Plants, empire and some thoughts on South West gardens

This is an essay I wrote for another purpose, but thought I would share here. It’s a bit long for a blog, and some of it is a bit of an overview, but I found it interesting, so others might.


As people have moved across the world, plants have moved with them. This movement of plants is not merely connected to empire: it has been a fundamental activity of empire.


Brett Bennet summarises the edited book, Environments of Empire, (Kirchberger and Bennett 2020) by stating that ‘one of the defining features of European imperialism was the purposeful introduction of foreign organisms, especially plants and animals, into every country and colony in the world’ (224). He places this at its peak between 1870 and 1939, but it neither began, nor ended with that period.


The European renaissance idea of a garden that might offer a comprehensive collection of global plants was a project that had to be abandoned as extensive colonisation and exploration revealed its impossibility as a goal. Instead, the idea of a representative collection of plants took hold and underpinned the development of the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, in London. However, the movement of plants has had more instrumental ends than collection and scientific discovery. On a massive scale, plants have been taken from one country to another, for economic and military purposes. Widespread economic planting across the globe, with its resultant deforestation, monoculture, and enforced movement of peoples, has sometimes been termed the ‘plantationocene’ to clarify that such plantation logic has fundamentally, and disastrously, transformed the modern world (Haraway and Tsing, 2022). This history is not over. For instance, in the 1870s, following the end of the slave trade, the British colonised the lower and middle Niger looking for palm oil; the British Niger Company was later bought by and amalgamated into Unilever, a company which today impacts 8% of global palm oil production, and is linked to both deforestation and human rights abuses (Kapoor, Hood and Yussef 2022).


Alongside these large-scale agricultural changes were a range of supporting ones. Plants were brought from Europe by European settlers for their own use. Further, there were also plants and seeds that were co-passengers in enforced migrations, whether of enslaved or indentured workers: such plants were often significant to survival and identity. Ornamental horticulture (Oldford 2014) played its role, too, as an expression of botanical expertise, social power and international connection.


Michael Drayton clarifies the ways in which the British justified colonialism in terms of agrarian ‘improvement’, in the late 18th century (2000).  In making such impositions, British interests were paramount. For instance, in 1788, botanist Joseph Banks urged the East India Company to invest in agriculture and the production of raw materials. Such produce would give Britain the advantage where warfare and enmities (for instance, American Independence) cut off supplies, whether of basic sustenance or materials, such as teak and mahogany for shipbuilding. Raw materials would also be preferable colonial exports to commodities, since the latter were in conflict with British manufacturing, required bullion to pay for them and effectively draining such wealth from Britain. Indian textiles were such commodities, whereas later, Britain was able to import raw Indian cotton tariff-free and sell British textiles back to India. A similar range of motivations led to the planting of opium poppies in Bengal, in order to pay the Chinese with this crop in lieu of silver (leading to the Opium Wars in the 19th century). A further proposal was made that tea, rather than being imported at great cost from China, might be grown in a British colony, for British consumption. These are only a few of the better-known crops.


While there was clearly an extractive logic to these endeavours, the rhetoric was often paternalist, featuring a world view in which British rule supposedly offered a more prosperous and productive regime than self-government. Agricultural development was proposed as mutually beneficial for coloniser and colonised. Some of the projects explored by British botanists were positioned as charitable, for instance where new imports were intended to supply new food sources. Both the French and English colonists sought the breadfruit and sago as cheap foods for their colonies in the Caribbean, while the Botanic Garden in Calcutta was established to develop food crops against famine in Bengal.


Ostensibly science-oriented botanical explorations often served imperial ends, with collectors quietly observing the potential to steal or duplicate valuable plants and agricultural methods. For instance, the African Association explored Senegambia in an expedition which combined botany and mineralogy with commercial interests, and its reports ‘can perhaps be held directly responsible for the British seizure of Goree at the mouth of Senegal in 1800’ (Drayton 2000: 110). In the late 1840s, when undertaking horticultural explorations in China (purchasing plants from Chinese nurseries), Robert Fortune also disguised himself as a Chinese traveller and ventured into tea planting territory off limits to Europeans; here he observed methods of tea cultivation. Developing transportation methods, using the newly invented ‘Wardian Case’, he was ultimately able to supply tea plants to the East India Company (Mather 2018; Voskuil 2012).


Mirroring the significance of botany to the empire’s development, the British established a chain of botanical gardens with Kew as the central hub. These were established first in St Vincent (1755 (rejuvenated 1785)) and Jamaica (1779), then in India, in Calcutta (Kolkata) (1786) and Madras (Chennai) (1789), with a further garden in St Helena (1787), and later in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) (1810) and Trinidad (1818). When Britain seized the Cape Colony (1795), the Governor General’s garden also became part of the chain, as did French gardens in Mauritius when taken in 1810. These gardens were exchange points for botanical research and plant propagation, with economic implications. They enabled the safe transportation of healthy plants across the world. By this time, Kew Gardens was not only a recipient of plants from the colonies, but was, in Joseph Banks’ words, conceived as ‘a great botanical exchange house for the empire’ (cited in Drayton 108).


Drayton describes ‘a complicated theatre of virtue’ in which these gardens attempted to demonstrate the enlightened administration of the British. Plant collecting was connected to this drive. The gardens were used as a base for regional surveys of natural history, with collectors instructed to send valuable plants back for propagation and study. Meanwhile, such surveys also assessed the colonised lands, their use, and value to the empire. The accumulation of knowledge was seen as a justification of British superiority in government, supposedly enabling economy, order, and prosperity. Meanwhile, as Drayton puts it, ‘every application of botany to the imperial problems yielded Kew a free ornamental reward’ (2000:125), alongside gifts from explorers, missionaries, or other travellers.

In the early 19th century, after the death of Banks in 1820, the future of Kew was uncertain. Landowners and aristocratic gardeners (such as Cornish MP Sir Charles Lemon), wanted access to the royal collections, driven by an interest in horticulture. Horticultural innovation, and to an extent, botanical science, was increasingly funded by such wealthy landowners, and by nurseries such as Veitch’s (Exeter), rather than by the government. However, narrowly escaping destruction, Kew became established as a public garden, with William Hooker as its director. William Hooker was an adept publicist and, in the mid-century, successfully made the case for government publications on the subject of colonial flora, including reporting on the surveys of the Sikkim Himalaya undertaken by his son, Joseph Dalton Hooker. The latter secured a multitude of ornamental plants, notably 28 new varieties of Rhododendrons. William Hooker made the argument that sharing the results of such surveys would be of benefit to the empire, though it may have been primarily of benefit to botany.


Such ornamental plants were displayed at Kew, but also made available to nurserymen and enthusiastic, wealthy gardeners, later becoming ubiquitous in British gardens. The collection at Trengwainton is a late example of plant collecting in this tradition. Though it might seem removed from the more obviously extractive and brutal activities of empire (such as the sugar plantations), it is important to understand it against this wider backdrop.


Jamaica Kinkaid writes that the last significant plant hunter, Frank Kingdon Ward, was an heir to Joseph Hooker:


whose account of his adventures in the Himalayas is a fraught rendering of the way the British colonial enterprise worked… the world Kingdon Ward inherited had been made tame, had been subdued by these narratives. Whether he read them or not, the world he knew, its geography, its peoples, had been made familiar through them. (Kinkaid 2002: xiv)


As indicated at the outset of this essay, environmental damage caused by the movement of plants was extensive. The establishment of plantations, such as those for indigo, opium poppies, tea, cotton, sugar, rubber, soya, mahogany, nutmeg, palm oil and more, are all associated with tragic narratives of both human and environmental impact. Swathes of previously rich countryside have been, and continue to be reduced to monocultures, subsistence farming has been decimated and marginalised, while violent coercion and displacement of people has been a consistent feature, given the need for the plantation to be sustained by a large and cheap labour force. Pests and diseases have often been transferred through this exchange between countries, sometimes with devastating consequences.


Although their connection with empire was primarily as the public, ‘enlightened’ representation of British knowledge and order, plant collectors, or plant ‘hunters’, in turn, often depleted local habitats. Lynn Voskuil, writing about the Victorian enthusiasm for the orchid, cites an account by Albert Millican, an orchid hunter in search of Odontoglossum orchids in the Andes:


With his goal of gathering as many plants as possible, he ‘provided [his] natives with axes and started them out on the work of cutting down all trees containing valuable orchids.’ After about two months’ work, he concludes, ‘we had secured about ten thousand plants, cutting down to obtain these some four thousand trees, moving our camps as the plants became exhausted in the vicinity.’ (Millican 1895, cited in Voskuil 2017: 23-4).


The indigenous guides and porters who accompanied these men were rarely credited with new ‘discoveries’, and local communities were neither considered to have ownership of the plants in their locality, nor considered in terms of their economic needs.


Botanical gardens, supposedly oriented towards the ‘improvement’ of the countries in which they are situated, and historically presenting the scientific superiority of Britain, were and are a repository of order and tranquillity, especially for the colonisers. In material form, they display the logic of the hierarchical Linnaean system of taxonomy. However beautiful, they have played their part in the greenwashing and provisioning of empire.

The Cornish woodland garden

Cornwall has a distinctive role to play in the collection and propagation of ornamental plants in Britain, and the development of the woodland valley garden. The industrial wealth of the region, from the late 18th into the second half of the 19th century, supported wealthy families who, through a process of gentrification, became major landowners. Cornwall’s mineral wealth was unlocked through new technological developments (improved pumps and transportation) and a need for metal to fight the Napoleonic wars. At its height, Cornwall’s mining industry employed a third of the working population. Sharpe writes that:


Cornwall’s geological past had bequeathed it a complex and rich geology, almost unparalleled anywhere else in the world, its landscape underlain by extensive deposits of tin, copper, silver, lead, zinc, arsenic, iron, uranium and other minerals, rare within Britain and almost all essential if the nation was to be the world leader in the developing industrial revolution. (Sharpe 2005:65)


The Fox, Bolitho, Shilson and Williams families were all associated with mining in the 19th century, the Lemon family wealth had long been established through mining, and the landed Bassett and Enys families were also drawn into investment in that industry. The Fox family were also associated with the first railway in Cornwall, again serving the mining industry. Deacon (2002) writes of ‘a hegemonic mining “interest” in Cornwall’ that united investors, smelters, traders, merchants and landowners’ (143). Importantly, this includes merchant shipping interests, also connected to the mining industry, and providing international connections. According to Sharpe, during this period, the existing landowners found themselves in possession of suddenly valuable properties; meanwhile, the newly rich investors in mines also sought to demonstrate and enjoy their wealth. The result was the creation of ‘over sixty country houses and estates across Cornwall’:


Landlords who had neglected their estates returned to Cornwall and improved their run-down houses, bankers and entrepreneurs created architectural confections in the latest style, and the new middle class did their best to be up on the latest in house design. Above all, however, there was one area in which they strove to demonstrate their wealth and taste – gardening. (Sharpe 2005: 67)


The best environments for Cornish gardens are found between Penzance, the East slopes of the Tamar and the west side of the Fal estuary up to Truro. Trewidden, Trengwainton, Trevarno, Cotehele, Pentillie Castle, Antony, Ince Castle, Carclew, Penjerrick, Trebah, Glendurgan and Enys are all found within this triangle (Pett, 2006). The woodland valley gardens, such as Penjerrick, Trengwainton, Trebah, Heligan and others, develop out of the topography of steep, sheltered valleys.

Cornwall’s temperate climate is ideal for sub-tropical planting. Temperatures fall within a narrow range, with cooler summers and warmer winters than elsewhere in the UK. Humidity is high, which is suitable for some plants such as camellias, rhododendrons, and conifers (Pett 2006). Both sun and rain are more frequent than in many other parts of the country, with the changeable weather due to the surrounding sea and southwest position.


The first of the UK’s subtropical gardens seems to be Fox Rosehill, in Falmouth, established by Robert Were Fox in the 1820s, where he grew 300 species of lemon (Fox 2004). Penjerrick, the first woodland garden, Trebah and Glendurgan were subsequently developed by the same family, whose shipping interests enabled them to bring in plants from all over the world. Indeed, East India Company ships frequently passed through Falmouth, often bringing plants, and receiving plants from other parts of the world in exchange (Oldcorn 2014: 128-9). Robert Fox’s sons were also keen gardeners and specialised in tropical planting:  in 1846 Alfred Fox presented Queen Victoria with a grapefruit, during her visit to Falmouth. Meanwhile, connections with Real del Monte mines in Mexico enabled Charles Lemon to import varieties from that region, including an entirely new Commelina (Dayflower) plant (Oldcorn 2014: 130).


Many Cornish gardens are directly or indirectly connected to the great botanical gardens and nurseries, and to plant collectors, although Naylor speculates that the presence of so many private gardens was one reason why Cornwall failed to establish its own public botanical garden (2007:87). Kew and the Veitch nurseries would send plants for propagation by, for example, gardener Samuel Smith for the Fox family at Penjerrick, or Richard Gill for William Shilson at Tremough. William and Thomas Lobb, who were sent by Veitch’s nursery to collect plants in America and Asia, were the Bodmin-born sons of John Lobb, who worked as a gardener at Carclew, and were themselves employed in the stove-houses as young men. William Lobb (1809 – 3 May 1864), also worked as gardener for the Williams family at Scorrier, before being recruited by Veitch. William Lobb’s monkey puzzle seeds were surreptitiously sent back to Carclew and Scorrier, as well as to his employer. Meanwhile, Charles Lemon, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society, London, and the second president of the Royal Cornwall Horticultural Society (RCHS), was a correspondent of William and Joseph Hooker and sponsored the latter’s Himalayan expedition of 1847-1851, resulting in a very early introduction of Rhododendrons to Cornwall, including one which later bore his own name. Meanwhile, ‘23 of the rhododendron’s at Heligan are Hooker plantings, as is the Crinodendron and the Magnolia campbellii’ (Norman, 2001:359). The amateur botanist Elizabeth Warren was in correspondence with William Hooker, and, like others, ‘used her geographical position close to the port of Falmouth and her family connections in the Royal Navy, as well as the RCHS’s links to Cornishmen overseas, to provide Hooker with plants from …India, North America, Hong Kong and the Falkland Islands’ (Naylor 2007:90).


Some years later, in the early twentieth century, John Charles (JC) Williams (Caerhays) sponsored plant collecting expeditions by Ernest Wilson, Reginald Farrer and George Forrest in China and East Asia as well as, still later, the Kingdon Ward expedition whose sponsorship and rewards were shared by his wife’s cousin, Edward Bolitho, and his cousin PD Williams (Lanarth). The Caerhays garden contains camellia discovered by George Forrest in China (saluenensis) and Japan (japonica).


There is an irony that these families, so fascinated by botany, were also linked by the source of their wealth to deforestation, water contamination, river depletion and landscapes polluted by waste materials.  For instance, the Great County Adit, built by John Williams among others, in 1748, came to discharge water polluted with iron, zinc, copper and cadmium (Potter 2009:4). After the mining industry collapsed in the late nineteenth century, Cornwall was economically and ecologically bereft. Meanwhile, Cornish miners were to be found across the world, bringing their expertise to locations where new mining interests had helped to undermine the price of Cornish metals. The history of Cornish gardens, however, is intrinsically linked to the history of Cornish industry, and by extension, to the economics, as well as the aesthetics of empire.



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