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Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World

Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World
Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan (editors)
University of Pennsylvania Press
Publication Date: 

cloth, 346 p., $55.00

Each plant in a garden has a story to tell. Often long forgotten, its past will likely be connected with commerce and politics. Its history may also include tales of felony, if the plant had potential as a cash crop. In this collection of articles from international scholars on colonial botany, science historian Londa Schiebinger and art historian Claudia Swan have revealed the cultural history connected with plant introductions into Europe and its colonial possessions.

As the editors point out in an overview, the world powers at the time treated their colonial possessions differently. While some held autocratic control over botanical ventures, others allowed greater freedom to commercial enterprises that brought back new plants to Europe. Each nation had its own agenda in regards to plant introductions, but all sought commercial benefit. Unfortunately, nearly all ignored local knowledge, that is the wisdom of those from whom the plants had been acquired; how native populations, and specifically women, had used a plant for medicinal purposes was disregarded. The editors also relate the problems connected with the transportation and accounting of new plant introductions. New methods and technologies were needed to transport specimens to the Old World from far distant lands. By the 19th century the Linnean system of classification became challenged, and new methods of accounting for botanical specimens became critical to evaluate the mass of information collected.

This thought–provoking publication reflects on the errors that nations committed in their pursuit of power during the colonial expansion period, not least of which affected the accumulation of plant knowledge.

— Marilyn K. Alaimo, garden writer and volunteer, Chicago Botanic Garden