discovered, and are not to be removed without permission and recompense, perhaps merely an exchange of scientific information, perhaps a joint development of the resource. The concept of 'ownership' of plants is intimately tied to the rise of the nation state, to the idea of territorial sovereignty and to respect for the rights of weak and underdeveloped societies.

But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries botany was an ally of the expanding European empires. Botanists sailed on the great exploratory voyages of Captain Cook and his successors, collecting plants in the name of science and for the benefit of the mother country. Sir Joseph Banks, amateur botanist, president of the Royal Society, privy councillor to the King, who had sailed as a young man on Cook's first voyage and had participated in the discovery of Botany Bay, was influential in promoting the settlement of Australia to fill the need for a British naval base in the Far East during the Anglo-French struggle for India. Banks had noted the tall pines and wild flax on Norfolk Island and envisaged an Australian colony where settlers would grow provisions and make masts, spars, and sails. Botanists went with the earliest expeditions up the Niger, the Limpopo, the Zambezi. A botanist ran border surveys in the Himalayas and returned with a collection of nearly 7,000 plants. A botanist in the employ of the British East India Company learned the secrets of tea cultivation, and shipped out 2,000 tea plants and 17,000 tea seeds to start the tea industry in India.

'Well-ripened seeds of rarities will always be acceptable. Simply address Hooker at Kew', wrote the Director of Kew Gardens in his annual report of 1851. Under William J. Hooker's direction Kew Gardens became a depot for the exchange of plants within the Empire, receiving seeds from its collectors, propagating them in Kew greenhouses, and sending those plants with economic possibilities to colonies with suitable climates. Cork oaks were seat to the Punjab, ipecac, mahogany, and papyrus to India, West Indian pineapples to the Straits Settlements, tea plants to Jamaica, an improved strain of tobacco to Natal. Plant transfer is as old as the practice of agriculture, but it had never before been undertaken on such a scale.

Victorian botanists were so imbued with the imperialist ethos of the times that in some instances of plant transfer they failed to respect the rights of independent states with whom their government had diplomatic relations, and they gave little thought to the loss sustained by the country of origin. Historians of Kew Gardens never discuss in print the subterfuges and downright illegalities practiced by the Kew collectors in the transfers of cinchona from the Andean republics of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia in the 1860s, and rubber from Brazil in 1876. They speak only of the humanitarian aspect of the one - quinine from cinchona to treat malaria - and the economic triumph of the other - the great rubber plantations of India, Ceylon, and Malaya. 'Many countries owe a great debt, now rarely acknowledged, to those industrious men of Kew who gave their work and often their lives to foster the trade which began their economic development', says Ronald King, Secretary of the Royal Botanic Gardens, the latest in a long line of Kew's praise-singers.

In trying to list those countries that can be said to owe a debt to the Kew collectors, however, it soon appears that they are mostly former British colonies - India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Kenya, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). The rubber plantations of Java, Sumatra, and Borneo, now in the Republic of Indonesia, and of Laos and Vietnam, formerly French Indo-China, were all started from descendants of the rubber seeds which the British removed from Brazil, using grafting, planting, and tapping methods developed by British and Dutch botanists in the colonial botanic gardens. This seed transfer and others like it were undertaken primarily to provide the mother countries of north-western Europe with tropical commodities produced under their administrative, financial, and judicial control.

In the early days of European expansion, the movement of plantation crops was from the Old World to the New, when the plant riches of the East were carried to the new found lands. On his second voyage, in 1494, Columbus brought sugar cane cuttings to Hispaniola, along with citrus fruits, grape vines, olives, melons, onions, and radishes. Although many of these plants failed in the climate of the Antilles, this was the first step in a two-way transfer of useful plants which A.J. Crosby, Jr., has aptly called 'the Columbian exchange'. European settlers brought wheat for their daily bread, and New World corn, manioc, peanuts and sweet potatoes were carried eastward to become the dietary staples of subsistence farmers in many parts of Africa, Asia, and Oceania. But it was the luxuries derived from tropical plants - the non-essential foodstuffs that made a pleasurable addition to the diet, the dyes and the fibres that had hitherto been available only through trade with the Arabs - that excited the imagination of European traders and governments, and fostered the plantation system in the new tropical colonies.

Sugar cane, originally domesticated in Southeast Asia, was transferred by Arab traders and farmers to Syria and Egypt, and by the tenth century to the islands of the Mediterranean. By the fourteenth century Venetians had learned its culture and the plantation system from the Arabs whom they had displaced. Spaniards and Portuguese carried plantation sugar to the Atlantic Islands (Madeira, the Canaries, the Azores), thence to the Caribbean and Brazil. In 1640 sugar arrived on Barbados, and with it the slave trade and 150 years of prosperity for the West Indian planters, the merchants at home, and the home governments.

The Arabs domesticated coffee, a tree native to the Ethiopian highlands, and introduced it to India, where the Dutch found it and planted it on Ceylon in 1659 and on Java in 1696. One coffee plant from Java reached the Amsterdam Botanic Garden in 1706 and from this one tree most of the coffee plantations of the New World are descended. Seeds from this tree were sent to Surinam (Dutch Guiana) in about 1715; coffee trees went from Surinam to French Guiana and, in 1727, to Brazil, where a great coffee industry was founded that lasts to this day. In the Nineteenth Century both coffee and cocoa, a native American plant, were taken to the West African colonies to be grown on plantations and by small farmers. Ghana, especially, became dependent on its cocoa exports for foreign exchange and has suffered recently from a drop in the price of cocoa.

Nineteen-year-old Eliza Lucas was responsible for the introduction of indigo to the American mainland. Plants of the genus Indigofera have been grown since at least 2000 BC in India to produce a blue dye. Northern Europe did not use indigo in textile dyeing until the Seventeenth Century when the British and Dutch East India Companies imported it and displaced the woad producers. In the Eighteenth Century, the French planted indigo in the French Antilles and exported the processed dye cakes, but the process was a closely held secret. A governor of nearby British Antigua, Colonel George Lucas, sent indigo seeds to his daughter, who managed his three South Carolina plantations in his absence. Although the overseer who was sent with the seeds deliberately spoiled the first batches of dye out of loyalty to his home island and fear of ruining its trade, Governor Lucas sent a black slave from one of the French islands, and with his help Eliza Lucas succeeded in mastering the process. In 1744 she sent a sample of six pounds of indigo cakes to London, and distributed the rest of the seeds of the 1744 crop to her neighbours. Three years later, South Carolina sent 135,000 pounds of indigo cakes to London. Parliament voted a bounty on indigo processed in British territories. A French embargo, making exportation of indigo seeds a capital crime, came too late to save their monopoly.

In 1770, Pierre Poivre, Intendant of Ile de France (Mauritius), an island in the Indian Ocean on the sea route to India and Indonesia, sent expeditions to the uncharted coasts of the Moluccas to bring back cloves and nutmeg, which he planted in the island's Jardin Royal de Pamplemousses. As a young man Poivre had made a voyage to China and Indochina, was wounded, and lost an arm in Batavia. His enforced stay on Java gave him an opportunity to study the spice trade, which the Dutch had successfully monopolised since the Seventeenth Century. They regulated production to maintain artificially high prices and kept all foreigners out of their spice islands. In 1755 Poivre had smuggled pepper and cinnamon to Ile de France and was ennobled by his king. Britain took the island from the French in the Napoleonic Wars, sent cloves to Zanzibar and Pemba off the East African coast, and nutmeg to Grenada in the West Indies. Grenada is now called 'the Spice Island,' instead of the Moluccas.

Many important plant sources changed hands throught he vagaries of European politics. In 1796 Britain took Ceylon from the Dutch and gained access to the cinnamon monopoly. In the Seventeenth Century she had acquired Bombay, with its pepper trade, as part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who married Charles II. Plants followed the flag, as the European powers fought among themselves for control of Asia, and later Africa.

The situation was quite different when Europeans decided in the Nineteenth Century that they wanted certain plants native to areas of Latin America which by that time were postcolonial, independent nation states. Europeans could not bring in their armies, or steal plants from each other. Diplomatic pressure was tried, or subterfuge, or both, as in case of cinchona.

Cinchona's only natural habitat is on the eastern slopes of the Andes, where the bark was collected by forest-dwelling Indians working for absentee land owners. When European observers like the famous naturalist Alexander von Humboldt saw the Indians cutting down whole trees to strip bark, they were convinced that this 'wasteful harvesting practice' would kill the industry. In point of fact, the barkless trunks would have been eaten by insects, whereas in six years new shoots sprouting from the roots were ready for cutting. The cinchona transfer is one of the most intrigue-filled tales in plant history, with both the British and the Dutch trying to get seeds out of the Andean republics, and later vying for control of the Asian-based trade. The Andean republics, newly liberated from Spain and plagued by counter-revolution, were too weak to protect their infant cinchona bark industry.

Charles Hasskarl, director of the Dutch Buiteazorg Gardens on Java, penetrated the Caravaya region of Peru and Bolivia in 1854 under an assumed name. Clements Markham, leader of the British expedition in 1860, fled with his seeds from irate local authorities across southern Peru, avoiding the towns, with only a compass to guide him. Richard Spruce, a renowned explorer and botanist who had worked his way up the Amazon headwaters to Ecuador before being hired as a Kew Gardens cinchona collector, set up camp in a remote mountain valley, collected 100,000 dried seeds and grew over 600 cinchona seedlings. He successfully transported them by raft down to the coast, but these endeavours cost him his health and he never walked again. These efforts, however, yielded few living plants, except for Spruce's 'red cinchonas,' which supplied the stock for thousands of cinchona trees planted in the hilly areas of India and Ceylon. Ironically, this 'red bark' of commerce proved to be inferior in quinine content to the Ledger varieties grown by the Dutch on Java from seeds purchased in 1865 from an English trader, whose Aymara servant smuggled them out of Bolivia, was imprisoned for his treason, and died from prison hardships.

In addition to this piece of luck as regards species, the Dutch programme of intensive care of the cinchona trees gave them a further advantage over the British planters, and by the 1890s a cartel of Dutch quinine processors had control of the market. Many British planters in India and Ceylon switched to tea. The market for South American wild bark had already dwindled to near zero, from a high point of nine million kilos of bark in 1881 before plantation bark had come on the market in quantity.

But those who contend that the British cinchona coup turned out to be a costly fiasco miss the point. The British government did not undertake the cinchona transfer for the benefit of planters, but because it wanted to protect the health of its troops and civil administrators in India, where British rule had been severely shaken by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. And this was accomplished: British-made quinine and quinidine were reserved for the representatives of the British Raj, and Britain's grip on India was made more secure by an influx of soldiers and civil servants who no longer feared 'the deadly climate'.

The much-vaunted programme to sell government-made 'totaquine', a less refined and cheaper anti-malarial derived from cinchona bark, 'at every post office in Bengal' was never pursued with vigour and was soon allowed to lapse. European quinine processors made big profits from plantation-grown cinchona bark in South Asia. Quinine became a more and more expensive drug, mostly beyond the purse of the indigenous peoples of malarial areas, but useful to their Western masters, and expecially to Western armies. In the First World %'ar the Allies faced a shortage of quinine, since the neutral Netherlands sold bark and quinine to Germany. A representative of Howard & Sons, the British quinine processing firm, negotiated an agreement to pool Allied resources and to get access to the Java bark. He also 'saved' the output of British cinchona estates from going to the India office, hence to the Indian public. In 1942 when the worst combined famine and malaria epidemic hit India and Ceylon, taking over two million lives, the British would not release quinine stockpiled in India to the civilian population. The cinchona plantations of Java were at that time in the hands of the Japanese and constituted one of the great prizes of their conquest of Southeast Asia. The United States, also desperately in need of quinine for its military forces in the South Pacific, instituted a successful crash programme to rehabilitate the wild cinchona of the Andes. In two and a half years 18,000 tons of cinchona bark were harvested for processing in the United States.

Quinine was also essential to the British, French, and Germans in their 'scramble for Africa', where appalling death rates had confined Europeans to the coast until quinine prophylaxis was adopted. It seems no coincidence that the New Imperialism of the late Nineteenth Century represented a European expansion into parts of the world where malaria was hyper-endemic.

In the post-Second World War era, synthetic drugs largely replaced quinine in the Western world, but there was still a market for the drug. In 1959 a new cartel of Dutch, German, French, and British quinine processing companies was formed to control every aspect of the production and distribution of the world's supply of quinine, with reserved geographic markets for each firm and a uniform system of pricing. The main objective of this cartel was to eliminate competition, both among themselves and from outsiders, in bidding for the huge United States stockpile of bulk quinine, surplus war material then being put on the market. Members of the cartel agreed not to buy quinine from the Bandoeng factory in the Republic of Indonesia, a legacy from Dutch colonial days and the largest non-European processor of cinchona bark. By restricting its market, the cartel also gained access to Javanese cinchona bark which would otherwise have gone to the Bandoeng factory.

The celebrated rubber transfer occurred in 1876 when Henry Wickham, an English adventurer in the employ of Kew Gardens and the India Office, made off with a boatload of about 70,000 Hevea rubber seeds. Wickham hoodwinked the Brazilian customs officer, telling him that he had a cargo of 'exceedingly delicate botanical specimens specially designated for delivery to Her Britannic Majesty's own Royal Gardens of Kew'. The precious seeds were soon planted in Kew's greenhouses, and in a few months 1,900 rubber seedlings were en route to the Peradeniya Gardens in Ceylon. Seeds from Ceylon were sent to the Singapore Gardens, where Henry Ridley, a Kew-trained botanist, worked out the wound response method of tapping. He was called 'Mad Ridley' or 'Rubber Ridley' for his pains, but in 1895 he finally persuaded a few British planters in Malaya to try the new crop.

At the turn of the century 98 per cent of the world's rubber came from Brazil. By 1919 the Brazilian rubber industry was dead. Singapore was thereafter the rubber capital of the world. In the 1930s, before the end of the colonial era, 75 per cent of the world's rubber, by that time a vital strategic resource in both peace and war, came from British owned plantations. Indentured Chinese labourers opened up the forests in Malaya; impoverished Tamils from India came across the straits to Malaya and Ceylon to work rubber and got caught up in debt peonage. The old agrarian empires of Asia supplied a docile and inexhaustible labour force.

In the early 1870s when Kew Gardens and the India Office first began trying to get rubber seeds out of Brazil (the first three attempts were failures because the seeds did not germinate), the wild rubber trade did not suffer from the cartel conditions that developed later. Britain had no conceivable reason of national security for invading Brazil's sovereignty by the surreptitious removal of one of its natural resources, merely an economic incentive, and in the pre-automotive era, not a very strong one at that. Yet because (he motorised West has depended heavily in this century on rubber emanating from Asian plantations, the rubber seed transfer, when it is remembered, is generally treated as an admirable exploit. Wickham's deceit of Brazilian authorities is not mentioned.

After the rubber coup of 1876 Kew Gardens did not undertake any organised expedition in contravention of laws prohibiting the exportation of Latin American plants, nor has any subsequent plant removal had the economic and political importance of rubber. But Britain still urged her consular officials to send home specimens of protected plants and reports on their propagation and processing, and Kew Gardens continued to seek such plants for study and to print such trade secrets in the name of science.

A case in point is sisal, a hard fibre suitable for making twine and rope. Sisal is obtained from the leaves of agave species native to the dry areas of Central America. The fibre was known and used by the Mayan Indians. In the 1830s commercial production was begun on the great haciendas of northern Yucatan. The Indian labour force was attached to the haciendas by debt peonage, easily enforced because Ladino appropriation of the water holes made independent village life impossible. After 1875, when grain production was intensified on the American plains, the Argentine pampas, and in eastern Europe to feed the growing urban populations of both North Atlantic seaboards, sisal was in great demand as a binder twine for wheat sheaves. The sisal plantations of Yucatan became vast agricultural factories, with American capital supplying machines to strip the fibre from the waste pulp, and railroads to take the sisal to the ports. Yucatan, once Mexico's poorest state, became its richest, and Merida a glittering city.

Kew's interest was aroused. It was thought that sisal would do very well in the Bahamas and the other drier islands of the West Indies, which were languishing in post-sugar, pre-tourist doldrums, as well as in Fiji, Mauritius, and perhaps India. But Mexico would not export its plants, nor give away its trade secrets. In 1890, however, the British consul in Vera Cruz obliged by sending Kew two lots of sisal plants, many of which were 'dead on arrival', to quote a Kew report. Specimens were sent to the botanic gardens of Antigua, Fiji, and Singapore. In 1892 Kew published, in its Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information , a series of articles describing in detail the production and processing of Mexican sisal. Kew had done its part, according to its charter, in 'aiding the Mother Country in everything that is useful in the vegetable Kingdom'.

But the British plans miscarried. Scientific information travels easily to peoples culturally prepared to receive it. A German agronomist working for the German East Africa Company read the Kew Bulletin articles and found there, in a report of the director of the Trinidad garden, the name of a sisal bulbil supplier in Florida, where sisal plants had grown wild since 1840. Dr Henry Perrine, former United States consul in Campeche, Mexico, had received from Congress in 1836 a grant of land on Biscayne Bay on which he intended to establish a botanic garden of exotic plants. While waiting for the Seminole War to be over, he settled with his family and his plants on Indian Key. Among the plants he brought from Mexico were figs, indigo, mulberry, tamarinds, mangoes (all originally from the East), and agaves. He had been given permission to take the agaves out of Yucatan in appreciation of his personal services to the community of Campeche during a cholera epidemic. In 1840 Dr Perrine was killed in an Indian raid and his abandoned plants spread to the mainland.

A sisal industry never developed in Florida, but descendants of Perrine's sisal plants furnished the start of a thriving industry in East Africa, where German colonists adopted modern methods of planting, harvesting, and processing sisal, using a labour force of native tribesmen coerced into labour by land alienation and head-tax payments. Kenya, just to the north, started a similar industry from purchases of German bulbils, before a 1908 German embargo on their sale. Britain acquired German East Africa under the terms of the Versailles Treaty in 1919, and with the colony (then Tanganyika, now Tanzania) its sisal industry. Between the world wars, Java had huge sisal plantations. By the 1960s Mexico's share of the world's hard fibre trade had dropped to 12 per cent; Manila hemp accounted for 13 per cent; most of the rest was East African sisal. Another Latin American plant-based industry had been undermined in favour of European colonies in the Eastern hemisphere.

The white settlers in the East African highlands also grew coffee, tea, and maize for export to Europe. The agricultural value of the East African colonies rested entirely on introduced plants. The political repercussions of this imposed agricultural system are still reverberating today. But their contribution to the prosperity of the Empire was minor in comparison to that of the South Asian colonies, especially Malaya with its rubber, and Ceylon with rubber and tea. Java under the Dutch was the richest jewel in any colonial crown, with its plantations of rubber, cinchona, coffee, tea, sisal, and tobacco.

The partnership between colonising governments and botanic gardens in the transfer and scientific development of useful plants was mutually beneficial. State subsidy supported the science of botany, pure and applied. Botanic garden repaid the national investment many times over, in the form of new plantation crops and improved yields. Tropical monoculture under European direction wrested an enormous bounty from the earth, but it also produced political and ecological imbalances with which the modern world must struggle.

By Lucile Brockway

Back to Science and Technology
Further Reading
Plants and Civilization
by Herbert G. Baker

The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492
by A W Crosby

Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Studies in Environment and History)
by A W Crosby

Seeds, Sex and Civilization: How the Hidden Life of Plants has Shaped Our World
by Stephen Harris

Empires of Nature and the Nature of Empires: Imperialism, Scotland and the Environment
by J. M. MacKenzie


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