Skip to main content

Botanical Gardens and their Role in the Political Economy of Empire: Jamaica (1846–86)


A variety of plants were distributed across Jamaica from the island's botanical gardens during the second half of the nineteenth century. This work became increasingly important over the period dating from 1846 to the end of the century when succeeding superintendents (subsequently directors) eagerly promoted the scheme. Yet, each head differed in their reasons to send out this ‘useful’ flora. In this article I consider the three men in charge of the public gardens from 1846 to 1886 and the context in which they decided that local plant distribution was important to pursue. Diversification of economic crops occurred, despite the plantocracy arguing that sugar and a few other plantation plants were the be all and end all of the Jamaican agricultural economy. By contextualising this activity we can tentatively start to unpick the role of minor officials in colonial life and the development of an aim to enrol the island's petty agriculturalist in particular economies calibrated around ideas of free trade, class and ‘race’.

Hide All


1. National Library of Jamaica, MS12 (hereafter MS12), 6th October 1849; Annual Report (AR) of the Botanical Department of Jamaica 1870 (hereafter AR 1870); AR 1871. For annual reports, sift through: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew Archive (hereafter RBGK) MR 662, annual reports 1868–12; MR 671 Jamaica: annual reports (1891–9); Natural History Museum Archives (hereafter NHM) S2375, ‘Annual Report Botanical Gardens 1880–1907’.

2. AR 1878. On the significance of the lily, see Holway T., The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created (Oxford, 2013).

3. Work examining botanical gardens and questions of empire includes: the edited collections by Schiebinger L. and Swan C., eds, Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World (Philadelphia, 2005); a broader volume by Miller D. P. and Reill P. H., eds, Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature (Cambridge, 1996); McCracken D. P., Gardens of Empire: Botanical Institutions of the Victorian British Empire (Leicester, 1997) provides a wide-ranging and comprehensive account of colonial gardens; Brockway L. H., Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens (Cambridge, MA, 1979) concerns itself with three empire crops; Drayton R., Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World (New Haven, 2000) considers Kew Garden's role in the wider world; Grove R. H., Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (Cambridge, 1995); Fan F.-T., British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter (Cambridge, MA, 2004); Spary E. C., Utopia's Garden: French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution (Chicago, 2000); Safier N., ‘Fruitless Botany: Joseph de Jussieu's South American Odyssey’, in Delbourgo J. and Dew N., eds, Science and Empire in the Atlantic World (Abingdon, 2008), pp. 203–24; D. Bleichmar, ‘Atlantic Competitions: Botany in the Eighteenth-Century Spanish Empire’, in Delbourgo and Dew, eds, Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, pp. 225–52; Endersby J., Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science (Chicago, 2008); Storey W. K., ‘Plants, Power and Development: Founding the Imperial Department of Agriculture for the West Indies, 1880–1914’, in Jasanoff S., ed., States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order (Abingdon, 2004), pp. 109–30; Browne J., ‘Biogeography and Empire’, in Jardine N., Secord J. A. and Spary E. C., eds, Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 305–21; Endersby J. ‘A garden enclosed: botanical barter in Sydney, 1818–39’, The British Journal for the History of Science (BJHS), 35 (2007), 313–34.

4. Higman B. W., A Concise History of the Caribbean (Cambridge, 2011), p. 169 ; also Bryan P., The Jamaican People 1880–1902: Race, Class and Social Control (London, 1991), p. 8 ; Marshall W. K., ‘Part I – Aspects of the development of the peasantry’, Caribbean Quarterly, 18:1 (1972), 3046 .

5. D. Taylor, ‘Circulating Tropical Nature: An Historical Geography of the Botanical Gardens of Jamaica, 1774–1907' (unpublished doctoral thesis, Queen's University, Belfast, 2015).

6. Dussart F. and Lester A., Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 45 .

7. Wanhalla A., ‘Living on the River's Edge at the Taieri Native Reserve’, in Laidlaw Z. and Lester A., eds, Indigenous Communities and Settler Colonialism: Land Holding, Loss and Survival in an Interconnected World (Basingstoke, 2015), pp. 138–57.

8. Disagreements in the running of colonial gardens were not unheard of, indeed bitter feuds occasionally developed, see Axelby R., ‘Calcutta Botanic Garden and the colonial re-ordering of the Indian environment’, Archives of Natural History, 35:1 (2008), 150–63; furthermore botanical gardens failed to present a homogenous representation of colonial life and were sites of contention, see Ginn F., ‘Colonial transformations: nature, progress and science in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens’, New Zealand Geographer, 65:1 (2009), 3547 . In practice, black voices are largely absent from the historical record. Superintendents and directors – who were mainly white European men – ignored or failed to recognise the presence of the working classes in the documentation of the botanical gardens. The role, therefore, of the majority of Afro-Jamaicans was omitted. I am aware that these voices are not foregrounded in this narrative. I present an institutional history that decentres accounts of the metropole with the aim of providing a route to discuss a richer and more complex colonial rural history. In doing so I have not addressed all the representational challenges faced by those writing about colonialism. I take heed from Harris Cole's observation that ‘unless it can be shown that colonialism is entirely constituted by European colonial culture (a proposition for which it is hard to imagine any convincing evidence . . .), then studies of colonial discourse, written from the center, must be a very partial window on the workings of colonialism.’ Cole H., ‘How did colonialism dispossess? Comments from an edge of empire’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 94:1 (2004), 166 .

9. D. Bleichmar, ‘Atlantic Competitions’, in Delbourgo and Dew, eds, Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, p. 239.

10. Casid J. H., Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization (Minneapolis, 2005); Schiebinger and Swan, ‘Introduction’, in Schiebinger and Swan, eds, Colonial Botany, pp. 1–16; Brockway, Science and Colonial Expansion.

11. Craton M., ‘Emancipation from Below? The Role of the British West Indian Slaves in the Emancipation Movement, 1816–34’, in Hayward J., ed., Out of Slavery: Abolition and After (Abingdon, 1985), p. 128 .

12. Bryan P., The Jamaican People 1880–1902: Race, Class and Social Control (London, 1991), pp. 156–7.

13. See also Holt T. C., The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore, 1992), p. 266 ; Hall C., Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830–1867 (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 229–43; Holt T. C., ‘Explaining abolition’, Journal of Social History, 24:2 (1990), 371–8; Marshall, ‘Part I – Aspects of the development of the peasantry’, 30–46.

14. Bryan, The Jamaican People, p. 9; C. Post, ‘Plantation slavery and economic development in the Antebellum Southern United States’, Journal of Agrarian Change, 3:3 (2003), 289–332.

15. Sir Anthony Musgrave, ‘Jamaica: Now and Fifteen Years Since’, paper read before the Royal Colonial Institute, 20th April 1880; National Library of Jamaica, Jamaica Pamphlets, No. 9. p. 25, quoted in Bryan, The Jamaican People, p. 6.

16. Holt for one, suggests this support for a diverse agricultural economy only occurred following the Royal Commission of 1897. Storey recognises the role of the Botanical Department in Jamaica whilst focusing on broader issues of West Indian sugar production, nonetheless he does not fully engage with the earlier work of the botanical gardens. Furthermore, he does not appear to recognise diverse cultivation practices prior to 1897 and the entanglements and tensions between ‘imperial agriculture’ and the Botanical Department. Holt, The Problem of Freedom, p. 322; Storey, ‘Plants, Power and Development’, in Jasanoff, ed., States of Knowledge, pp. 109–30; Barker D. and Spence B., ‘Afro-Caribbean agriculture: a Jamaican maroon community in transition’, Geographical Journal, 154:2 (1988), 198208 .

17. Work on colonial ‘careering’ is expansive and wide ranging, but in particular, see: Lester A., ‘Imperial circuits and networks: geographies of the British Empire’, History Compass, 4 (2006), 124–41; Ogborn M., Global Lives: Britain and the World 1550–1800 (Cambridge, 2008); Roche M., ‘Forestry as imperial careering: New Zealand as the end and edge of empire in the 1920s–1940s’, New Zealand Geographer, 68 (2012), 201–10; Schiebinger L., Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA, 2004); Secord A., ‘Corresponding interests: artisans and gentlemen in nineteenth-century natural history’, BJHS, 27:4 (1994), 383408 ; Kehoe S. K., ‘From the Caribbean to the Scottish Highlands: charitable enterprise in the age of improvement, c. 1750 to c. 1850’, Rural History, 27 (2016), 3759 .

18. This phrase is the title of Morris's obituary in The Times: ‘Sir Daniel Morris: Botany in the Service of Empire’, The Times, 10th February 1933, p. 14.

19. Aside from some plants that arrived on the Providence and were distributed from Bath and East's Gardens and some in the early years of the nineteenth century when botanical garden chairman Henry Shirley supported the endeavour, see Powell D., ‘The voyage of the plant nursery, H. M. S. Providence, 1791–1793’, Economic Botany, 31 (1977), 387431 .

20. I suspect, however, that this activity was restricted almost exclusively to the eastern end of the island.

21. Watts D., The West Indies: Patterns of Development, Culture and Environmental Change since 1492 (Cambridge, 1987); Mintz S. W., Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York, 1985); Galloway J. H., The Sugar Cane Industry: An Historical Geography from its Origins to 1914 (Cambridge, 1989); Harrison M., King Sugar: Jamaica, the Caribbean, and the World Sugar Industry (New York, 2001); Swartz S. B., ed., Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450–1680 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004); Smith S. D., Slavery, Family and Gentry Capitalism in the British Atlantic: The World of the Lascelles, 1648–1834 (Cambridge, 2006); Figueroa L. A., Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico (Chapel Hill, NC, 2005); Shepherd V. A., Livestock, Sugar and Slavery: Contested Terrain in Colonial Jamaica (Kingston, Jamaica, 2009).

22. Holt, The Problem of Freedom, p. 318.

23. MS12, 6th January 1861; MS12, 24th November 1854.

24. MS12, 9th August 1859. See Alan Lester's work on how a single colonial figure can be read quite differently in various settings: A. Lester, ‘Personifying colonial governance: George Arthur and the transition from humanitarian to development discourse’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 102:6 (2011), 1468–88.

25. MS12, 5th August 1847.

26. AR 1856.

27. Ibid.

28. MS12, 25th July 1856. Wilson was certainly aware that to Jamaica's west lay the Yucatán peninsula famous above all for its fibre production and it is likely that he knew North Americans were also becoming involved in the trade. See: MS12, 25th May 1855; MS12, 22nd June 1855; MS12, 7th August 1855; MS12, 10th March 1856. ‘After 1840’, Lucile Brockway explains, ‘there were two sources of sisal, one wild in Florida and the Keys and one in the protected industry in Mexico.’ Brockway, Science and Colonial Expansion, p. 175.

29. MS12, 9th February 1860.

30. AR 1856.

31. Ibid.

32. See especially, MS12, 24th November 1854.

33. T. Carlyle, The Nigger Question (1849) in Drayton, Nature's Government, p. v.

34. See, for example, MS12, 24th November 1854; MS12, 9th August 1859.

35. Marshall, ‘Part I – Aspects of the development of the peasantry’, 30–46.

36. Beckford G. L., ‘Caribbean peasantry in the confines of the plantation mode of production’, International Social Science Journal, 37:3 (1985), 401–14.

37. Bryan, The Jamaican People, pp. 9, 17, 131–6, 156.

38. AR 1856. Wilson realised that the sugar industry could not regain its former wealth, especially after the 1846 Sugar Act. His friends were planters, however, and consequently he was careful about expressing his views on diversification whilst searching for new economically viable crops for the colony.

39. MS12, 10th April 1855 – note that this was one year after the Act came fully into effect.

40. MS12, 7th October 1865.

41. See, for example, MS12, 7th May 1850; MS12, 24th June 1853.

42. See RBGK DC, Wilson to William Hooker, 21st April 1860, fols 389–90.

43. AR 1856.

44. Hall, Civilising Subjects, p. 440.

45. MS12, 7th June 1867.

46. Holt, The Problem of Freedom, p. 307.

47. Richardson B. C., Igniting the Caribbean's Past: Fire in British West Indian History (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004), p. 40 .

48. Holt, The Problem of Freedom, pp. 336–7; see also, Watts, The West Indies, p. 510.

49. See W. T. Thiselton-Dyer, The Botanical Enterprise of the Empire, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection (1880), pp. 29–30.

50. Higman, A Concise History of the Caribbbean, p. 216.

51. Ibid.

52. RBGK DC, Thomson to J. Hooker, 20th May 1865, fol. 979. Cinchona trees were used to produce quinine ameliorate the effects of malaria, a large garden and plantation was set up on Jamaica to grow the trees and encourage others to try and create plantations of the plant on the island.

53. Thomson did not take over Bath Garden, but worked exclusively at Cinchona and Castleton Gardens.

54. As Morris wrote in 1883: ‘Seed packets and, in some cases, small fruit packets, have been forwarded, free by post, to numerous correspondents in the interior villages and settlements beyond the reach of sea and railway facilities; and for this valuable privilege the Department, no less than the public at large, is indebted to the Postmaster for Jamaica for the efficient aid offered in this respect.’ AR 1883, p. 2.

55. AR 1870.

56. Ibid.

57. Ibid.

58. Drayton, Nature's Government, pp. 243–5.

59. AR 1871.

60. Ibid.

61. AR 1875.

62. AR 1877.

63. RBGK Report, Jamaica R Comm. Bot Gard. & Dept, etc., 1861–1915, Sir Anthony Musgrave to Sir Hicks Beach (the Colonial Secretary), 20th July 1878, fol. 39, pp. 100–4.

64. McCracken, Gardens of Empire, p. 53.

65. RBGK DC, Morris to Hooker, 10th December 1879, pp. 706–8; AR 1879; AR 1880, pp. 11–13; Drayton, Nature's Government, pp. 246–7; McCracken, Gardens of Empire, pp. 64–8.

66. Drayton, Nature's Government, p. 240.

67. ‘Sir Daniel Morris: Botany in the Service of Empire’, The Times, 10th February 1933, p. 14.

68. Hall, Civilising Subjects, p. 368.

69. Ibid., pp. 369–70; Hall C., ‘Going a-Trolloping: Imperial Man Travels the Empire’, in Midgley C., ed., Gender and Imperialism (Manchester, 1998), pp. 180–99; Morris unashamedly described ‘races’ that he came across and categorised groups of people for the purpose of providing ‘useful’ information for officials. See, for example, Morris D., The Colony of British Honduras, its Resources and Prospects: With Particular Reference to its Indigenous Plants and Economic Productions (E. Stanford, 1883), pp. 117–19: [last accessed 31st October 2016].

70. Holt, The Problem of Freedom, pp. 326–7.

71. Ibid., pp. 323.

72. The changes in Mill's feelings towards British colonies are traced in Bell D., ‘John Stuart Mill on colonies’, Political Theory, 38:1 (2010), 3464 .

73. Steele E. D., Irish Land and British Politics: Tenant-Right and Nationality, 1865–1870 (Cambridge, 1974), pp. 70–2, see more generally ch. 2 of the same book.

74. See George Boyce D., ‘Gladstone and Ireland’, in Jagger P. J., ed., Gladstone (London; New York, 1998), pp. 105–22.

75. Holt, The Problem of Freedom, ch. 9.

76. Ibid., p. 322.

77. Storey, ‘Plants, Power and Development’, in Jasanoff, ed., States of Knowledge, pp. 109–30; Drayton, Nature's Government.

78. Storey, ‘Plants, Power and Development’, in Jasanoff, ed., States of Knowledge, p. 128.

79. The Norman Commission captured a sense of white Jamaican culture in the second half of the nineteenth century, when they tellingly explained that ‘there was a tendency on the part of some witnesses to dwell a good deal on the depressed state of the Jamaica peasantry’. H. W. Norman, E. Grey and D. Barbour, Report of the West India Royal Commission, printed for Her Majesty's Stationery Office (1897), p. 61 (hereafter Norman, West India Royal Commission).

80. The report was 79 pages long and Morris's subsidiary work was 73 in length, Norman, West India Royal Commission.

81. Morris D., Planting Enterprise in the West Indies: A Paper Read Before the Royal Colonial Institute 12th June 1883 (London, 1883).

82. Drayton, Nature's Government, p. 260.

83. See AR 1879.

84. D. Morris, Cacao: How to Grow and How to Cure it, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection (1882), Appendix II, p. 44.

85. KA MR662, D. Morris, ‘Department of Public Gardens and Plantations, Jamaica’ (1880).

86. AR 1882, p. 2.

87. Bryan, The Jamaican People, p. 7.

88. D. Morris, Vegetable Resources of the West Indies: An Address Delivered before the London Chamber of Commerce, 27th March, 1888, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Collection (1888), p. 19 (hereafter Vegetable Resources).

89. Morris, Cacao: How to Grow and How to Cure it, p. iv.

90. Baptist missionaries also formed a cohort who in some ways also went against prevailing attitudes. This is a major thrust of Hall's Civilising Subjects, but see in particular p. 202 on post-emancipation attempts by the missionaries to ‘mobilise the new freeholders politically’. See also, Bryan, The Jamaican People, p. 6.

91. Morris, Cacao: How to Grow and How to Cure it, p. iv, emphasis in original.

92. Holt, The Problem of Freedom, p. 318.

93. Horsman R., Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge, MA, 1981), p. 64 .

94. Dussart and Lester, Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance, p. 4.

95. Hall, ‘The Slave-Owner and the Settler’, in Carey and Lydon, eds, Indigenous Networks, pp. 35–6; Bryan, The Jamaican People, p. 145.

96. Marshall, ‘Part I – Aspects of the development of the peasantry’, 31.

97. ‘I am glad to be able to say’, Thomson remarked, ‘with regard to the present year, that the labor supply has abounded to such an extent that many hundreds of labourers who had come for work had to be turned away, although they had in numerous cases come from ten to twenty miles.’ AR 1875.

98. AR 1870.

99. AR 1875.

100. See Z. Laidlaw and A. Lester, Indigenous Communities and Settler Colonialism.

101. MS12, 7th June 1867.

102. Weis T., ‘Restructuring and redundancy: the impacts and illogic of neoliberal agricultural reforms in Jamaica’, Journal of Agrarian Change, 4:4 (2004), 461–91; Beckford G. L., ‘Caribbean peasantry in the confines of the plantation mode of production’, International Social Science Journal, 37:3 (1985), 413 .

103. This work by Morris, of course, ignored the deeply pervasive and complex internal economies of the island. Barker and Spence, ‘Afro-Caribbean agriculture’, 198–208; Bryan, The Jamaican People; Shepherd, Livestock, Sugar and Slavery.

104. Morris, Vegetable Resources, p. 17.

105. Morris demonstrated particular resistance to ‘provision grounds’ because he believed that there was too much unnecessary destruction caused by fire in the clearing of land for these small vegetable plots. See Richardson, Igniting the Caribbean's Past, pp. 76–7.

106. Morris, Vegetable Resources, p. 15.

107. Ibid.; on Joseph Hooker's comments on ‘provision grounds’, see Morris, Planting Enterprise in the West Indies, p. 42.

108. T. Weis, ‘Restructuring and redundancy’, 463.

109. Curtin P. D., Two Jamaicas: The Role of Ideas in a Tropical Colony 1830–1865 (Cambridge, MA, 1955).

110. Hall, ‘The Slave-Owner and the Settler’, in Carey and Lydon, eds, Indigenous Networks, p. 47; S. K. Kehoe ‘From the Caribbean to the Scottish Highlands’, 37–59.

Recommend this journal

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

Rural History
  • ISSN: 0956-7933
  • EISSN: 1474-0656
  • URL: /core/journals/rural-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 8
Total number of PDF views: 61 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 260 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 28th February 2017 - 18th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.