Making Productive Colonies: Botany and Codified Indigenous Plant Knowledge in the Indian Ocean World, 1820–50

Saturday, January 8, 2022: 9:30 AM
Rhythms Ballroom 2 (Sheraton New Orleans)
Carey Kathleen McCormack, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
  • Abstract or description for each presentation (up to 300 words). Descriptions should be included for both roundtables and formal sessions: From 1820 to 1850, British botanists collected indigenous plant knowledge in India, Borneo, and the Malay States. Administrators later used that knowledge to implement plantation agriculture that altered ecologies and alienated local populations from previously open common land. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the British Empire expanded across the Indian subcontinent and consolidated commercial power in the Straits of Malacca with the acquisition of Singapore and Sarawak in North Borneo. This article analyzes colonial records and published books written by botanists to prove scientists and administrators made concerted efforts to obtain local and indigenous plant knowledge. Botanists and administrators used local knowledge to privatize land through enclosing colonial commons and selling harvesting rights to European firms, which resulted in the loss of traditional lifeways and the movement of minority groups from rural/forest villages to urban centers. This study utilizes an Indian Ocean world history approach by tracking official collectors, their transfer of information and plants across central nodes of colonial power, and the administrative effort to convert colonies into natural resource extraction zones, advancing the economic power of the British Empire. The significance of this study is my focus on the contribution indigenous people in creating botanical knowledge even though their knowledge was then used to disconnect them from traditional forms of agriculture and trade networks. While most British botanists labeled the information they gathered as folk knowledge or superstition, indigenous plant knowledge formed a significant part of botany and was implemented across the Empire.
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