War and Herbaria

Hakea ruscifolia collected by Jacques Labillardière in Australia; herbarium of the National Museum of Natural History, Paris

While COVID-19 is the major news topic now, the subject of war seems to come up frequently, at least in terms of comparisons of the present situation with the 1918 flu and its relationship to World War I, or comparing the present death toll to that of the Vietnam War and other conflicts.  So this seems like a good time to look at a question I’ve been collecting information on for some time:  what are the links between herbaria and war?  In Plants and Human Conflict, Eran Pichersky (2019) argues that “plants are the foundation of our existence and the ultimate cause of our wars” (p. 12).  That seems a rather bold statement, but he goes on to investigate conflicts for the control not only of land on which to grow crops, but also of needed water resources.  He notes that three of the four necessities of modern mechanized warfare—grain, steel, oil, and rubber—are plant-derived. 

But where do herbaria come into this picture?  Think of all the specimens collected on expeditions of conquest such as the Dutch taking over the Molucca Islands (now the Maluku Islands) from the Portuguese so they could corner the market on nutmeg and cloves (Nabhan, 2014); 19th-century US government expeditions into Native American lands and attendant conflicts to pave the way for agriculture in the West (McKelvey, 1955); British conquest of India and turning the country into a source for tea, timber, textiles, and other commodities (MacGregor, 2018).  The British botanist William Jackson Hooker even wrote a guide to plant collecting for a manual on science published by the Admiralty (Nesbitt and Carine, 2016).

And then there are herbaria as spoils of war.  An important collection, one that was pivotal to Carl Linnaeus’s work, is the 23-volume herbarium of Danish botanist Joachim Burser (1583-1639).  Containing some Danish, but mostly Central European species, it is arranged according to Caspar Bauhin’s taxonomy and is the oldest collection at the Museum of Evolution Herbarium in Uppsala.  It ended up in a Swedish herbarium and thus accessible to Linnaeus because, after Burser’s death, it was seized as spoils of war when King Charles X of Sweden vanquished Denmark (Stearn, 1957).  In another case, the Swiss botanist Albrecht von Haller’s 60-volume herbarium was bought by the Austrian Emperor and given to the library at Pavia in Italy.  When Napoleon invaded the area, he took the collection back to Paris, where it remains at the herbarium of the National Museum of Natural History (MacGregor, 2007).  Later, when Napoleon led an army into Egypt, he brought a group of natural history collectors with him.  Though his military foray ultimately failed, the same Parisian natural history museum reaped rich collections, including the specimens of Alire Raffeneau Delile who studied plants on the mission and then described them back in Paris (Thinard, 2016). 

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were multiple conflicts between the French and British, both major naval powers anxious to gain control of North America and to explore the world as a whole in search of new sources of wealth.  When they were at war, travel and communication between the two countries were often cut off, a problem for scientists who were more interested in the latest research than in politics.  Hans Sloane and his former teacher in Paris, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort did not see any reason to sever connections during hostilities, though it was sometimes difficult to get letters through; they relied on diplomats from neutral nations to pass on messages.  Gavin de Beer’s (1952) article on how such relationships were maintained between France and Britain focuses on the fellows of the Royal Society who would exchange journals with their French friends when regular mail was halted. 

A famous case of magnanimity and fairness in herbarium history involves the botanist Jacques Labillardière who joined a 1791 French naval mission to learn the fate of an earlier expedition that had failed to return from the Pacific, that of Jean-François La Pérouse.  They never did discover what happened to La Pérouse; the evidence of his ship’s wreckage wasn’t found until 1826 on one of the Solomon Islands.  But while stopping in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and the East Indies, Labillardière assembled a large collection of over 10,000 specimens, as well as 70 tubs of live plants, and about 600 kinds of seeds.

When the expedition arrived at a Dutch-held port in Java in 1793, the French learned that their king had been executed and that the Netherlands and France were at war.  The officers and naturalists were arrested, but eventually were treated differently depending upon whether they had royalist or republican sympathies (Williams, 2003).  The supporters of the king, including Labillardière, were held, while the republicans were allowed to sail home.   The Dutch seized Labillardière’s collection and sent it on with the French who had been released; their ship was later boarded by the British and the collection confiscated.  

Labillardiére did not return to France until 1796.  By that time, impounded crates of his specimens had arrived in England where the French court was living in exile, welcomed by a sympathetic monarchy.  The collection was handed over to them because Louis XVI had been king at the time the expedition sailed.  The exiles offered to allow Britain’s Queen Charlotte, an amateur botanist with her own herbarium, to select specimens.  However, Labillardière petitioned Joseph Banks, as a fellow botanist and confidante of the British king, to return the specimens in the name of science.  Banks considered science above politics and was attempting to maintain contact with French scientists despite the repeated political duels between the two countries.  Banks returned the collection without even opening it.  This was definitely an act of self-control for a keen collector with his own impressive herbarium (Mulvaney, 2007).  However, as one who had traveled around the world with Captain James Cook and collected thousands of plant specimens, Banks appreciate the toil involved in gathering the plants, preparing specimens, and keeping track of them. 


de Beer, G. R. (1952). The relations between Fellows of the Royal Society and French men of science when France and Britain were at war. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 9(2), 144–199.

MacGregor, A. (2007). Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

MacGregor, A. (2018). Company Curiosities: Nature, Culture and the East India Company, 1600-1874. London, UK: Reaktion.

McKelvey, S. D. (1955). Botanical Explorations of the Trans-Mississippi West 1790-1850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Mulvaney, J. (2007). Labillardière′s Luck. In “The Axe Had Never Sounded” (Vol. 14, pp. 81–86). ANU Press; JSTOR.

Nabhan, G. P. (2014). Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: Economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum, 29, 53–70.

Pichersky, E. (2019). Plants and Human Conflict. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1957). Introduction. In Species Plantarum Facsimile (Vol. 1, pp. 1–199). Ray Society.

Thinard, F. (2016). Explorers’ Botanical Notebook. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.

Williams, R. L. (2003). French Botany in the Enlightenment: The Ill-Fated Voyages of La Perouse and his Rescuers. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer.