Skip to main content
×
×
Home

To make Florida answer to its name: John Ellis, Bernard Romans and the Atlantic science of British West Florida

  • KATHLEEN S. MURPHY (a1)
Abstract

As the royal agent for British West Florida and an avid naturalist, John Ellis, FRS, took a keen interest in both the scientific and the commercial potential of the nascent colony. This article explores how Ellis and his West Floridian correspondent Bernard Romans illuminate the social and material practices of colonial science. In particular, it builds on recent scholarship to argue that new natural knowledge about West Florida did not simply circulate in the Atlantic World, but was in fact engendered by the movement of objects and ideas through the many circuits of transatlantic natural history and imperial administration. Foregrounding the Atlantic nature of such knowledge also raises questions about the limits of the categories of centre and periphery so frequently employed by historians of colonial science. Colonists such as Romans understood London to be just one centre amongst many and asserted their own epistemological claims, despite the asymmetries of power inherent to colonial science.

Copyright
References
Hide All

1 Carolus Linnaeus to John Ellis, 12 February 1765 and 15 August 1765, in Smith, James Edward (ed.), A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus, and other Naturalists, from the Original Manuscripts, 2 vols., London, 1821, vol. 1, pp. 164, 169. Although Linnaeus invoked the colony's name to suggest abundant flora and fauna, the name originated with the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, who named the region ‘La Florida’ (‘flowery land’) both for its lush vegetation and to commemorate encountering the peninsula in 1513 during Pascua Florida (‘Flowery Easter’). Fairbanks, George R., History of Florida, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1871, pp. 23; Stewart, George R., Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967, pp. 1112.

2 The reciprocal relationship between science and empire has been a major theme in recent scholarship on colonial science. For a start see Barrera-Osorio, Antonio, Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006; Drayton, Richard, Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000; Drayton, ‘Knowledge and Empire’, in P.J. Marshall (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 2: The Eighteenth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 231–252; Gascoigne, John, Science in the Service of Empire: Joseph Banks, the British State and the Uses of Science in the Age of Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; MacLeod, Roy, ‘Introduction’, in Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise, Osiris (2000) 15, pp. 113; McClellan, James III, Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue in the Old Regime, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992; Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 1992; Schiebinger, Londa and Swan, Claudia (eds.), Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

3 Latour, Bruno, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987, pp. 215257.

4 Recent scholarship on locality and science suggests that centrality is not a matter of geography but of social identities and power relations. Chambers, David Wade and Gillespie, Richard, ‘Locality in the history of science: colonial science, technoscience, and indigenous knowledge’, Osiris (2000) 2nd series, 15, pp. 223224; Sverker Sörlin, ‘National and international aspects of cross-boundary science: scientific travel in the 18th century’, in Elizabeth Crawford, Terry Shinn and Sverker Sörlin (eds.), Denationalizing Science: The Contexts of International Scientific Practice, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1993, pp. 43–72, 45.

5 Aranda, Marcelo et al. , ‘The history of Atlantic science: collective reflections from the 2009 Harvard seminar on Atlantic history’, Atlantic Studies (2010) 7, pp. 493509, 499503; Chambers and Gillespie, op. cit. (4), p. 223; Delbourgo, James and Dew, Nicholas (eds.), Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, New York: Routledge, 2008, especially ‘Introduction’, pp. 10–12; Nair, Savithri Preetha, ‘Native collecting and natural knowledge (1798–1832): Raja Sefoji II of Tanjore as a “centre of calculation”’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (2005) Series 3, 15, pp. 279302; Londa Schiebinger, ‘Scientific exchange in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world’, in Bernard Bailyn and Patricia L. Denault (eds.), Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500–1825, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009, pp. 322, 328; Terrall, Mary, ‘Following insects around: tools and techniques of eighteenth-century natural history’, BJHS (2010) 43, pp. 573588.

6 I am indebted here to Mary Terrall's study of Réaumur, which suggests a model of science both more complicated and less systematic than the Latourian model would predict. Terrall, op. cit. (5), especially pp. 574–575.

7 Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan, ‘Introduction: the present state of Atlantic history’, in Greene and Morgan, Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 14–15. Although small in comparison with other subfields within Atlantic history, the history of Atlantic science is a dynamic and growing field. For a start see Barrera-Osorio, op. cit. (2); Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge, Nature, Empire, and Nation: Explorations of the History of Science in the Iberian World, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006; Chaplin, Joyce, Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500–1676, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001; Delbourgo and Dew, op. cit. (5); Delbourgo, James, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006; Delbourgo, ‘Slavery in the cabinet of curiosities: Hans Sloanes’ Atlantic world’, British Museum Website, 2007, available at www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/delbourgo%20essay.pdf; Parrish, Susan Scott, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006; Safier, Neil, Measuring the New World: Enlightenment Science and South America, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008; Schiebinger, Londa, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

8 Basalla, George, ‘The spread of western science’, Science (5 May 1967) 156(5), pp. 611622. For an early and influential critique of Basalla's model see Roy Macleod, ‘On visiting the “moving metropolis”: reflections on the architecture of imperial science’, in Nathan Reingold and Marc Rothenberg (eds.), Scientific Colonialism: A Cross-cultural Comparison, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987, pp. 217–249.

9 Raj, Kapil, ‘Introduction: circulation and locality in early modern science’, BJHS (2010) 43, pp. 515516. See also the recent special issue on ‘Circulation and Locality in Early Modern Science’ which Raj's essay introduced, BJHS (2010) 43, pp. 513–606; Aranda et al., op. cit. (5), pp. 495–499; Raj, Kapil, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; Safier, Neil, ‘Global knowledge on the move: itineraries, Amerindian narratives, and deep histories of science’, Isis (2010) 101, pp. 133145.

10 Drayton, Nature's Government, op. cit. (2), pp. 64–81; For Banks as a ‘centre of calculation’ see David P. Miller, ‘Joseph Banks, empire, and “centres of calculation” in late Hanoverian London’, in Miller and P.H. Reill (eds.), Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 21–37.

11 Drayton, Nature's Government, op. cit. (2), p. 79.

12 Fabel, Robin F.A., The Economy of British West Florida, 1763–1783, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988, pp. 15, 75–109; Johnson, Cecil, British West Florida, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1943, pp. 13, 13–24, 43–45; Robert J. Malone, ‘The two Williams: science and connections in West Florida’, in Kathryn E. Holland Braund and Charlotte M. Porter (eds.), Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010, pp. 54–56.

13 ‘John Ellis's commission as royal agent of West Florida’, CO 324/53 f. 21, National Archives, Kew; Groner, Julius and Rea, Robert R., ‘John Ellis, king's agent, and West Florida’, Florida Historical Quarterly (1988) 66(4), pp. 385398. While only East and West Florida, Georgia and Nova Scotia had royal agents, most British colonies had a colonial agent who worked for the colonial legislature rather than for Parliament. The colonial agent served as the colony's advocate in London, representing the colony's interests before Parliament, the ministry and other imperial officials.

14 John Ellis to Linnaeus, 1 January 1765, in Smith, A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus, vol. 1, p. 163; Groner and Rea, pp. 385–398; Rauschenberg, Roy A., ‘John Ellis, FRS: eighteenth-century naturalist and royal agent to West Florida’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1978) 32, pp. 149164; Rauschenberg, , ‘John Ellis, royal agent for West Florida’, Florida Historical Quarterly (1983) 62, pp. 124.

15 Of Ellis's twenty-three correspondents in British plantation societies who sent specimens or natural historical observations, eight were in West Florida. Six of Ellis's eight correspondents in West Florida were on the imperial payroll. Kathleen S. Murphy, ‘Portals of Nature: networks of natural history in eighteenth-century British plantation societies’, PhD thesis, Johns Hopkins University, 2007, pp. 156–160.

16 Elias Durnford to John Ellis, 12 June 1770, vol. 1, Ellis Manuscripts, Linnean Society Archives, London.

17 John Blommart to John Ellis, 19 March 1767, Ellis Manuscripts, Linnean Society Archives, London; John Ellis to John Blommart, 14 July 1768, Ellis Notebook No 2, f. 64v, Ellis Manuscripts, Linnean Society Archives, London; John Ellis to Alexander Garden, 14 January 1770, in Smith, A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus, vol. 1, p. 570.

18 Thomas Miller to John Ellis, 21 February 1766 and 16 April 1767, vol. 2, Ellis Manuscripts, Linnean Society Archives, London.

19 John Firby to John Ellis, 26 September 1770, Ellis Manuscripts, Linnean Society Archives, London; John Ellis to Lord Northington, draft of letter, 17 November 1769, in Spencer Savage, Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of the Linnean Society of London, Part IV: Calendar of the Ellis Manuscripts, London: Linnean Society, 1948, p. 75; John Ellis to Lord Hillsborough, draft of letter, 16 November 1769, Savage, op. cit., pp. 74–75; Ellis to Linnaeus, 27 November 1769, in Smith, A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus, vol. 1, p. 242. For minor and major centres within Europe see Chambers and Gillespie, op. cit. (4), p. 223; Sörlin, op. cit. (4), pp. 44–45.

20 John Ellis to Carolus Linnaeus, 19 July 1765 and 26 August 1767, in Smith, A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus, vol. 1, p. 168, 211; John Ellis to the Duchess of Norfolk, 7 August 1769, in Smith, A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus, vol. 2, p. 75.

21 Rauschenberg, ‘John Ellis, F.R.S.’, op. cit. (14), pp. 149–150.

22 12 November 1767, Journal Book of Scientific Meetings, Royal Society of London, pp. 35–40; 30 November 1768, Journal Book of Scientific Meetings, Royal Society of London, pp. 55–58; Rauschenberg, ‘John Ellis, royal agent for West Florida’, op. cit. (14), pp. 1–24; Rauschenberg, ‘John Ellis, F.R.S.’, op. cit. (14), pp. 149–164.

23 Drayton, Nature's Government, op. cit. (2), p. 69.

24 Ellis, John, ‘An account of some experiments relating to the preservation of seeds: in two letters to the Right Honourable the Earl of Macclesfield, President of the Royal Society’, Philosophical Transactions (1759–1760) 51, pp. 206207.

25 Ellis, op. cit. (24), pp. 206–210.

26 Ellis, John, ‘A letter from John Ellis, Esquire, F.R.S., to the President, on the success of his experiments for preserving acorns for a whole year without planting them, so as to be in a state fit for vegetation, with a view to bring over some of the most valuable seeds from the East Indies’, Philosophical Transactions (1768) 58, pp. 7579; 10 March 1768, Journal Book of Scientific Meetings, Royal Society of London, pp. 478–480.

27 Ellis, op. cit. (26), pp. 75–79; 10 March 1768, Journal Book of Scientific Meetings, Royal Society of London, pp. 478–480.

28 Ellis, op. cit. (26), pp. 77–79; 10 March 1768, Journal Book of Scientific Meetings, Royal Society of London, pp. 478–480; Parsons, Christopher M. and Murphy, Kathleen S., ‘Ecosystems under sail: specimen transport in the eighteenth-century French and British Atlantics’, Early American Studies (2012) 10, pp. 503539; Dear, Peter, ‘Totius in verba: rhetoric and authority in the early Royal Society’, Isis (1985) 76, pp. 145161; Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985, pp. 5759.

29 Ellis, op. cit. (24), p. 206.

30 Ellis, op. cit. (24), p. 206; Ellis, op. cit. (26), p. 78; John Ellis to Society of Arts, 2 November 1758, Guard Books, 1755–1770, IV, 11, pp. 5, 8, Archives of the Royal Society of Arts, London.

31 Within a decade, Directions was reprinted five times, including French and German editions. Although the title and accompanying material varied, Ellis's instructions for seed and plant transport set the standard for the remainder of the century. Ellis, John, Directions for Bringing Over Seeds and Plants … Together with a Catalogue of such Foreign Plants as are worthy of being encouraged in our American Colonies … the figure and botanical description of a new sensitive plant, called Dionea musciplula: or Venus's fly-trap, London: L. Davis, 1770; Ellis, Directions for bringing over seeds and plants …, London, 1771; Ellis, Some additional observations on the method of preserving seeds from foreign parts …, London: W. Bowyer and J. Nichols, 1773; Ellis, A description of the mangostan and the bread-fruit … to which are added, directions to voyagers, for bringing over these and other vegetable productions …, London: Edward and Charles Dilly, 1775; Ellis, Anweisung wie man Saamen und Pflanzen aus Ostindien und andern entlegenen Ländern frisch und grünend über See bringen kann …, Leipzig, 1775; Ellis, Description du mangostan et du fruit à pain … avec des instructions aux voyageurs pour le transport de ces deux fruits & autres substances végétales …, Rouen: P. Machuel, 1779.

32 Ellis, op. cit. (24), p. 214; Ellis, Directions (1770), op. cit. (31), p. 9. For the widespread interest in economic botany see Schiebinger and Swan, op. cit. (2).

33 Ellis, Directions (1770), op. cit. (31), p. 1, p. 22; Murphy, op. cit. (15), pp. 82–138; Parsons and Murphy, op. cit. (28).

34 Ellis, op. cit. (26), p. 78.

35 Ellis, Directions (1770), op. cit. (31), p. 22.

36 John Ellis to Society of Arts, 2 November 1758, Guard Books, 1755–1770, IV, 11, pp. 1–2, Archives of the Royal Society of Arts, London.

37 Ellis, Directions (1770), op. cit. (31), pp. 22–33.

38 John Ellis to Society of Arts, 2 November 1758, Guard Books, 1755–1770, IV, pp. 6–7; Drayton, Nature's Government, op. cit. (2), pp. 72–79. The Society of Arts offered premiums for establishing a botanic garden in British America from 1759 until 1764. Although Drayton suggests that the society was inspired to do so by the translation of Linnaeus's Amoenitates Academicae in 1759, I believe that Ellis's proposal is the more likely explanation. Drayton, Nature's Government, op. cit. (2), p. 73.

39 Ellis hoped that in time – once the Society of Arts’ ‘endavours grow ripe enough’ – they would attract Parliamentary support, similar to the state support scientific agriculture enjoyed in France throughout the eighteenth century. John Ellis to Society of Arts, 2 November 1758, Guard Books, 1755–1770, IV, p. 7.

40 John Ellis to Society of Arts, 2 November 1758, Guard Books, 1755–1770, IV, p. 6.

41 Peter Collinson to the Society of Arts, 10 November 1763, Guard Books, 1755–1770, II, p. 70, Archives of the Royal Society of Arts, London.

42 Ellis, Directions (1770), op. cit. (31), pp. 22–33.

43 Bernard Romans to John Ellis, 13 August 1772, ‘Some observations on a catalogue of plants Published by John Ellis Esqre F.R.S.’, vol. 2, Ellis Manuscripts, Linnean Society, London.

44 Romans discussed twenty-two of the eighty-two species listed by Ellis. Although Romans's focus was on plants found in West Florida and, to a lesser degree, East Florida, he also mentioned plants he had observed in Georgia and South Carolina. Romans, op. cit. (43).

45 Romans, op. cit. (43); Ellis, Directions (1770), op. cit. (31), pp. 22–23.

46 Romans, op. cit. (43); Ellis, Directions (1770), op. cit. (31), pp. 22–24, p. 29. Romans also included these plants in his natural history of the region. Romans, Bernard, A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida, New York, 1775, pp. 153 (pistachia), 154–155 (jalap), 158 (Quercus suber).

47 Ware, John D., ‘The Bernard Romans–John Ellis Letters, 1772–1774’, Florida Historical Quarterly (1973) 52, p. 52; Rembert W. Patrick, ‘Introduction’, in Bernard Romans, A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida (ed. Rembert W. Patrick), Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1962, pp. i–xxi.

48 Bernard Romans to John Ellis, 14 May 1774, Ellis Manuscripts, vol. 2, p. 61, Linnean Society, London; Romans, op. cit. (47), dedicatory page. Partly through the influence of Ellis, Romans was appointed the colony's botanist, at a salary of £50 per annum. His salary, however, was revoked when he joined the Patriot side during the American Revolution.

49 Recent work on Atlantic science emphasizes the role of indigenous and African knowledge. See, for example, James Delbourgo, ‘Fugitive colours: shamans’ knowledge, chemical empire and Atlantic revolutions’, in Simon Schaffer, Lissa Roberts, Kapil Raj and James Delbourgo (eds.), The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770–1820, Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2009, pp. 271–320; Murphy, Kathleen S., ‘Translating the vernacular: indigenous and African knowledge in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic’, Atlantic Studies (2011) 8, pp. 2948; Parrish, Susan Scott, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, especially pp. 22, 215306; Schiebinger, op. cit. (7).

50 Romans, op. cit. (43); John Ellis to Society of Arts, 2 November 1758, Guard Books, 1755–1770, IV, p. 11; Romans, Concise Natural History, pp. 154–155.

51 John Ellis to Society of Arts, 2 November 1758, Guard Books, 1755–1770, IV, p. 11; Ellis, Directions, op. cit. (31), p. 30; Romans, op. cit. (47), pp. 154–155. The South Sea surgeon William Houstoun smuggled a live jalap plant out of the province and transplanted it to Jamaica. However, it was destroyed by hogs after the surgeon returned to England. William Houstoun to Hans Sloane, 4 March 1731, Sloane 4052, f. 82, British Library, London; Romans, Concise Natural History, p. 154.

52 Alexander Garden to John Ellis, 15 May 1773, in Smith, A Selection of the Correspondence of Linnaeus, vol. 1, p. 596. Emma Spary's excellent essay on the identification of nutmeg illuminates the ‘highly contested, complex procedure’ of plant identification in a colonial context. Emma Spary, ‘Of nutmegs and botanists: the colonial cultivation of botanical identity’, in Schiebinger and Swan, op. cit. (2), pp. 187–203, 187.

53 Romans, op. cit. (47), pp. 154–155; Kathryn E. Holland Braund, ‘Bernard Romans: his life and works’, in Holland Braund (ed.), A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999, pp. 1–41, 10–11; E.R. Wegg to John Ellis, 26 February 1775, vol. 2, Ellis Manuscripts, Linnean Society, London. Modern botanists agree with Ellis that the West Floridian plant is distinct from the Mexican jalap. Instead, the plant Romans discovered was most likely the cathartic wild jalap or wild potato. Braund, Concise Natural History, p. 15.

54 Romans, op. cit. (47), pp. 179–180.

55 E.R. Wegg to John Ellis, 26 February 1775, vol. 2, Ellis Manuscripts, Linnean Society, London.

56 Bernard Romans, ‘Proposals for printing by subscription, three very elegant and large maps of the navigation, to, and in, the new ceded countrie’, Philadelphia, 5 August 1773, broadside, Evans 42493; Braund, op. cit. (53), p. 13.

57 Aranda et al., op. cit. (5), pp. 500–501.

This essay was originally presented at the The Royal Society and the British Atlantic conference sponsored by the Royal Society of London in September 2010. I am grateful to Joyce Chaplin and Mordechai Feingold for inviting me to participate, and to the Royal Society, especially Keith Moore and Felicity Henderson, for sponsoring the event. I thank them and the other conference participants for their questions and suggestions. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for BJHS, Regulus Allen, Lewis Call, Caroline Cornell, Christina Firpo, Jane Lehr, Molly Loberg, Devin Kuhn, Thomas Trice, members of the Johns Hopkins Early American research seminar and especially Philip Morgan for comments on previous versions of this paper.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Metrics

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed