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 []