Imperial Project

Richard Drayton

  • Kew: The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens by Ray Desmond
    Harvill/Royal Botanical Gardens, 466 pp, £25.00, November 1995, ISBN 1 86046 076 3

Only now, a generation after decolonisation, is it beginning to be understood how the Empire changed Britain. In India or Nigeria or Barbados, empire is taken to be central to the modern situation. But Britons often assume that their history stems from indigenous, or at worst European, cultural facts. Seeley in 1883 talks about England ‘expanding’ to reach its Victorian stature; Anthony Low, in 1983, of England ‘contracting’, in the second Elizabethan age, to become again a minor power on the flank of Europe. Popular sentiment and historical scholarship cling to this leavened loaf theory of a Celtic-Roman-German-Norse-Norman people winning then losing the world. The Empire is cordoned off into a chapter of modern British history, to be jumped over where it contradicts the main narrative of the rise of liberty and civility. This magnificent conceit of Britain springing directly from its medieval insular or European cultural roots has stood as the invisible scaffolding within which many political persuasions – from Clarendon, Hume and Macaulay to A.J.P. Taylor and E. P. Thompson – have helped an emerging nation make sense of itself. There are now good reasons, as Linda Colley and Chris Bayly have suggested, to bring the Empire to the centre of domestic history and to show how a wider world changed our experience of taste, style and kinship. In an empire, as Gibbon knew, it is often difficult to tell who conquered whom.

The first botanic gardens sought explicitly to domesticate the new worlds opened up by Columbus and da Gama. The 1658 catalogue of the Oxford Botanic Garden declared: ‘As all creatures were gathered into the Ark, comprehended as in an epitome, so you have the plants of this world in microcosm in our garden’. In Oxford (founded in 1621) this ark took the form of a square, at Padua (1545) of a perfect circle. Both were divided into four parts, one each for Europe, Asia, Africa and America. It was hoped that the plants that had been scattered at the Fall might be gathered together again, Europe thereby securing cures for disease and hunger and, perhaps, a reconciliation with the Creator. These utopian ambitions faded by the late 17th century: too many new plants had been found. The prestige of the gardens continued to grow, however, enhanced equally by the philosophers they attracted and the flowers and fruit they supplied to European princes.

Ray Desmond describes how royal taste in the Age of Enlightenment led to the planting of a botanic garden at Kew. New to the British throne, the Hanoverians sought to create a version of the much imitated garden at Versailles. Queen Caroline chose the Tudor demesne of Richmond to create a landscape garden: a cave with wax statues of Merlin and Elizabeth I suggested the culmination of Arthurian prophecy in the Hanoverian monarchy. Frederick Louis, Caroline’s unpopular son, and his wife Augusta attempted to rival this display, planning a Mount of Parnassus, a House of Confucius and a Physic Garden. But Frederick died in 1751, and the realisation of their plans had to await the accession of their son, George III. After 1760, Augusta spent more than £30,000 on Kew, and gave Capability Brown permission to level her mother-in-law’s follies. The Dowager Princess then employed William Chambers to build her own: a remarkable range of buildings, including a mosque, a gothic cathedral, an alhambra and the Pagoda, which is the finest survival of these follies. The third Earl of Bute, more distinguished as a natural historian than as a politician, assisted in the parallel creation of a collection of exotic plants, particularly rich in specimens from the American colonies. By 1767, Bute claimed that ‘the Exotick Garden at Kew is by far the richest in Europe ... getting plants and seeds from every Corner of the Habitable world.’ George III fostered this programme and in 1773 turned to Joseph Banks for assistance.

In the half-century between the end of the Seven Years’ War and Waterloo, the East India Company took control of Moghul India, the Royal Navy began its hydrological survey of the world’s oceans, and Britain seized a string of new colonies in Australia, the Cape, the West Indies, China, the Indian Ocean and West Africa. Joseph Banks was at the centre of the 18th century’s New Imperialism, and took advantage of it to add distinction to the King’s garden. The Bird of Paradise flower, for example, taken by Masson from the Cape, was named Strelitzia in honour of Queen Charlotte, of the house of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. In his capacity as Privy Councillor, president of the Royal Society, adviser to the EIC, the Board of Trade, the Navy Board, Pitt, Dundas and Liverpool, he offered advice on the ‘improvement’ of the colonies. He wanted them to supply such commodities as spices and cotton – previously bought from the Dutch or the newly foreign Americans – as well as hemp, pitch and timber. The solution was plant transfer: the introduction of East Indian crops to the West Indies, and of Baltic staples to temperate dominions. Kew became the centre of such schemes as Bligh’s mission to carry the breadfruit tree from the Pacific to the West Indies. The Crown, the Admiralty and the departments of state co-operated in founding botanic gardens in St Vincent, Calcutta, Madras, St Helena, Jamaica, the Cape and Trinidad, and in launching missions of exploration and botanical surveys. These enterprises often depended on personnel trained at Kew. The Royal Garden thus became the port through which scientific and horticultural novelties arrived in Britain from the fringes of the Empire.

At the accession of Victoria, there was a plan to close the Gardens in order to save money. A strange coalition came to its rescue: the horticultural entrepreneurs John Loudon and George Glenny; the Dukes of Bedford and Devonshire; Radical politicians, including Joseph Hume; and Sir William Hooker and John Lindley, the foremost botanists of the age. They won in 1840, when Kew passed from royal to Parliamentary control, with Hooker appointed as its first official director. But these temporary allies held quite different visions of the Gardens’ future.

Many politicians, in particular such Radicals as Hume, Sir Benjamin Hall and Acton Smee Ayrton, saw Kew as a people’s park – an uplifting version of Battersea to which Londoners might escape by railway. The directors of Kew sought, in part, to co-operate in this, cutting vistas towards the Thames and the Pagoda, putting down seasonal bedding and acquiring exotic plants to delight and educate visitors. The Great Palm House (1844-8) and the Water Lily House (1851) enabled them to experience the steamy heat of tropical jungles. The latter contained the Victoria Regia: the vast lily from British Guiana on which Paxton claimed to have based his design for the Crystal Palace. The Temperate House (started in 1860 and completed, with the help of Joseph Chamberlain, in the 1890s) collected the flora of the Australasian, South African and North Indian dominions. A flagpole made of a single 161 foot spar of Douglas Fir marked the Union Jack’s connection with the forests of Canada. A Museum of Economic Botany showed, for the edification of schoolchildren and manufacturers, how plants from Britain’s colonies and other foreign countries might be used in industry and medicine. At the same time, Kew continued to serve as a school for landscape gardeners, and supplied the poor of London with surplus bedding plants.

With the laying of railway lines, Kew came to expect over a million visitors a year by the late 19th century. But while the botanists recognised the need to cater to the public, they resisted all pressure to open the gardens before noon. They saw Kew principally as the home of scientific research, and made it into the centre of British botany. Sir William Hooker (director, 1840-65) was the leading taxonomist of his generation. Sir Joseph Hooker (his son and director, 1865-85) used his experience as an Antarctic and Indian explorer to form theories of the geographical distribution of plants which gave powerful support to the ideas of his friend Charles Darwin. Sir William Thistleton-Dyer (son-in-law of Joseph and director, 1885-1905) promoted the laboratory through which experimental physiological botany established itself in this country. But state funding for science was limited and Sir William discovered that while politicians liked ornamental buildings, they delayed giving him a herbarium and library – science came after horticulture and recreation.

Botanists found that it was easier to win support for their scientific work by presenting themselves as serving the Empire. One project, begun in 1863, aimed at publishing studies of all the plants of every British colony, supposedly in order to facilitate colonial economic development. In fact, these Colonial Floras were more useful in extending the Darwinian research programme in phytogeography, of which Joseph Hooker was the pioneer. The Hookers and Thistleton-Dyer also used Kew’s service to the Empire to argue for salary increases, and in battles with civil servants or other scientists. One consequence was that Kew came to enjoy first pick of the plants brought back by scientific expeditions, to the detriment of the British Museum. Thistleton-Dyer took pleasure in adding to this advantage over his institutional rival: for example, he advised the India Office in 1880 that duplicate specimens from the Afghan Boundary Delimitation Expedition should go to St Petersburg, Harvard and Geneva before they were offered to London.

The directors responded to the Late Victorian mood, presenting scientific solutions to Imperial problems. Cinchona, the source of quinine, was sent from South America to British India, rubber from Brazil to Singapore and Malaya, coffee and then tea to Ceylon, cocoa to the Gold Coast. By the 1880s, Kew was intimately involved in the business of Imperial administration, and Thistleton-Dyer was in constant communication with the Colonial Office and with Governors in every part of the world. An intimate of Joseph Chamberlain, he provided Chamberlain with free advice on his Bahamian plantations and presents of rare orchids, receiving in exchange a KCMG in 1899. In time, ironically, Kew became involved in conservation: while with one hand it sent out plants to cultivate which jungles were razed throughout the Tropics, with the other it gave advice on how natives might be restrained from making deserts or over-exploiting forests.

After Thistleton-Dyer, Desmond’s coverage is thinner: only fifty pages discuss the 20th century. One wonders what recent skeletons have been crammed into closets. But by 1900, the influence and reputation of Kew had already reached their zenith. Like that of Britain itself, its pre-eminence was about to diminish. In the Edwardian period it was a victim of the immaturity of both university science and the apparatus of colonial administration. By the early decades of this century, while it continued to have the world’s most important herbarium, the Jodrell Laboratory became only one of many centres of excellence in laboratory botany. At the same time, the Imperial Institute replaced Kew as the principal source of scientific advice to the Colonial Office. It was invited to play a more active role when Imperial agriculture was in fashion, as in the era of the Empire Marketing Board, but the expansion of the Colonial Office and the development of local bureaucracies meant that its directors could no longer run a scientific empire within the Empire. Their opinion was less and less sought on appointments. With this decline in patronage came, naturally, a retreat in influence. Both during and after decolonisation, however, Kew continued to connect Britain to the world, pleasing the crowd with cacti and orchids, and conserving plants now rapidly becoming extinct. The Renaissance dream of containing the world in the hortus conclusus is now being realised in the ‘gene banks’ of Kew. Its scientists, in collaboration with others in Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere, are making an important contribution to the survival of biological diversity: the benevolent side of the Imperial project has survived the end of Empire.

Desmond, librarian and chief archivist of Kew for 12 years, has written an official history which is as amusing as it is instructive, although he can at times be a little too deferential to his sources and too dependent on other historians’ views of Kew’s past. Was the period from 1820 to 1840, for example, actually one of ‘decline’ at Kew? Talk of the ‘Decline of Science’ c. 1830 had more to do with the posturings of scientists than with any real change. Desmond, close to his subject, tends also to write about Kew without explaining how economic and political facts shaped its history. It would have been interesting to see some discussion of the implications of the ‘privatisation’ of Kew in 1984. Since then we have seen the price of admission increase by a large amount and, most recently, a strike by its gardeners for better wages. The market now clearly holds sway over a space which Victorian politicians sought to open to the widest possible public. The changes forced on Kew by the 1987 hurricane were minor compared to those which came in the train of Margaret Thatcher.