Offering orchids, selling opium : gifts and profits in colonial botanic gardens (19th century) – Marine Bellego

Botanical things are commonly used as gifts: ornamental plants can easily be turned into presents, terrariums in glass bottles have become fashionable objects to bring to a birthday party, and offering cut flowers remains a codified way of expressing various feelings ranging from compassion to love. In a much more mundane way, the colonial officers who ran imperial botanic gardens in the 19th century commonly used plants and plant-derived products as gifts in their daily professional activity. The small-scale gift economy on which the naturalist community relied, however, contrasted sharply with the large-scale production of plant commodities (tea, opium, cinchona, etc.) meant to be sold at a good price on the global market, an entreprise to which botanical gardens were expected to contribute. By examining the circulation of botanical objects produced by colonial gardens, one can explore the ambiguous status of the plants and plant-derived products that were offered, exchanged and sold within colonial networks of trade and science in the late 19th century.

Imperial authorities funded botanical institutions, such as the Calcutta garden which was one of the most important gardens of the British Empire, investing them with a mission to improve the imperial economy by encouraging profitable trade1 . During the last three decades of the 19th century, for example, the Department of Agriculture of the Government of Bengal strongly encouraged the officers in charge of the Calcutta garden to focus as much as possible on ‘economic botany’ through experiments in acclimatizing, growing and processing profitable species such as tea, opium, rubber or cinchona. Opium, cultivated in the plains of Bihar by peasants who were forced to give up their existing cultures, and then sold mainly to China, became one of the most lucrative commodities for British capitalists in the 19th century.2) Several studies have explored the links between exploitative economic systems, which relied on underpaid human labour, and the plant transfers organized by imperial powers3 . It is therefore interesting to focus on the ways in which scientific practices that took place in such gardens were purposedly kept out of financial transactions.

Gifts and exhanges were central to the practical and symbolic economy that enabled the scientific functioning of cross-imperial networks, of which botanic gardens were important elements4 . Colonial gardens hosted herbaria, namely collections of dried plant specimens that were used for the description and identification of species. The ‘discovery’ of new species was at the heart of what colonial botanists considered to be their scientific mission. In order to find and obtain specimens, the gardens’ directors often relied on the unpaid labour of amateur naturalists stationed in various regions and with whom they corresponded5 . The work of these amateurs was motivated by friendship and collegiality as well as by a search for  prestige and recognition. George King, the director of the Calcutta garden, congratulated himself on his friendship with a colonel named Collett who sent him many interesting specimens from Burma and Assam. ‘It’s a pity that there are no more soldiers than Collett’, he wrote in 1890 to the director of Kew Gardens, near London.6

In order for a herbarium to function and for collections to be used and compared, plant specimens had to be made both accessible and mobile. Once a particular species was discovered or when plant collections were arranged, duplicates were sent to other botanical institutions and no money was ever expected in return. The same was true of living specimens of plants sent from one garden to another, which were meant to contribute to the ornamental or pedagogical dimension of other gardens. Even the nautical transportation of living plants in Wardian cases (boxes made of wood and glass) was kept outside the monetary sphere. The large-scale transport of plants depended on a system of favours between botanists and ship captains, who were often allowed to pay themselves in nature (literally) by eventually appropriating some of the plants they took in charge.

One particular file of the Calcutta garden’s archives bears witness to the fact that gifts and exchanges contributed to define the scientific identity of colonial botanists. Since the 1890s, the Calcutta garden published a prestigious scientific periodical, the Annals. In 1909, the Bengal administration started to object to the cost of these bi-annual volumes, which they deemed excessive. The director of the garden explained that such financial matters could hardly be an obstacle: ‘When the governement sanctioned the establishment of these Annals […] it was decided that, although a few extra copies might be printed so as to be obtained by purchase, it was contrary to the object of Government to treat the issue of volumes of the series as a commercial speculation.’ He added that the cost of these publications was in fact minimal, considering all the periodicals that the garden was sent in exchange for those volumes, and concluded that the government should regard the Annals as a ‘remunerative investment’.7 The financial argument was of course strategic when dealing with the colonial administration, but the director’s main point was the centrality of gifts and exchanges in scientific botanical practice. Sending seeds, plants, specimens and books to similar institutions, without any monetary counterpart, was primarily a matter of prestige and scientific reputation.

Within colonial botanic gardens and around them, the tension between the realm of economic profit and the sphere of collaborative scientific exchange manifested itself through the vexed question of the free distribution of seeds and plants. Colonial botanic gardens were public institutions and one of their initial roles was to spread the culture of useful plants in environments where they did not grow spontaneously. This enterprise was integral to the imperial rhetoric of improvement and civilization. The tabular annexes to the Calcutta garden annual reports show that the distribution of plants and seeds was one of its main missions: in the 1860s, hundreds of thousands of young plants were sent each year to prisons, hospitals, offices, train stations, municipal parks and gardens, official buildings and monuments, and even individuals. As local nurseries began to develop, however, this free distribution began to be seen as unfair competition by Indian nurserymen. The free distribution of plants therefore became limited, in theory, to ‘public purposes’. Files from the archives show that this principle was difficult to apply, because the Calcutta garden’s officers in charge of sending plants had a rather accomodating conception of what a ‘public purpose’ meant. Any British person who lived or had lived in India could be seen as serving or having served the colonial mission and therefore receive plants as a matter of ‘public interest’. In 1911, when a retired Bengal chaplain wrote from to Calcutta from Loughton, in Essex, to receive ‘very small quantities’ of local varieties of roses for his garden, he was sent the seeds freely and was even exempted from paying the post charges.8

Regulating the giving and sending of plants was a complicated matter, not only because rules were open to various interpretations but also because the behaviour of individual botanists and gardeners was often unpredictable. A close reading of the archives show for example that many young gardeners who stayed in the Calcutta garden as ‘probationer gardeners’ often fell victims to psychological illnesses. Alcoholism was widespread among them. In 1883, a probationer gardener named James Craig, in one particular ethylic bout, offered numerous and precious orchids from the garden to a London collector who worked for a private nursery. He was later dismissed for ‘drunken behavior’.9

One of the functions of the gift economy that prevailed among naturalists was to distinguish the scientific sphere from the merely economic one. However, the case of the Calcutta botanic garden shows that the two realms were far from being hermetically separated. Whatever the efforts of naturalists to define scientific credit through a collective gift system independent from trade, colonial botanic gardens remained institutions designed to serve the economic interests of imperial capitalists.

Marine Bellego

  1. Lucile H. Brockway, 1979, Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens, New York, Londres,Toronto : Academic Press []
  2. See for example the novel Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (2008 []
  3. Richard Drayton, 2000, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World, New Haven, Londres : Yale University Press ; John Tully, 2011, The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber, New York : Monthly Review Press. []
  4. Thérèse Bru, 2017, Circulations scientifiques : les naturalistes et leurs données entre les mondes britannique et français, 1700-1836, Thèse de doctorat, Université Paris 8. []
  5. Dominique Juhé-Beaulaton et Vincent Leblan (dir.), 2018, Le spécimen et le collecteur : savoirs naturalistes, pouvoirs et altérités (XVIIIe – XXe siècle), Paris : Museum d’Histoire Naturelle. []
  6. Kew Gardens, DC/156/848, 6th October 1890. []
  7. Acharya Jagadich Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, Uncatalogued archives, ‘Annals of the Royal Botanic Gardens’. []
  8. Acharya Jagadich Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden, Uncatalogued archives, ‘Seeds sent to retired Bengal chaplain’. []
  9. Kew Gardens, DC/156/614, 8th May 1883 []

A horse, a horse, my garter for a horse! When Queen Victoria met Sultan Abdul Aziz, London, 1867 – Stéphanie Prévost

While fans of the PBS Victoria series fret about the possibility of a fourth season, conjectures are building up as to its contents, notably as season 3’s cliff-hanger ending foreshadows the tragic death of Prince Albert in December 1861 and Queen Victoria’s early widowhood. How much Victoria shall leap forward in the 1860s is also under discussion…

In the margins of the 1867 Reform Act, which was eventually to grant some representation to urban skilled artisans in British politics for the first time, lies a long overlooked, yet crucial moment of Victorian diplomacy. On 12 July, 1867, Britain was to welcome the first non-Christian head of state for an official State visit on her soil: Sultan Abdul Aziz, who had inherited the Ottoman throne but six years earlier. As the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Stanley, confided in Queen Victoria’s private secretary on 22 May, 1867: ‘This visit will be memorable as the first which any sovereign of the Turkish empire has ever paid to the capitals of the West. It may also have important political results. English influence is at present greater than that of any other power at Constantinople. To maintain it is important.’1To reach that objective, Britain – in the person of her Sovereign – was to offer the Sultan a magnificent and friendly welcome during his visit (12-23 July) – that is at least as lavish as Napoleon III’s welcome to Sultan Abdul Aziz during his French visit (29 June-10 July) on the occasion of the Paris Universal Exhibition. At stake, was also the award to Sultan Abdul Aziz of the Order of the Garter, the most senior and the oldest order of knighthood in Britain, which he made a requisite of his English visit.

The investiture of Sultan Abdul Aziz with the Order of the Garter onboard the Royal Yacht on 17 July, 1867 by Queen Victoria is now best remembered due to George Housman Thomas’s representations (1867), two of which are in the Royal Collections, and a third one is on display at Weston Park (Shropshire). Little do they say about the weeks-long drama preceding the award. Queen Victoria had demurred from the minute she heard of the Sultan’s visit in May: he had invited himself at the last minute, which, to her, forbade his having any grand expectations – especially receiving the Garter, which she alone could decide to give. Indeed, the Queen felt little inclined to welcoming him at all, and arguing that her ill-health forbade it, she sent her son Prince Edward to meet him at Dover. Her government, otherwise busy with the passing of the 2nd Reform Act, urged to avoid a diplomatic fallout. Yet, but two days before the ceremony, the Queen was still very hesitant as she ‘cannot help feeling the anomaly of bestowing a Xtian order on a Mussulman [sic]’.2 The Queen asked Lord Northcote, then Secretary of State, and Lord Stanley, to consider an acceptable alternative, which the Sultan eventually turned down as inadequate (according to the Ottoman honours system). In so doing, Queen Victoria had sought to restore a more classical/Western power dynamics in ceremonial gift-giving, whereby the giver freely has the choice of the gift. It nonetheless became clear that ‘the Sultan would consider himself slighted if he were given anything but the Garter’.3 The insignia had been conferred upon his predecessor, Sultan Abdulmecid I, by the British ambassador at Constantinople, Lord Canning, there at the Embassy in 1856. Besides, the British press had also announced in June 1867 that the honour was about to be given to the Czar by Queen Victoria. Eventually conceding that it might be difficult to shrink away from bestowing the Order of the Garter upon Sultan Abdul Aziz without jeopardizing Anglo-Ottoman relations, the Queen did consent to award ‘her Oriental Brother’ this mark of special distinction.4 As his English visit came to a close, the Sultan ‘expresse[d] himself as highly pleased with his whole reception in this country which he greatly prefers to that which he met with in Paris. But nothing has given him half as much pleasure as the receipt of the garter and especially the mode in which it was conferred’.5 The investiture reasserted – at least symbolically – the status of the Ottoman Sultan as a full-fledged member of the Concert of Europe – a status stipulated in the 1856 Paris treaty, which had put an end to the Crimean War.

According to Marcel Mauss, giving necessarily entails receiving and counter-giving. Diplomatic correspondence between the Ottoman ambassador in London and the British Foreign Office reveals that Sultan Abdul Aziz intended to reciprocate by giving Queen Victoria seven purebred Arabian horses, both as acknowledgement (as from equal to equal) and display of munificence. Gifting an Arabian horse to another head of state was part of a long-standing Ottoman tradition and a highly valued one. The gift was meant to be gender-neutral, but was not read in that way by the Queen, who was about to turn down the present for fear of overarching consequences. When disclosed at the Royal Academy in May 1867, Sir Edwin Landseer’s commissioned portrait Queen Victoria at Osborne (1865-1867) had raised suspicions about the true nature of the widowed Queen’s relationship with her Scottish servant, John Brown. The Sultan’s gift was thus conceived as an embarrassment by Victoria and her entourage, who believed that accepting it would cause rumours of impropriety to resume.

To ease relations and avoid a diplomatic break, Lord Stanley worked closely with the Ottoman ambassador in London to bring the view across to the Sultan that ‘horses [were] not appropriate for her use’, but that she was not refusing the gift proper.6 Four Arabian horses were given by the Sultan to her son Prince Edward instead and were eventually accepted in November 1867.

The visit is usually regarded as a success for both Britain and the Ottoman Empire, but actually gives to see two rather asymmetrical gift-giving systems in contact on British soil and at the risk of incommensurability (e.g. over the role the Garter performed). It also shows the agency of diplomatic intermediaries in bridging it, as they acted as intercultural brokers (especially the British Foreign Secretary, the British ambassador at Constantinople, the Ottoman ambassador to St James’ Court and former Grand Vizir Fuad Pasha, who accompanied Sultan Abdul Aziz to Europe and had been secretary at the London Embassy in 1840). Finally, the episode serves to remind us that the meaning of a gift, its value and acceptability is fluid and highly context-dependent.

Stéphanie Prévost

  1. Lord Stanley to General Grey, 23 May 1867, Royal Archives (RA), Windsor, VIC/MAIN/B23, f. 69. []
  2. In Widdall to Lord Stanley, 15 July 1867, RA, VIC/MAIN/H/1, f. 117. []
  3. Robert Wilson, The Life and Times of Queen Victoria, Volume 3, London : Cassell & Co., 1887, 294. []
  4. Grey to Stanley, 10 July 1867, RA, VIC/MAIN/H/1, f. 111. []
  5. In Derby to Grey, 20 July 1867, RA, VIC/MAIN/A/36, f. 5. []
  6. In Stanley to the Queen, 20 September 1867, RA, VIC/MAIN/H/1, f. 158. []

Gifting the Harem: Gendered Gifts Between the Ottoman Sultana and the English Queen – Mathilde Alazraki

“If She will never cease from (sending) such letters which foster the increase of sincerity and love (…) I shall endeavor for Her aims.” This sentence concludes the letter that the Ottoman Sultana Safiye (c. 1550-1621) wrote to Elizabeth I in 1593, in response to the English Queen’s own letter and gift that were sent to the Ottoman harem earlier in the same year.

            When thinking about the exchange of diplomatic gifts in the early modern period, one rarely thinks of women as active senders and receivers of gifts, and even less of women sending gifts to each other. And yet, looking at the remarkable example of the correspondence between Elizabeth I and Safiye can tell us how gendered gifts, offered by and specifically aimed at women, facilitated diplomatic relationships at a time when the rest of Europe and the Ottoman Empire were at odds on a religious, cultural, and linguistic level.

            To fully grasp the influence of gendered gifts in the economic and diplomatic partnership between England and the Ottoman Empire at the end of the sixteenth century, it is first necessary to understand the uniqueness of the period that led to the correspondence between Elizabeth I and Safiye. The Ottoman Sultana, favorite concubine of Murad III (r. 1574-1595) and mother of his heir Mehmed III (r. 1595-1603), ruled the harem as Hasseki (favorite) and Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan) during the “sultanate of women”, a time in Ottoman history when the Hasseki and Valide held unprecedented political power in foreign and domestic affairs between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries1.Safiye herself was known to correspond with European actors such as the Venetian ambassador in Constantinople2, and even with Queen Catherine de Medici3, making the harem a true place of diplomatic exchange. Thus, when Elizabeth I, freshly excommunicated by the Pope in 1570, initiated a trade deal with the Ottoman Empire to fight the Catholic Habsburg hegemony around the Mediterranean, her ambassador Edward Barton suggested that the Queen send a gift to the Sultana in order to win her favors. Befriending Safiye would allow Elizabeth and her ambassador in Constantinople to achieve their political and economic goals in the Ottoman Empire more easily, and it is with this hope that “a jewel of her majestie picture, set with some rubies and diamonds4 was sent to the royal harem.

            Critics like Tracey Sowerby have written on the mnemonic and metonymic role that royal portraits played in early modern gift-exchange5. The portrait, through its metonymic function, represented a part of Elizabeth and her kingdom which would be displayed in the royal harem of Constantinople, visually signifying the diplomatic ties between England and the Ottoman Empire. But this portrait also served an even more straightforward purpose: by looking at it, Safiye would know what Elizabeth looked like, making the English Queen and their friendship commensurable – to build on Subrahmanyam’s idea of “commensurability”6 – in spite of the geographical, linguistic, cultural and religious gap separating them.

According to Richard Wrag, an Englishman who arrived in Constantinople aboard the same ship as Elizabeth’s gift, Safiye enjoyed the picture so much that she immediately sent for the English ambassador Edward Barton to have her own gifts and letter brought to Elizabeth. The gifts included “a sute of princely attire being after the Turkish fashion”.7 It is here significant to point out that, though Muslim tradition prevented Safiye from sending back her own portrait, she still chose to send an Ottoman costume, which served the same mnemonic and metonymic function as the royal portrait, bringing a part of the Ottoman harem to the English court in London. The luxury gift of the Ottoman dress thus allowed Safiye to become equally commensurable to Elizabeth, who would be able to see and wear in London the same type of clothes as the Sultana in Constantinople.

            Subrahmanyam tells us that “there is a tendency to think of cultural incommensurability as particularly acute at moments of encounters, when two disparate (and perhaps historically separated) politico-cultural entities come into contact.”8 And yet, looking at the exchange between Safiye and Elizabeth can help us see how two historically different powers came together in the early modern period through common economic and political interests against the Catholic Habsburg hegemony, and how female gift-giving practices helped strengthen diplomatic relationships between Protestant England and the Ottoman Empire. While diplomatic studies in the English language have historically been permeated by a Eurocentric tendency to think of cosmopolitanism in the form of a white Christian man reaching out toward the rest of the world, Elizabeth and Safiye’s correspondence is a perfect example of how two women from different cultural, religious and even linguistic worlds fostered curiosity, friendship and peace-building through the gifting of gendered luxury items on a global scale.

Mathilde Alazraki

  1. Maria P. Pedani, ‘Safiye’s Household and Venetian Diplomacy’, Turcica 32 (2000), pp. 9-32, p. 10. []
  2. Luca Molà, ‘Material Diplomacy: Venetian Luxury Gifts for the Ottoman Empire in the Late Renaissance,’ in Global gifts: The Material Culture of Diplomacy in Early Modern Eurasia, ed. Biedermann et al., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 73-77. []
  3. Pedani, ‘Safiye’s Household’, p. 16. []
  4. Richard Wrag, ‘A description of a voyage to Constantinople and Syria,’ in Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques And Discoveries Of The English Nation, ed. Richard Hakluyt (Glasgow: Glasgow University Press, 1904), vol. 6, p. 102. []
  5. Tracey A. Sowerby, ‘Negotiating the Royal Image: Portrait Exchanges in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Diplomacy,’ in Early Modern Exchanges, Dialogues Between Nations and Cultures, 1550-1750, ed. Helen Hackett (New York: Routledge, 2016), p. 125. []
  6. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Courtly Encounters: Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasia (Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 4-6. []
  7. Wrag, ‘A Description’, p. 102. []
  8. Subrahmanyam, Courtly Encounters, p. 7. []

Oriental Gifts and the Commensurability Question: Starting with the Terminology – Ladan Niayesh

“Fetch me the handkerchief: my mind misgives!” (William Shakespeare, Othello, act 4, sc. 3). This exclamation by the Moorish hero of Shakespeare’s tragedy of cultural meltdown has always struck me as the epitome of the misunderstanding around his ill-fated love gift to Desdemona. As she sticks to her talk of Cassio in the desperate hope of changing the subject of the lost handkerchief, she does not realise how the two are one and the same in her husband’s “misgiving” mind.

The example of Othello’s “mis-given” Egyptian gift going the wrong way down the interpretation lane draws our attention to how much gifts are by essence not just material objects and commodities. Rather, they are symbolic objects in performance, whose safe journeys and successful receptions depend, in the words of Felicity Heal, on a “proper understanding between the transacting parties”, or at least “a measure of ‘cultural agreement’” between them if they hark from different cultural spheres, like the emblematic Moorish-Venetian couple of Shakespeare’s play.[1]

In effect, gifts exchanged in a transcultural context open up material “contact zones” – to use Marie-Louise Pratt’s linguistic analogy[2] – where opportunities for understanding or misunderstanding the Other can arise. Behaving like full-fledged actors of social relations, metonymic gifts like Othello’s handkerchief perform and negotiate the terms of inclusion or exclusion of the parties they represent.

Taking the measure of the interpretive protocol which characterises a transcultural gift beyond its sheer material form takes us to the heart of the “commensurability” debate with which Sanjay Subrahmanyam opens his Courtly Encounters, devoted to forms of interstate and interimperial relations in early modern Eurasia.[3] The larger problem of the compatibility of standards between politico-cultural entities coming into diplomatic contact in the period – if such is the way we understand “commensurability” in that context – is too vast to deal with in the short span of this blog entry. But for the purposes of launching the reflection on Oriental gifts, one preliminary we need to examine is the compatibility of standards in terminology, so as to be aware of matches and mismatches.

A one-size-fits-all term, “gift” does not necessarily cover the wide array of social and hierarchical performances inscribed in its counterparts in Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal realms in the early modern period. For the sake of brevity, I will restrict my examination to the examples of two widely used terms in that context, “Peshkash” and “Khilat”, but conclusions reached about those two can be extended to other similarly specialised terms.

“Peshkash” is defined by the OED as “a fine or present made to the ruling authority on receiving an appointment or an assignment of revenue”, with a first attested usage in 1619 in documents related to the East India Company. It thereby suggests the practice of gifting as a circuit of bribery that the Company needs to enter in order to secure trading privileges in the East in the tough economic context of global competition. But looking at the term’s Persian etymology opens up a different avenue, involving not just value for money, but a hierarchical performance, since the term literally means “drawing, carrying forward” a gift, hence implying a protocol of humility for that special “gift presented by an inferior to a superior”. “Peshkash” is therefore more aptly to be understood, not as a neutral “gift” of value in a monetary transaction, but as a symbolic tribute or mark of fealty towards a ruler and a system. “Peshkash” thus creates a form of bonding and becomes a rite of integration for the newcomers in the system, who place themselves under the protection of the sovereign and get tolerated in the land by his special favour. Failure of the protocol and the performance of ritual going with the gift would mar its symbolic value and social function.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum of performance, “Khilat” is defined by the OED as “a dress of honour presented by a king or other dignitary as a mark of distinction to the person receiving it; hence, any handsome present made by an acknowledged superior”, with a first attested usage in 1684, taken from the English translation of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s account of his travels to Mughal India. Here again, we need the Persian and Arabic etymology to see the performance beyond the gifted robe, since the Arabic radical Khal’ involves emptying out and disrobing. The ritual suggested here is that of the ruler bestowing a garment just taken off his own body. This metonymic gift is therefore to be understood as part of his public persona of power and authority that he accepts to share with an acknowledged vassal. The gift of the khilat thus opens up the “imagined community” – to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase –[4] around the sovereign to make room for the foreign element getting formally naturalized and integrated.

Gifts, like languages, are about sharing, understanding, and bonding. Rhetoric of service and symbolic performance are part and parcel of the function of a gift in situ, and we need to take them into account systematically when addressing the specificity of Oriental gifts in our larger project for this blog and any future research derived from it. Failure to fully do so would lead us to the same communicational dead-end as Shakespeare’s “misgiving” Moor of Venice.

Ladan Niayesh

[1] Felicity Heal, The Power of Gifts: Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 23.

[2] Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone”, Profession (1991), pp. 33-40.

[3] Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Courtly Encounters: Translating Courtliness and Violence in Early Modern Eurasia (Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2012), pp. 4-6.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).