1838: gunboats, germplasm and farmer-scientists.

Gunboat diplomacy

The term comes from the period of colonial imperialism, where the European powers would intimidate other states into granting trade or other concessions (unequal treaties) through a demonstration of their superior military power. A country negotiating with a European power would notice that a warship or fleet of ships had appeared off its coast. The mere sight of such power almost always had a considerable effect, and it was rarely necessary for such boats to use other measures, such as demonstrations of cannon fire.

Wikipedia: ‘Gunboat diplomacy’ licensed CC BY-SA.


Black ships

The Black Ships was the name given to Western vessels arriving in Japan in the 16th and 19th centuries.

On July 8, 1853, the U.S. Navy with four warships steamed into the bay at Edo, requesting that Japan open to trade with the West. Their arrival marked the reopening of the country after more than two hundred years of self-imposed isolation.

In particular, Kurofune refers to Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna, that arrived on July 14, 1853 at Uraga Harbor (part of present-day Yokosuka) in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan under the command of United States Commodore Matthew Perry. Black refers to the black color of the older sailing vessels, and the black smoke from the coal-fired power plants of the American ships. In this sense, the Kurofune became a symbol of the ending of isolation.

Wikipedia: ‘Black Ships’, CC BY-SA.



An old black and white drawing of five big sailing ships.
Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


A 19th century Japanese watercolor painting showing a group of people standing next to a huge stack of bags of rice.

The gift of rice

Tenth panel of a silk-bound scroll by an anonymous Japanese artist of the gift of rice given to the Americans from the Japanese. The Japanese presented the Americans with a generous gift, two hundred sacks of rice. The sacks of rice piled high take up the right side of the pictorial space. In the foreground, a group of American officers standing on a bluff, watch the scene below. One officer is recording the event in a journal. Sumo wrestlers carry the sacks of rice, some two at a time, down to the beach and help load the rice onto the American boats. The Americans wear full Navy attire, the sumo wrestlers wear mawashi that cover their loins. Japanese officers watch from the beach, distinguishable by their jingasa [lacquered wooden helmets]. Source: Brown University Library Center for Digital Scholarship Digital Collections.


Bringing germplasm to America’s farmer-scientists

The following is an excerpt from ‘First the Seed: the political economy of plant biotechnology’, 2nd edition, by Jack Ralph Kloppenburg Jr. p 54-57. It’s somewhat simplified and paraphrased.

Plant collection and evaluation were fundamentally important for the future of American agriculture and the nation. The object was to permanently establish new crops of subsistence and commerce on the American landscape. This was an enormous task. There would be the occasional brilliant success – the rice from Madagascar that thrived in South Carolina – but the rule would be failure. Many crops and most varieties would be unsuited to the particularities of the American climate. Yet the successes would ultimately repay those failures. And success would depend on the capacity to draw for introductions on as large and diverse a gene pool as possible. Plant introduction in the 19th century was a numbers game; the more one played the better your chances of winning.

In 1839 the US government provided funding for the collection and distribution of seeds, plants, and agricultural statistics. This work was undertaken by the Patents Office. Seeds and plants were not patentable at the time, but nevertheless the Patents Office viewed all technological innovation as being part of its remit, even if the innovations could not be patented.

In 1838 the Navy authorized the first official plant exploration expedition. Between 1838 and 1842 Commander Charles Wilkes’ ship cruised the Pacific under orders to secure new agricultural plants. By 1848, the ships of the East India Company were regularly collecting plants. The Perry naval expedition is best known for forcing open the harbours of Japan to American commerce, but Perry’s gunboats also brought home a tremendous variety of seeds and plant materials obtained from Japan, China, Java, Mauritius, and South Africa.

The genetic fruits of this imperial adventure included seeds or cuttings of vegetables, barley, rice, beans, cotton, persimmon, tangerine, roses, and “three barrels of the best wheat of Cape Town”. Other expeditions sent plants from South America, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. With funds available to support collection work, consuls also began sending seed in quantity; wheat from Poland, Turkey, and Algeria, rye from France, sorghum from China, cotton from Calcutta and Mexico City, peppers and maize from Peru, rice from Tokyo.

Crucial to the success of the introduction program established by the Patent Office was distribution of the seed of exotic varieties. Even before he had obtained a congressional mandate, Commissioner Ellsworth took it upon himself to ensure that foreign germplasm enjoyed wide dissemination, by sending packages of seeds to farmers in the mail. By the time he left the Commissionership in 1849, Ellsworth was sending out 60,000 packages of seed each year. By 1855, over a million packages had been distributed.

Wide distribution of exotic seed to farmers was the most efficient means of developing adapted and improved crop varieties. The development of the adapted base of germplasm on which American agriculture was raised is the product of thousands of experiments by thousands of farmers committing millions of hours of labor in thousands of diverse ecological niches over a period of many decades. Individual farmers were responsible for developing improved cultivars, among the most famous being Red Fyfe wheat, Grimm alfalfa, and Rough Purple Chili potato, the germplasm sources being, respectively, Poland, Germany, and Panama.

The breeding method used by farmers was essentially no different from that employed by their neolithic forbears. The nation’s farmers employed simple mass selection to improve the crops they grew by screening out poorly adapted types and saving superior individuals and populations for seed.

(The preceding section is an excerpt from ‘First the Seed: the political economy of plant biotechnology’, 2nd edition, by Jack Ralph Kloppenburg Jr. p 54-57, somewhat simplified and paraphrased.)


Red Fife Wheat historical plaque

Near Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. The plaque reads: Red Fife Wheat, an early maturing, high quality variety, was discovered in 1842 by David Fife in an experimental plot on his farm here. For over 60 years it was “spring wheat” in Canada. It opened up the grain potential of the West, and is a parent of the famous Marquis Wheat. Source: Ontario’s Historic Plaques.

Advertisements