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Colonizing Nature

The Tropics in British Arts and Letters, 1760-1820

By Beth Fowkes Tobin

Publication Year: 2005

With its control of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and tea, cotton, and indigo production in India, Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries dominated the global economy of tropical agriculture. In Colonizing Nature, Beth Fowkes Tobin shows how dominion over "the tropics" as both a region and an idea became central to the way in which Britons imagined their role in the world.

Tobin examines georgic poetry, landscape portraiture, natural history writing, and botanical prints produced by Britons in the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and India to uncover how each played a crucial role in developing the belief that the tropics were simultaneously paradisiacal and in need of British intervention and management. Her study examines how slave garden portraits denied the horticultural expertise of the slaves, how the East India Company hired such artists as William Hodges to paint and thereby Anglicize the landscape and gardens of British-controlled India, and how writers from Captain James Cook to Sir James E. Smith depicted tropical lands and plants.

Just as mastery of tropical nature, and especially its potential for agricultural productivity, became key concepts in the formation of British imperial identity, Colonizing Nature suggests that intellectual and visual mastery of the tropics—through the creation of art and literature—accompanied material appropriations of land, labor, and natural resources. Tobin convincingly argues that the depictions of tropical plants, gardens, and landscapes that circulated in the British imagination provide a key to understanding the forces that shaped the British Empire.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

For the nearly two decades that I lived in Hawai‘i, I couldn’t garden. When we first moved into our house in Hawai‘i, my husband, who came late to his love of gardening, would repeatedly ask my advice on landscaping and planting since I, as a country girl, was supposed to know these things. Somehow I could not bring myself to help him. He would say in response to my ...

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Introduction: Troping the Tropics and Aestheticizing Labor

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pp. 1-31

James Thomson’s poem “Rule, Britannnia!” (1740) celebrates British naval power, which ensured the expansion and dominance of British commerce across the globe.2 As a measure of British rule, the tropics are invoked as a site to be exploited by and harnessed to British commercial forces: ...

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Chapter 1 Tropical Bounty, Local Knowledge, and the Imperial Georgic

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pp. 32-55

This chapter explores the intersection of the concept of bounty and the problem of knowledge in the georgic poetry of Alexander Pope, John Gay, James Thomson, and James Grainger. I argue that English georgic poetry shared with the Enlightenment project the impulse to decontextualize and dehistoricize knowledge about nature. Georgic poetry, concerned with agricultural production, invariably divides labor into two categories: ...

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Chapter 2 Provisional Economies: Slave Gardens in the Writings of British Sojourners

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pp. 56-80

Grainger’s georgic reveals, despite its efforts to conceal, the horticultural knowledge and virtuous labor of enslaved Afro-Caribbeans, who produced the agricultural bounty that fed planters and slaves alike and who provided most of the commodities that circulated in the internal market economy of the West Indies. The contradiction that marks Grainger’s poem, the tension between his representation of slaves as mere mechanisms of ...

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Chapter 3 Land, Labor, and the English Garden Conversation Piece in India

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pp. 81-116

Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Warren Hastings, the governor general of Bengal, and his wife belongs to a genre known as the conversation piece, specifically the outdoor or garden conversation piece (Figure 3). Enormously popular with the English gentry, especially in the mid-eighteenth century, the garden conversation piece was also a favorite with East India Company officials in the last decades of the century. Painted in the suburbs ...

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Chapter 4 Picturesque Ruins, Decaying Empires, and British Imperial Character in Hodges's Travels in India

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pp. 117-143

India’s countryside, sometimes glimpsed in portraits through windows or from garden terraces, was not depicted in any systematic way by British artists until the arrival of William Hodges, the first professional landscape artist from Europe to work in India. Hodges held a unique position among artists of his time; he served as a draftsman for two of Britain’s most famous imperial agents, Captain James Cook and Warren Hastings, governor general of Bengal. Under their auspices, Hodges produced an ...

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Chapter 5 Seeing, Writing, and Revision: Natural History Discourse and Captain Cook's A Voyage towards the South Pole, and Round the World

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pp. 144-167

In this chapter, I explore James Cook’s representation of the natural landscape of the South Pacific. I focus on the writing Cook produced on the second voyage and afterward in London as he revised his journals from the voyage into a book manuscript. Of the three Admiralty sanctioned books that recorded Cook’s three different circumnavigations, A Voyage towards the South Pole, and Round the World (1777) was the one that ...

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Chapter 6 Domesticating the Tropics: Tropical Flowers, Botanical Books, and the Culture of Collecting

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pp. 168-197

In his long poem The Task, William Cowper celebrates gardening as an important part of country life, which he portrays as a remedy to the social, moral, and political ills produced by the luxury and corruption rife in the city. Country walks, reading, and gardening are, for him, activities that can contribute to one’s spiritual and moral improvement by giving one a “heart susceptible to pity” and “a mind cultur’d and capable of social ...

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Epilogue: Decolonizing Garden History

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pp. 198-201

Not long ago, I received in the mail a catalog from Starbucks, the now notorious because ubiquitous coffee company that has sprung up on what seems like every street corner in North America and Europe, featuring their list of “rare and exotic coffees of far-away lands.” Since I love coffee and am a catalog “freak,” I read with guilty pleasure the attractive brochure that promised that if I mail-ordered coffee from Starbucks, I would “experience ...


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pp. 203-234

Select Bibliography

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pp. 235-249


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pp. 251-255

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p. 257

I wish to thank those who have read and commented on versions of this manuscript: Tim Berringer, Mita Choudhury (who thought of this book’s title), Julie Codell, Richard Drayton, Monica Ghosh, Jan Golinski, Betty Joseph, Luciana Martins, Felicity Nussbaum, Geoff Quilley, Nigel Rigby, and Glyn Williams; special thanks go to Dian Kriz and to my writing group of Andrea Feeser, Cindy Franklin, and Laura Lyons. Versions of some of the chapters were presented at conferences, and I am grateful to the ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203684
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812238358

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 759158187
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Colonizing Nature

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Subject Headings

  • Great Britain -- Colonies -- History -- 19th century.
  • Tropics -- In art.
  • English literature -- History and criticism.
  • Gardening -- History -- 18th century.
  • Gardening -- History -- 19th century.
  • Gardening in literature.
  • Colonies in literature.
  • Nature in literature.
  • Tropics -- In literature.
  • Great Britain -- Colonies -- History -- 18th century.
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