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History of Political Economy Annual Supplement to Volume 35 (2003) 14-41
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"Peaches Which the Patriarchs Lacked":
Natural History, Natural Resources, and the Natural Economy in France
E. C. Spary
Reflecting on commerce and finance, the economist Charles Ferrère Du Tot (1738) turned his attention to the Compagnie des Indes, that enterprise part royal, part commercial. From the perspective of the French nation, he argued, the company's role was to acquire "spices, drugs, and other things not produced in our country, which we cannot do without and which we would be absolutely required to obtain from our neighbours" (quoted in Haudrère 1993, 93). Du Tot was writing after several turbulent decades of military, monarchical, and fiscal crises that ended the prosperity resulting from Jean-Baptiste Colbert's reforms of sciences, manufactures, and commerce in Louis XIV's reign. But in 1738, the volume of France's colonial trade had recently entered a period of steady increase that would persist until the Seven Years' War (Butel 1990, 155). During this first half-century, relations between the sciences and colonialism would begin a process of transformation that would render scientific activities inseparable from the colonial enterprise and would make the colonial enterprise itself a measure of national strength.
Natural history, commerce, and the condition of the nation were all closely configured in writings on exotic plants and their uses and cultivation. Elsewhere I have explored the political and social ends served by models of the natural economy deployed by French naturalists and [End Page 14] medical practitioners in the second half of the eighteenth century (Spary 2000, 1996). Here, my concern is with the ways in which naturalists and medical botanists at the beginning of the century began to insert themselves into networks of global and colonial trade, by portraying their enterprises of classification and cultivation as indispensable contributions to national wealth, and by explaining how nonindigenous, plant-derived luxuries could be converted into sources of profit for the state. Such views reflected the assimilation of two literary and commercial traditions of enquiry into botany: first, the resounding therapeutic successes of medical botany since the 1670s, and second, a genre of writings on rustic or rural economy that formed an important foundation for the political economy of the midcentury.
The involvement of botanists in enterprises of colonial and exotic exploitation marked the extension of forms of resource management characteristic of économie to the global setting. Representations by Du Tot and others of global commercial enterprises as indispensable might seem self-evident in a period when the consumption of exotic goods was generally rising throughout Europe. But such portrayals were hotly contested by some, who characterized exotic natural substances as harmful, addictive luxuries. Two very different models of nature were at stake: was it a treasury to be plundered at man's discretion, or a precious frugal resource to be used only in cases of true need? Here, botanists participated in a broader economic debate over the relative value of global and local resources that would define the nation as a natural entity and set limits to its dependency on particular natural resources. Simultaneously, they began to redefine the basis of wealth. As economic resources, plants, unlike coin, could be cultivated and replicated.
1. Medical Botany in the Sun King's Reign
In 1703, a Jesuit reviewer ([Review of Nova plantarum] 1703) scolded the Minim father Charles Plumier: "It is to be wished that he had worked [as much] for Public utility, as he has fulfilled his curiosity." The publication of such a criticism about a leading seventeenth-century traveling naturalist indicates that natural history was acquiring a new agenda at the beginning of the new century. For naturalists in France, the reviewer indicated that curiosity, here characterized as private, was no adequate justification for travel and collecting. The voyager needed an eye to the public good, to exploitable natural resources (Harris 1998; Daston and [End Page 15] Park 1998; Whitaker 1996; Licoppe 1996, chap. 3): "If...