Gardens and empire

An excerpt from the book ‘Sex, Botany & Empire’ by Patricia Fara

During the 18th century the movement of people in Britain’s developing empire was almost entirely outwards from the centre. In contrast, plants were being carried back in the opposite direction. Kew gardens expanded rapidly, and by 1788, 50,000 trees and plants were growing in the beds and hothouses.

Banks superintended an international network of botanic gardens that made this redistribution of the world’s crops possible and also extended Britain’s power. Declaring that Kew should become ‘a great botanical exchange house for the empire’, Banks converted the royal gardens into the head office of an international agricultural chain commited to commercial development.

Portrait painting of Joseph Banks, a portly older white man who is an early 19th century gentleman

Joseph Banks

By the early 19th century, gardens had become a standard symbol of colonial conquest. As part of his schemes to make tea cheaper for British consumers by growing it in India, Banks became intimately involved in proposals to establish a botanic garden in Calcutta, and later arranged for it to receive samples of Australian flax.

Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) is another good example of Banksian imperial botany. Banks sent out a gardener from Kew with a double mission – to work ‘for the benefit of the commercial interests of the island, and for the Science of Botany’. By creating a botanical garden, a miniature Kew under the King’s patronage, the island’s developers demonstrated that foreign crops such as coffee would flourish and bring money into the colony. As the local economy boomed, British imperialists boasted that Ceylon was a marvellous illustration of their enlightened rule.

Botanic gardens also provided a way for British immigrants to garner local expertise. Apart from his stay in Tahiti, Banks had not had enough close contact with indigenous peoples to learn much about their own knowledge. As more permanent settlements were established throughout the world, he encouraged residents to export foreign skills back to Britain. He recommended using the Ceylonese garden to study herbs prescribed by local doctors so that British medicines could be made more effective. In China, Banks resorted to industrial espionage for tying together science and the state – he campaigned to reinstate the British embassy in Peking because he needed a cover for craftsmen who would inform him about China’s methods of producing teas and porcelain.

Banks also sent European plants to be cultivated abroad. With the cooperation of the Home Office, he transplanted plants and animals to places in the opposite hemisphere with a similar climate. For example, he shipped Mediterranean crops to be grown in New South Wales, and Cook took pigs to New Zealand (where they ran wild and are still known as Cookers).

Kew Gardens in London

To satisfy Imperial requirements, British invaders – the grains and meat animals most in demand by European consumers – displaced the original inhabitants. Distant countries became neo-Europes where sheep and cows grazed on the hillsides and farmers cultivated wheat, barley, rye and potatoes – imports regarded as foreign exotics by the local people.

Like many of his colleagues, Banks thought of himself as an enlightened man who was improving rather than exploiting Britain’s colonial possessions. However, local inhabitants did not always appreciate his Association’s involvement, which they saw as interference.

‘They express on all occasions’, ran a report to the African Association, ‘a conviction that the soil and the country is their own, saying this is not white man’s country, this belong to black man, who will not suffer white man to be master here …’ Convinced that their superior influence could only bring benefits, European imperialists felt justified in quelling resistance to dominate other people for their mutual advantage. As George III advised his Prime Minister, barbarians could not be governed ‘with the same moderation that is suitable to a European civilized nation’.