Discussing the Plant Humanities: Colonization

Caesalpinia pulcherrima, Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, v.25-26 (1807)

A term that has become better known in the last few years is “decolonization” including in terms of investigating the untold stories of colonization around the world, including how natural history collections were acquired.  However, these “untold” stories have in fact been told for decades, though there are more and more studies now being published (Osseo-Asare, 2014; Murphy, 2020).  At the recent Plant Humanities Conference at Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library, there were presentations by two historians who have been active in this field for some time.  Londa Schiebinger from Stanford University is the author of Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World(2004) and Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (2017).  She spoke on a South American plant called the peacock flower, Caesalpinia pulcherrima, which became known in Europe as a garden plant because of its attractive blooms.  The naturalist and artist Maria Merian wrote about it in her book on the plants and insects of Surinam after her trip there.  She included information on its use by enslaved and indigenous women as an abortifacient.  It was a way for women to exert some control over their lives spent working on plantations.  They could not free themselves but they could try to prevent having children who would be doomed to the same fate. 

The colonial doctors who practiced in Surinam, also knew of these medicinal effects and in fact did research on them.  What Schiebinger emphasized was that despite the knowledge they acquired, they did not communicate it in their home countries.  Schiebinger brought up the sociological term agnotology:  the study of deliberate, culturally induced ignorance.  Inhibiting fertility was not considered a subject to discuss in polite society and also, doctors did not want to discourage population growth among the educated classes at home.  In all the discussion about transfer of knowledge, this is an interesting topic that doesn’t usually come up.

Another topic that’s gaining attention is the agency of indigenous and enslaved people in the face of colonial power.  The use of peacock flower is one example and another was discussed by Judith Carney of the University of California, Los Angeles.  She’s the author of In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (2009), a book that gave me a new perspective on the international movement of plants.  While the emphasis has been on the transfer of species from around the world to Europe, Carney highlighted how African plants were transported to the Western hemisphere via the slave trade.  Much of the evidence for this is circumstantial.  African species like the yam Dioscorea rotundata were grown in the American colonies from almost the beginnings of the slave trade.  Some seeds might have been brought by the traders to grow food for the enslaved people, who might themselves have smuggled some seeds.  At the same time, traders brought seeds of American crops to Africa. 

As the plantation culture developed it became more organized, and many enslaved persons were given small plots of land to grow their own food.  This alternative to the plantation farming system was encouraged by some planters as a way to lessen their need to supply slaves with food.  These plots were much more diverse and when successful could provide surplus fruits and vegetables for sale, giving the growers a small amount of profit to use as they wished.  This form of control over their lives allowed both the enslaved and former slaves to attempt to create decent lives under challenging conditions. 

The story of oppressed groups struggling to survive is repeated over and over again in colonial contexts.  It is hardly news, but I don’t think it can be reiterated too often because everyone living today is experiencing its consequences.  We need to be aware of it in order to be impelled to repair as far as possible the damage it has done.  Another presentation at the conference, “The Visible Hand: Coconuts, Capital, and Racial Colonialism,” discussed oil seed production in Mexico.  Jayson Porter, an environmental historian and postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, reported on his research on a number of oil seeds (Porter, 2021).  This is a massive topic because the world seems to have an insatiable thirst for plant oils, not only for cooking but for soap and many other products. 

The demand has led to the creation of large plantations with, again, the wholesale movement of species.  The area Porter discusses is the Mexican state of Guerrero on the Pacific coast.  It’s climate is ideal for oil seed production, not only of palm oil, but cannabis, sesame, and other species.  Coconut palms are native to Southeast Asia, cannabis to Central and South Asia, and cultivated sesame to India.  They were all brought to Mexico because they could thrive there on a large scale.  Such plantations inevitably required vast amounts of labor, first to clear the land then to plant and harvest crops.  It is this labor that interests Porter, in part because he has family roots in Mexico.  He described his archival work in Mexican institutions and what information he could find, and what he couldn’t—the perpetual problem for historians, with both sides of the coin telling a lot about what of the past was considered worth recording and keeping.  He also linked his research to environmental issues of the present-day, the heritage of plantation culture.


Carney, J. A., & Rosomoff, R. N. (2009). In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Murphy, K. S. (2020). James Petiver’s ‘Kind Friends’ and ‘Curious Persons’ in the Atlantic World: Commerce, colonialism and collecting. Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science, 74(2), 259–274. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsnr.2019.0011

Osseo-Asare, A. D. (2014). Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Porter, J. M. (2021). This May Contain Coconut Oil. NACLA Report on the Americas, 53(3), 226–232. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714839.2021.1961499

Schiebinger, L. (2004). Plants and empire: Colonial bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schiebinger, L. (2017). Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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