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  • Vegetable Gardens versus Cash Crops:Science and Political Economy in the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India, 1820–40
  • Laura Tavolacci (bio)

On 13 January 1830 the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India (AHSI) held its fourth annual vegetable exhibition in the Calcutta Town Hall. Eminent European and Bengali members watched as the wife of Governor-General Bentinck placed silver medals around the necks of Bengali malis (gardeners) who had presented the best specimens of cauliflowers, cabbages, turnips, and other 'European' vegetables. About 100 local malis attended the exhibition that year and all who brought specimens received at least one or two rupees reward while twenty-four received a forty rupee first-place prize.1 This annual event was a prime example of colonial governance based on the idea of improvement. The spectacle of the exhibition not only influenced malis to grow more European vegetables, it also engaged European missionaries, planters, merchants, and state officials in the project of improving India with minimal cost to the state.

Besides these yearly vegetable exhibitions, the AHSI (founded in 1820) widely distributed seeds of both European vegetables and new imperial cash crops like Tahitian sugarcane and American cotton. In addition, they created a scientific discourse on agriculture and horticulture in India, what they called a 'depository of practical knowledge',2 which they collected mostly from Europeans living in South Asia. They used this depository to support planters and projects of local governance, such as attempts to increase cultivation in the Sundarbans mangrove forest.3 Like earlier networks of botanical collection in the eighteenth century, this agricultural 'improvement' project of the AHSI had an instrumentalist and imperial nature. The Society's initial prospectus (1820) outlined the sort of science which its European founders hoped to generate. Modified mercantilist views on the importance of agriculture (echoing the eighteenth-century physiocrats) informed its purpose: to raise the value of land by increasing its produce seen as the only way to create national prosperity.4 Yet they also believed that agriculture was a uniquely insular vocation, as 'the class of men' who practised it were predisposed to 'prejudice' and resistant to change. A scientific [End Page 24] society was thus required in order to collect and present information from diverse locations and coax prejudiced farmers into improved practices which science deemed the best way to increase production.5 Although this prospectus highlighted the backwardness of farmers in general, elsewhere they noted that Indian farmers were behind even those of England, thoughtlessly persisting in the same system of cultivation 'for many centuries'.6

Thus the project of the AHSI was one of imperial improvement which rested on a morality of political economy and science. In order to 'improve' India, the British members of the AHSI believed that they must develop a scientifically determined best practice with the goal of increasing production for market. Yet over time this imperial discourse produced another side effect. The AHSI further demarcated two sciences for the cultivation of plants: agriculture and horticulture. Agriculture became a science concerned with the large-scale cultivation of plants, usually to be exported. Horticulture, as a science of plants grown in individual gardens for aesthetic enjoyment, subsistence, or sale at local markets, was relegated to a secondary status. The science of agriculture came to receive the greater part of official attention, whether from the Governor-General, representing the Crown, or the officials of the East India Company who were charged with other functions of state. The 'Company state' allied closely with the AHSI in projects to promote particular cash crops for export to Europe. In the process, the imperial science of agriculture in colonial India helped to distil a sense of utility in which exports were linked with national well-being. Old ideas and practices of agriculture combined local markets, export markets and subsistence because value came not only from yielding economic profit but also from meeting social needs such as food and medicine. These were now relegated and agriculture acquired a new definition which prioritized profit through exports as the main social good. In this article, I will trace the process of creating and promoting this new sense of agriculture.

At the same time, elite Bengali members...


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