Science and imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Aug 24 18:13:56 MDT 2000

>From the preface to Richard Drayton's newly published "Nature's Government:
Science, Imperial Britain and the 'Improvement' of the World'" (Yale Press)

Nature’s Government is an experiment at writing a history which does
justice to both the ‘big’ and the ‘small’. It is, on the one hand, a ‘world
history’: it seeks to explain the origins of how we live and think today in
terms of processes which operated over several centuries, and through all
the continents of human experience. But it also ‘zooms’ in, describing and
explaining the particular circumstances of Europe, Britain, and ultimately
it focusses on a small cast of scientific and political actors. You may
feel at times like Alice in Wonderland, as its lens asks you to grow,
shrink, and grow again. But as Ranke suggested, it is in this movement
between the texture of the local and specific, and the larger human story,
that we might discover the secrets of universal history. Let us start with
the ‘big’.

If we examine the pattern of modern history from 1500 to the present, we
may notice that the world’s population has vastly increased, and with it
the scope of the earth’s surface put to human use. With this increase in
the scale of existence came the replacement of local structures of life by
a new cosmopolitan dependency. In terms of units of identity, production,
exchange, language, politics, and values, we share a world wholly different
from that lived, imagined, or imaginable in 1500. Our difference lies, in
part, in our insight into the place of our species in nature: our knowledge
that we are all, under the skin, the same, is a crucial basis of the new
order. For this we may thank the natural sciences. A third aspect of our
era has been the elaboration of symbols and laws which make sense of the
processes which govern the experience of all matter. The knowledge of
nature has transformed the boundaries of human power, and with it our
attitudes to the universe and to ourselves. The progress of human
settlement, interdependency, and the sciences, all depended, this book
argues, on what historians have called ‘The Expansion of Europe’. Empires
which found their centres in European nations were the principal
instruments through which ideas, knowledge, styles of economy and politics,
plants and people, once specific to particular places, were given
international reach. They set the boundaries of nations, and the terms on
which the rich now encounter the poor. Empires, the children of the
medieval world, were the midwives of the modern.

This book is an attempt to make sense of the origins of the modern world.
It explores the interactions of science and imperial expansion. The drama
under our lens is woven from the histories of the knowledge and use of
plants, and of Britain and its empire. Its protagonist, whose origins and
achievements we shall pursue, is the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew Through
the story of a garden we may explore the history of the world. To
understand why, let us begin at the beginning.

On his third voyage, Columbus reached a country at the mouth of a great
river which the people who discovered him called Paria. He named it ‘the
Gardens ... for the place and the people correspond with that appellation
... there are great indicators of this being the terrestrial paradise’. I
was born in this corner of South America at the fall of the British Empire.
British Guiana was small, relative that is to its neighbours, Brazil and
Venezuela— at 83,000 square miles it might happily have engulfed England.
The territory of my country had been part of the English imagination since
Walter Ralegh had first sought ‘the large, rich, and bewtiful empyre of
Guiana’. Ralegh promised a cargo of strange ‘beasts, birds, fishes,
fruites, flowers, gummes, sweet woods ... divers berries, that die most
perfect crimson and carnation’. He hoped to give his Protestant monarch
that ‘Indian Golde’ which in Spanish hands ‘indaungereth and disturbeth all
the nations of Europe’. But the gold was scattered in a thousand creeks,
and Ralegh never found the mine which might either have saved his neck, or
tempted James I to found a new colony It was instead the wealth from
plants—cotton and sugar-cane— which two centuries later led the British to
seize Guyana from the Dutch during the 1790s. Anderson, the botanist—spy
who then surveyed its rivers in the 1790s, agreed with Ralegh: ‘For the
naturalist and speculative observer there is not perhaps a finer country in
the world.’ That El Dorado of tropical nature remained to my time.

I journeyed as a child through the botanic gardens of the city never
thinking of the king after which it was named. After Georgetown’s wooden
cathedral, high gates opened on a road which led to a pool crowned with
vast saucers of water lilies. These were Victoria regia—the lilies which
came in the 1840s from the Guyanese jungles to inspire Joseph Paxton’s plan
for a Crystal Palace. Everything green wore a mysterious Latin name. Dark
paths led to Macaw palms which tempted you with poisonous red berries and
kept you away with their spiny trunks. There were serpents too in this
garden, oily coils of watersnakes in the drainage trenches. The smell of
rot was everywhere, a background rankness from surrounding clumps of
vegetation, and occasional gusts of animal stink from the zoo in the corner
of the gardens. Somewhat older, I found the place strangely ennobled by the
fact that, like the British Governors before him, our erudite tyrant of a
Prime Minister lived here. I was more surprised to learn that the Victorian
proconsul who founded the gardens had given part of them to agricultural

This mixture of meditative retreat, scientific collection, menagerie,
public playground, palace, and experimental station, was more common that I
realized. In Trinidad, to the north, the ornamental pattern of the botanic
garden merely extended that of the Governor’s grounds, which they
surrounded. In the island of St. Vincent, a few hundred miles to the
north-east, the Governor in 1765 had turned a portion of his palace grounds
into a garden for useful and ornamental plants. Around the same time in
London, George III began to patronize a collection formed by his parents at
Kew. Science and nature worship, the theatrical projection of authority and
civility had long before found common expression in the pleasure grounds of
European princes.

By the I 780s, Sir Joseph Banks began to turn Kew into ‘a great botanical
exchange house for the empire’, as the centre for the movement of economic
plants between the Eastern and Western hemispheres, and of ornamental
plants between the North and the South. Kew became connected to the St.
Vincent Botanic Garden, and to newer establishments in Calcutta, St.
Helena, and elsewhere. In 1840, after a period of royal neglect, Kew came
into public control. While becoming a pleasure ground for all the people of
London, under its directors—William Hooker, Joseph Hooker, and William
Thiselton-Dyer—it became a central institution of both Victorian science
and the British Empire. It helped entrepreneurs to plant empires of
sugar-cane, cocoa, tea, coffee, palm oil, and rubber on which the sun has
still not set. By the beginning of the twentieth century it stood at the
centre of a global network of botanic gardens and agricultural
stations—including that of Georgetown. It is likely that few promenaders in
any botanic garden recognize the many faces of what they simply see as a
beautiful space. Nor indeed, perhaps, in general, do those who live in the
ruins of empire yet understand what this means.

It is only now, a generation after Decolonization, that we are beginning to
put back together the histories of Britain and its empire. By the ‘Imperial
Britain’ of the title, I seek to extend that removal of the frontier
between the domestic and external histories of Britain now visible in the
work of C.A. Bayly, Linda Colley, PJ. Cain, A.G. Hopkins, David Hancock,
John MacKenzie, P.J. Marshall, Kathleen Wilson, and others.’ We are
beginning, just barely, to recognize modern Britain to be as much a product
of processes of empire as modern India, Nigeria, New Zealand, Barbados, or
Guyana. In the era in which you read this, such a proposition may appear to
you to be ordinary common sense. But even at the end of the twentieth
century, another perspective on Britain and its empire predominated. From
it one sax~ with Sir John Seeley in 1883, an England which ‘expanded’ to
reach its Victorian stature, or with Anthony Low in 1983, one which
‘contracted’ in the second Elizabethan age to become again a minor power on
the flank of Europe. Popular sentiment and historical scholarship clung to
an idea of a Celtic—Roman—German—Norse—Norman people winning then losing
the world. The British Empire, as a consequence, was cordoned off into, at
best, a chapter of modern British history, to be jumped over, perhaps,
where it contradicted the preferred narratives of the rise of liberty,
politeness, or class consciousness. Many even chose to ignore it all
altogether, so relieving themselves of the tiresome business of learning
strange names, places, or languages. The idea that Britain sprang directly
from its medieval insular or European cultural roots supported an
intellectual tradition of many political persuasions which—from Clarendon
to Hume to Macaulay to Alan Taylor to Edward Thompson—helped an emerging
nation make sense of itself. Historians of the empire once knew their place
and kept to it, confining their comments on modern Britain to Indian or
African history8 Even the Oxford History of the British Empire of the
1990s, which so boldly presented the whole span of modern history rarely
dared examine how Britain was formed by its empire over its five volumes.

On a world map no longer pink, we began to discover some islands at the
fringes of a small continent, which had been tugged out of local structures
of production, consumption, government, and feeling, into new global
arrangements. At a time when Britain appeared on the verge of
disintegrating as a nation—state, historians came to realize that the
process we inexactly call the expansion’ of Europe, but by which we mean
the contraction of the world, had consumed the separate histories of
England and Scotland, as it had those of Bengal, Benin, and Peru. Empires,
from this perspective, are engines which bring human communities, once
separated by distance and culture, into systems of exchange and
interdependence. These systems have cores which are forged by these
processes of expansion: Rome, as much as Gaul, was formed by the empire. It
is in extension of this emerging tradition that this study seeks to situate
modern Britain in the histories of Europe and the wider world.

But by Europe I may mean more than many readers expect. For while the study
of the modern histories of Latin America, Asia, Africa proceeds from the
assumption that exogenous factors mattered, it has long been the
magnificent conceit of Europeans that their history springs from dark
autochthonous forces, species of technical and social magic rooted in the
specific environment of Europe. In the many glosses on ‘the rise of the
West’, this parthenogenetic fantasy persists. Long after the theory of
spontaneous generation had been extinguished in biology, it continued to
condition research into the history of Europe. By its lights the
extra-European history of Europe had impact, for good or ill, purely on
extra-European terrain. This book explores ho~ on the contrary, imperial
expansion both before and during the modern era shaped culture and society
at its centre.

Its focus is on the impact of ‘expansion’ on science of plants.4 It
suggests that what we may call the sciences of collection and
comparison—among which we may include botany zoology anthropology and
geology— depended on Europeans becoming exposed to the planet’s physical
and organic diversity and often to the scientific traditions of
non-European people. These disciplines needed the world as a whole to make
sense. What I try to do, throughout, is to treat the intellectual history
of botany and its professional and public life, with equal care. For both
the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ histories of the sciences responded to the
opportunities of European power. I hope, through this attempt at keeping
metropolis and periphery ideas and institutions, in the same tableau, to go
beyond earlier histories of Kew and colonial botanic gardens.

It is equally my hypothesis that the sciences shaped the pattern of
imperial expansion. The research of local plants and their uses was part of
reconnaissance and conquest from the sixteenth century New economies then
arose on the basis of the discovery of the raw materials for food,
medicines, dyes, and perfumes. Others depended on the importation and
cultivation of favoured species. New cultures of ornament and order were
equally consequences of new learning. Beyond this practical impact, the
sciences, with their promise of insight into, and control over, nature,
lent potent ideological help.

It is this last theme which is at the centre of this essay I seek to trace
the history of the idea that the knowledge of nature would allow the best
possible use of resources, to which I give the name ‘Nature’s Government’.
This argument was first made by those medieval English who wished to
justify the enclosure of common land. It was exported to Ireland, and then
to the Americas, where it supported the extension of English plantations,
and Irish and Amerindian dispossession. It depended on a mixture of
Christian and classical ideas about Man’s place in nature. But the natural
sciences, even in the seventeenth century, became implicated in its
defence. Political economy, later, provided new ways of asserting that the
command of exotic territory might tend to the good of colonized as well as
colonizers. By the late eighteenth century we see the rise of an
imperialism of improvement’ which promised that people and things might be
administered, in the cosmopolitan interest, by those who understood
nature’s laws. European power, joined to the scientific mastery of nature,
would necessarily confer the greatest good on the greatest number. This was
a hypothesis as useful to proconsuls, who sought to justify their dominion,
as it was to those men of science who premised their appeals for public
support and patronage on their utility In the story of Kew, tugged in one
direction by the history of science, and in the other by the needs of the
state, we may observe the terms on which the interests of naturalists and
administrators came into convergence. In this convergence, we may discover
new ways of understanding imperialism, and the ‘international society’ left
in its wake. For the enterprise of ‘Development’ launched during the
contraction of the world became the idol of economists and politicians of
all races and nations. Under its spell great rivers are dammed, forests
condemned to flood or fire, and oceans of concrete poured. The nature of
government, both at home and in the (former) colonies, was shaped by these
assumptions about how nature might be governed.

Louis Proyect
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