- Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World
In seventeenth-century Peru, university authorities decreed that Spanish physicians who wanted to learn about plants with medicinal properties should study the Quechuan language—but under Linnaean hegemony, such local expertise was obliterated from official pharmacopoeias. This failure to incorporate Incan drug lore is just one example of agnotology, defined in Plants and Empire as "the study of culturally-induced ignorances" (p. 3). Londa Schiebinger here examines how and why indigenous skills were lost, focusing in particular on the abortifacient properties of a multicolored plant described vernacularly and evocatively as the "peacock flower," but whose botanical name commemorates a French general even though it flourishes in India and South America and was widely used by female herbalists. As well as seeking out examples of forgotten knowledge, Schiebinger retrieves neglected people—predominantly women and non-Europeans—who have contributed to medical history but have been omitted from the records.
As in her previous work, Schiebinger has engaged in extensive archival research yet writes with an appealing fluency not generally found in academic texts. Rendered accessible to students through its introductory comments, Plants and Empire also broaches unexplored scholarly territory. Organized thematically, this book is divided into five self-contained chapters, a structure that facilitates including numerous loosely related discussions of gender, race, and oppression, often illustrated [End Page 374] by intriguing anecdotes and heart-rending quotations from slaves who preferred to kill their own babies rather than let them be born into oppression. Schiebinger reserves her strongest analytical material for the last full chapter, called "Linguistic Imperialism," and for the briefer conclusion on agnotology, in which she confronts head-on her central, fascinating question: why did abundant knowledge of abortifacients reach the Caribbean from South America and Africa, but fail to enter Europe, despite not being overtly suppressed?
For Schiebinger, the answers lie in the organizational structures of medical communities, colonial agencies, and government departments, all of them dominated by men. Her judgment is forceful: "The agnotology of abortives among Europeans was not for want of knowledge collected in the colonies; it resulted from protracted struggles over who should control women's fertility" (p. 239). She argues that although the thriving colonial trade in medical products suggests that antifertility drugs could in principle have been exported, abortifacients such as the peacock flower belonged to female domains of midwifery, and so were ignored by physicians as well as by male travelers interested in maintaining their own health. Furthermore, there was little official demand from Europe, where mercantilist rulers regarded inhabitants as an important national resource and so endorsed policies designed to increase rather than limit the population. By using the term "bioprospecting," Schiebinger emphasizes the similarities of eighteenth-century pharmaceutical exploration to the profiteering activities of modern multinational drug companies. This concern to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of historical studies characterizes Schiebinger's writing, and so it is surprising that she says little about the attitudes of religious authorities toward birth control, especially as expressed through Jesuits and other missionaries.
Enriched by an unusual analytical angle as well as new and varied factual material, Plants and Empire has much to offer historians of medicine, but it also intervenes powerfully in debates about colonial struggles and botanical classification. Indigenous voices from the past can generally be heard only through European interpreters, but Schiebinger has traveled widely—literally as well as along bookshelves—and has also imaginatively explored different research approaches, including persuading present-day Caribbeans to disclose traditional remedies. Her opening sentence is "This book was a pleasure to write" (p. ix), and Schiebinger's enthusiasm makes this book a pleasure to read: it provides an eloquent antidote to celebratory accounts of scientific progress.