Londa Schiebinger. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. x + 306 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-01487-9.
Reviewed by John R. McNeill (Georgetown University)
Published on H-Atlantic (February, 2006)
One Plant and Several Scientists
This is a curious book. The heart of it tries to explain why something did not happen. Knowledge of the abortifacient uses of the peacock flower, which was apparently widespread among some populations of the Caribbean in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, never spread widely within Europe. Schiebinger, who dedicated this book "to the memory of the men and women whose knowledge of fertility control has been lost in the mists of time and to the ravages of history," regards this as an anomaly in need of explanation. Her focus is, as she puts it, "the nontransfer of important bodies of knowledge from the New World into Europe." It is, then a study in "agnotology," that is, of "culturally induced ignorances" (p. 3). The study of things that did not happen and of ignorances does not sound promising, but Schiebinger has written an entertaining book that raises some interesting questions, and for people passionate about the history of fertility control, no doubt, an important book. Other audiences, I suspect, will pass it by. That, however, would be a pity.
The book "focuses on the movement, mixing, triumph, and extinction of different knowledges in the course of eighteenth-century encounters between Europeans and the peoples of the Caribbean" (p. 12). More specifically, it deals with Dutch, French, and British scientists and their absorption or neglect of naturalist knowledge held by Caribbean populations in Surinam, St. Domingue, and Jamaica. The Spanish Caribbean is left out because the author "simply do[es] not have the required background" (p. 12).
The book opens with a chapter devoted to Sir Hans Sloane, Maria Sybilla Merian, and a few other European naturalists who ventured to the Caribbean. Schiebinger offers a few enjoyable potted biographies of these figures, creates a taxonomy of botanists and botanists' assistants, and takes care to include women scientists in her discussion. The main thrust of the chapter is to show that botany c. 1680-1800 was a competitive international enterprise enlisted in the service of empire. Sloane is a wel- known figure to those interested in the history of the Caribbean, of medicine, and of science. As a young man he studied medicine, then worked as a doctor in Jamaica for a few months between 1687 and 1688. On the strength of that voyage, he wrote a catalog of Jamaican plants, emphasizing medicinals, and a general work on the West Indies. He also married a wealthy widow. Sloane was a painstaking scientist whose life afforded an enviable amount of free time for botanizing, cataloging, and writing. Merian, on the other hand, is much less well known. She was, according to Schiebinger, the only European woman who voyaged overseas exclusively in pursuit of scientific goals in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. She was fifty-two when she set out, with her twenty-one-year-old daughter as research assistant, for Surinam in 1699. Four years after her return in 1701 (she was suffering from malaria), she produced a lavishly illustrated volume devoted to the insects of Surinam (Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium). Both Sloane and Merian had commercial interests among their motives: Sloane hoped to find a substitute for chinchona bark in Jamaica, to help the English break the Spanish monopoly on this useful anti-malarial drug; Merian scoured Surinam for caterpillars that might do the work of silkworms (she had relatives in the silk trade). Schiebinger follows with a chapter and a half devoted to other naturalists who searched far and wide for medicinal plants, enduring all manner of rigors on their quests.
The heart of the book begins with chapter 3, on abortifacients. This includes a quick (fourteen-page) history of abortion in Europe, and a lengthy discussion of abortion practices among the Amerindian and slave populations of the Caribbean. This requires considerable inference on the author's part, since direct evidence of any sort is scarce. Her conclusions are inconclusive as to the scale on which abortion was practiced in the early modern Caribbean, but she assures readers that slave women did use abortifacients as an act of resistance to their masters' "efforts to have them reduced to breedable beasts of burden" (p.149). That seems a safe enough conclusion.
Among those abortifacients was surely the peacock flower. In chapter 4, Schiebinger tries to show that, although the peacock flower was often brought to Europe from the West Indies, knowledge of its abortifacient properties somehow failed to make the voyage. That knowledge was not suppressed, she says, but merely did not travel, or if it did, it did not take root in Europe. To make this argument, she provides a lengthy disquisition on medical experimentation, generally in Europe and the West Indies, and another on the decline of abortifacients and the concomitant rise of surgical techniques of abortion. It is a loosely focused chapter that ends where it began, with the statement that the peacock flower never made it into the European pharmacopeia as an abortifacient. I hoped for more explanation of that fact than the chapter provided.
The next chapter changes direction completely. It concerns the politics of scientific naming, and focuses substantially on Carl Linnaeus's preference for honoring his friends, colleagues, social equals, and superiors by naming species after them. There were rival systems of nomenclature, but they lost out to the Linnaean system, which was endorsed by international congresses in the nineteenth century and until recently dominated the world of botany. The argument of the chapter is summarized as: "My argument is that what developed in the eighteenth century was a culturally specific and highly unusual practice of naming plants from around the world after prominent Europeans, especially botanists.... Naming practices devised in the eighteenth century assisted in the consolidation of Western hegemony and, I will argue, also embedded into botanical nomenclature a particular historiography, namely a history celebrating the deeds of great European men" (p. 198).
In the conclusion (chapter 6), Schiebinger returns to the question of the politics of abortifacients in Europe, and offers some hypotheses concerning the persistent ignorance of the uses of the peacock flower. These hypotheses center around the pro-natalism of mercantilist states in Europe and the organization of the medical profession, in which matters pertaining exclusively to female bodies carried low prestige and were normally relegated to midwives rather than taken up by doctors. Alexander von Humboldt apparently refused to transmit knowledge of abortifacients he encountered in South America to Europe, because he thought it might check population growth and increase "the depravity of manners in towns" (p. 238). While von Humboldt was not referring specifically to the peacock flower, Schiebinger here does give the impression that there was something of an effort to inhibit knowledge of New World abortifacient drugs and drug plants, whereas earlier she writes that, "nothing suggests the knowledge of the abortive virtues of the Poinciana was actively suppressed" (p. 153). In general, I found the hypotheses advanced in the conclusion interesting and plausible, but not fully consonant with this earlier position.
Of course, there may have been other inhibitions to the use of the peacock flower in Europe, too. As a tropical plant, it could not have been grown cheaply in Europe and would have required either greenhouse cultivation or importation from distant lands. Moreover, other means of abortion were available in Europe, and had been for a long time. If they were cheaper, and there was no clear reason to suppose that the peacock flower worked better, then is it much of a mystery that the peacock flower abortifacient market never emerged, and that knowledge of its properties remained negligible? (Please note this is a mere hypothesis itself: I do not know that other abortifacients were cheaper to use and equally or more effective than the peacock flower.)
The research is mainly in secondary sources and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books by Sloane, Merian, Long, du Tertre, and other polymaths and scientists. Schiebinger also used a few manuscripts from the Sloane collection in the British Library, and two from the library of the National Museum of Natural History in France (MusŽum National d'Histoir Naturelle). She has read widely in English, French, German, and Latin. Many items cited partially in the footnotes do not appear in the bibliography, a source of frustration when I wanted to track some of them down for my own purposes. Several illustrations taken from old engravings enliven the book.
This is a work in the history of science, more specifically the history of medicinal drugs from the American tropics. It follows many tangents, which some readers will find fascinating but others will not. Its central argument, about the non-transfer of knowledge of the abortifacient uses of the peacock flower, makes an interesting if not, to my mind, altogether convincing case, and underscores the strong links between science and states in early modern Europe.
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John R. McNeill. Review of Schiebinger, Londa, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World.
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