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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 120-123
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"The Dream of the Botanical Monograph":
Process not Product
The three books under review focus historical analyses of nature, empire, and science on process, not product. They offer accounts of actors, negotiations, and techniques, and they examine how ideas, personalities, and politics were interwoven in eighteenth-century Europe and in the colonizing ventures that issued from there. The active verbs "colonizing" and "sowing" in Beth Fowkes Tobin and Jill Casid's titles pull readers into sagas that took shape over many decades. Both [End Page 120] those authors, as well as contributors to the collection edited by Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan, underscore ongoing colonizing attitudes toward countries and cultures outside first-world domains.
Colonizing Nature: The Tropics in British Arts and Letters 1760–1820 ranges across a broad geographical area of the West Indies and India, with a side trip to the South Pacific in the company of Captain James Cook. Beth Fowkes Tobin is interested in representations of nature in British colonial and imperial contexts, and she uses diverse visual and textual resources to study how the tropics were represented across the later eighteenth century and beyond. Central to her discussion is genre, understood as verbal and visual practices and also as "social practice and epistemic mastery" (13). From her vantage as a literary scholar, Tobin gives insightful analyses of georgic verse, travel writing, and the botanical catalogue. Agricultural land use is a special focus for her, including discussion in Chapter 2 of how British sojourners in the West Indies wrote about the provision ground of plantation slaves. Chapter 3, "Land, Labor, and the English Garden Conversation Piece in India," examines paintings of late eighteenth-century British colonial officials in Indian landscape settings that, by recalling a genre associated with land, family, and country-house portraiture in England, were meant to assert the ambition and elite status of Anglo-Indians. Tobin finds many hybrid and disruptive points in these conventional images, including "marks of visual and ideological dissonance created by the incorporation of tropical plant life" (110). Inadvertent disruptions are evident to her as well in late eighteenth-century colonial landscape paintings discussed in Chapter 4, "Picturesque Ruins, Decaying Empires, and British Imperial Character in Hodges' Travels in India." Hodges used pastoral and georgic tropes and conventions associated with connoisseurship and expertise that spoke to and further naturalized colonial ideas and practices, but Tobin argues that his book, despite itself, shows the insecurity of Britain's regime in the face of Indian insurgency against their military forces.
In a case study of Linnaean botany as a discursive form, Tobin reads Exotic Botany (1804–5) by Sir James E. Smith, founder and President of the Linnaean Society, to explore how the tropics were "domesticated" in botanical books that promoted the culture of collection and display. Tobin's choice of Smith's text as a focus for discussion in Chapter 6 illustrates her successful technique for stepping away from linear accounts of great books and chronicles of achievement in the history of science and botany. Her preferred method—and one that she calls for programmatically—is for scholars to "linger in the cul-de-sacs and roundabouts that constituted the field of botany during this period" (176). The political thrust of her study, apparent throughout the book, is especially manifest in her epilogue, "Decolonizing Garden History." Her argument is with scholars who read the picturesque only as an aesthetic approach to nature. Where, she asks, is acknowledgement of the laborers and local producers in those calm and ostensibly naturalized landscapes?
That engaged vantage is manifest too in...