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  • "From having no Herbarium." Local Knowledge versus Metropolitan Expertise:Joseph Hooker's Australasian Correspondence with William Colenso and Ronald Gunn
  • Jim Endersby

Between 1844 and 1860, Joseph Dalton Hooker published a series of major floras of the southern oceans, including the first floras of Tasmania and New Zealand. These books were essential to establishing his scientific reputation. However, despite having visited the countries he described, Hooker relied on a large network of unpaid, colonial collectors to supply him with specimens. A study of his relationship with two of these collectors—Ronald Campbell Gunn and William Colenso—reveals warm friendships but also complex negotiations over individual authority, plant naming, and the status of local knowledge. The herbarium played a crucial role in mediating these negotiations. Although Bruno Latour's theory of cycles of accumulation proved useful for analyzing the herbarium's role, in this article some ways in which his ideas might be refined and modified are suggested.

In 1854, the British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (Figure 1) criticized William Colenso (Figure 2), his chief correspondent in New Zealand, for having attempted to name some supposedly new species of ferns: "From having no Herbarium," wrote Hooker, "you have described as new, some of the best known Ferns in the world" (quoted by Colenso to J. D. Hooker, 24 August 1854: KDC 174). Hooker evidently thought that his herbarium gave him the prerogative to name plants that his colonial correspondent lacked. Colenso disagreed, arguing that "I am well aware that I know very little indeed (save from books) of the Botany of any Country except N.Z., still, I fancy, I know the specific differences of many N.Z. plants" (Colenso to J. D. Hooker, 24 August 1854: CP4). For the colonial naturalist, firsthand knowledge of his locality's living plants gave him unique insights. However, Hooker ignored this local knowledge and Colenso's names never appeared in Hooker's Flora Novae-Zelandiae (1855).

At first glance, this incident encapsulates an essential aspect of the colonial scientific relationship: the metropolitan expert using his position—both physical and social—to overrule the distant colonial (Brockway 1979, MacLeod 1987, MacLeod and Rehbock 1988, Miller 1996, McCracken 1997). Although Hooker was dependent upon people like Colenso for the specimens he needed to compile the books that made his name and reputation, he was not interested in their ideas. At the heart of his ability to keep Colenso in a subordinate role was the herbarium; I want to discuss the herbarium's importance using Bruno Latour's concept that exchanges such as those between Hooker and Colenso can best be understood by looking at the "cycle of accumulation" within which they participated (Latour 1987:219-220). Hooker made his herbarium into what Latour called a "center of calculation"—a place that brought him specimens, publications, and ultimately the directorship of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

In this article I shall look at the cycle of accumulation from the perspective of the periphery—by comparing and contrasting Colenso's motivations with those of Ronald Campbell [End Page 343] Gunn (Figure 3), another of Hooker's Australasian correspondents. Although this approach illustrates the usefulness of Latour's model, it also highlights ways in which it might be modified.

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Figure 1.

Joseph Dalton Hooker. Copyright Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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Figure 2.

The Reverend William Colenso. Copyright Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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Figure 3.

Ronald Campbell Gunn. Copyright Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

How to Become "Such a Person as Mr. Darwin"

Hooker corresponded with Gunn for 20 years, from 1840 to about 1860, and with Colenso from 1841 until Colenso's death in 1899. Hooker met both men during his voyage to Antarctica as assistant surgeon aboard HMS Erebus (1839-1843), commanded by James Clark Ross, which, with its sister ship, the Terror, was mapping terrestrial magnetism (Cawood 1979). However, the ships could not withstand the Antarctic winters, so took shelter in various places, including New Zealand and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), and also visited the numerous tiny islands around Antarctica. These sojourns were Hooker's...