- Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World
Londa Schiebinger's ambitious, eminently readable new book focuses on "the long eighteenth century" when botany reigned as queen of the colonial sciences. Its geographical scope is expansive, focusing on the movement of medicinal knowledge from the British, French, and Dutch Caribbean to northern Europe. (The vast botanical networks of the Spanish Empire are conspicuously omitted from this account.) Rather than focusing on the expansion of knowledge, she investigates closely the creation of "a distinctive body of ignorance" (p. 239).
The first half of the book provides a useful profile of the social types involved in colonial "bioprospecting": voyager botanists such as Maria Sibylla Merian, "biopirates" set on exploiting valuable plants by any means necessary, Creole naturalists, their assistants and informants, and armchair [End Page 516] botanists—all of whom were likely to have been trained initially as physicians or healers. Schiebinger directly links this transatlantic network to experimental traditions in northern Europe dedicated to the development of new, financially lucrative medicines. On the European side, she covers territory that will be familiar to many historians of medicine and pharmacy, but by emphasizing the "global culture of secrets" (p. 17) and exploitative, monopolistic interests that governed these networks, she places "Enlightenment" practices in an unfamiliar and unflattering light.
An extremely widespread tropical plant, the peacock flower (Poinciana pulcherrima L.), emerges as the "hero" of this account. Using published travel accounts and botanical treatises, manuscripts from archives and herbariums in Jamaica, France, and the U.K., and a bit of ethnographic fieldwork, Schiebinger discovered that Caribbean locals, yesterday and today, widely recognized the hidden power of this showy "ornamental" to control menstruation and induce abortion. More than a couple of voyager botanists during the eighteenth century independently acquired this knowledge, yet this potentially valuable discovery never became well-known in northern Europe. Why? Schiebinger devotes the second half of the book to answering this question. On the Caribbean side, the secrecy surrounding slave women's interest in controlling their own fertility worked against its discovery. On the European side, eighteenth-century empirics systematically discriminated against testing abortifacients (though they did test emmenagogues and the differential effects of drugs on the sexes). Without a doubt, this is a pathbreaking contribution to our understanding of the workings of gender and science and gender and medicine across regional boundaries.
Although she emphasizes the gender politics of these bioprospecting networks, Schiebinger unfortunately gives short shrift to other social distinctions shaping these relationships. For example, she missed an opportunity to interpret the meaning of imperialist plant-naming practices, the main subject of chapter five, in terms of the survival of traditional patron-client relationships among the most "modern" of scientific practitioners. In her zeal to celebrate the survival of primordial Amerindian and African understandings of nature, she slights the emergence of distinctly new "creole" and "mestizo" conceptions and practices within the colonial context. In the process, she perpetuates the diffusionist view of science (perhaps unintentionally), even though her evidence clearly points to the existence of vast networks of understanding outside the Western scientific universe, and/or to a widespread culture of medicinal experimentation among Caribbean women.
Schiebinger also overstates the negatives associated with scientific travel. Indeed, travel was always difficult, often dangerous, and sometimes deadly for visiting Europeans. Yet it also had its attractions, particularly in relatively [End Page 517] salubrious, settled highland regions. Many botanists—notably Joseph de Jussieu, La Condamine's "botanical eyes" during his expedition to the equator—stayed in the tropics for decades, in part because of the elevated social status he enjoyed on the American side of the Atlantic. Indigenous porters often carried white travelers (even their purebred dogs!) "by man's back" over difficult terrain—carrying forward an exploitative custom once reserved for indigenous nobles. La Condamine's scientists also had their pick of the "fairest" Creole daughters of the ruling elite. Jussieu may have returned to France as an old and "broken man" (p. 71), but he was not broken by the...