Botany for sale: the economics of empire

In preparation for two exciting upcoming shows (A Language of Seeds and Seedscapes: Future-Proofing Nature) I have spent time with RAMM’s botany collections. Some plant specimens are local – collected within a few miles of RAMM. Others originate thousands of miles away.

In one section of the store there are plant specimens that hold great deal of appeal for me. Lifting the lid from any one of over 200 boxes reveals a jewel from the plant kingdom: Cinnamon bark still delicately fragrant and tied in a little bundle. Castor oil seeds like tiny polished pebbles. White pappus – minute parachutes that tumble in the box with my breath. Tree resin that glows like hot coals. Palm seeds thin as tissue paper. So tactile, so familiar, so exotic.

Species for sale – botany and empire

For the most part these specimens were not collected for their beauty alone. Scrolling through the list of countries on the museum’s database uncovers their legacy in British Empire: The Seychelles, India, Ceylon, Jamaica, Lagos, Andaman Islands, British Guiana. The list goes on.

As the empire expanded scientists explored each new country. The development of botany as a science went hand-in-hand with finding species of potential economic interest to Britain. For example, local people were very familiar with the medicinal properties of Indian plants. But this information was news to European science. The British East India company made detailed studies of India’s botany with a view to exploit and export the country’s natural resources for financial gain.

The presence of foreign seeds and plant samples in RAMM’s collection is often a result of their potential economic significance. Many are spices, medicines, dyes and materials. Such collections are often called ‘economic botany’ collections. On one level they add to our understanding of ancient medicinal systems. On another, they are a window on to the operations of the British Empire.

Today we still look to the plant kingdom for medical treatments. However, governments are beginning to put protocols in place to prevent this unacceptable exploitation of species by other countries (e.g. the Nagoya Protocol).

From one museum to another

John Reader Jackson aspired to become an architect. But his friend Professor Bell (President of the Linnean Society) advised him otherwise. Then Bell introduced Jackson to his botanical friends. One in particular, Sir William Hooker, changed Jackson’s career path forever. Hooker was the first official Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. He sought to create an exhibition of  ‘all kinds of useful and curious Vegetable Products [to] render great service, not only to the scientific botanist, but to the merchant, the manufacturer, the physician, the chemist, the druggist, the dyer, the carpenter and cabinet maker, and artisans of every description.’ As a result he opened the Museum of Economic Botany.

In 1847 Hooker employed Jackson as the museum’s second curator, a post he held for 43 years. Jackson’s passion for the subject was clear. He gave lectures to Kew’s gardeners as well as editing the new edition of Barton and Castle’s British Flora Medica (1877). He acquired specimens for the museum from the Great International Exhibitions in London in 1851 and 1862 and in Paris in 1855 and 1867. In addition to this he made a collection of his own.

Even after retirement to Lympstone near Exeter, Jackson’s enthusiasm for the subject continued. He wrote articles on economic botany for the Gardener’s ChronicleTechnologist and the Pharmaceutical Journal.  After his death Jackson’s son gave his personal collection of over 100 boxes of seeds and plant products to RAMM. The collection also includes botanical illustration prints and photographs of botanic gardens around the world. Jackson is remembered for his gentle and unselfish character.

Deadly fungus attacks coffee

Jackson also published Commercial Botany of the Nineteenth Century in 1890 (pictured above). The book outlines the uses of hundreds of plants from all over the world. It also details how Kew acquired new species and introduced them to other countries in the British Empire to cultivate for trade.

One example is coffee. Jackson recalls how in May 1869 a fungus began to attack coffee plants (Coffea arabica) in Ceylon. Ceylon is now known as Sri Lanka. Just three years later the fungus affected every estate on the island. By 1881 the fungus ravaged crops as far as Southern India, Java, Fiji and Mauritius. So Kew distributed seeds and plants of a different coffee species (C. liberica) to these localities and further afield. It was believed to be immune to disease. It was a success, but only for a short while. This species has a ‘distinctive’ and less desirable flavour and its resistance to rust had waned. By the early 1900s growers abandoned Liberian coffee cultivation. Six seeds are present in Jackson’s collection at RAMM.

Specimens from Jackson’s economic botany collection

You may also like:

Léonie Hampton talks about her commission with RAMM. Her work engages directly with the ecological emergency through a series of photographs that celebrate her vegetable garden, her family and friends, and the seeds in the collections at RAMM.


Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), Vol. 1920, No. 10 (1920), pp. 367-378

Commercial botany of the nineteenth century. A record of progress in the utilisation of vegetable products in the United Kingdom, and the introduction of economic plants into the British colonies, during the present century. John Reader Jackson, 1890.

The Big Rust and the Red Queen: Long-Term Perspectives on Coffee Rust Research. Phytopathology review. Stuart McCook and John Vandermeer, 2015

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