British Naturalists in Qing China

51-2F-3IZIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Can a book only 11 years old be a classic? If any work can claim to be such it is surely Fa-ti Fan’s British Naturalists in Qing China: Science, Empire, and Cultural Encounter. This is a huge geographic and political shift from the previous books that have dealt with India and British India. I make that point because it is important to remember that the earliest relationships with China were undertaken pretty much under Chinese terms. Even following the end of the Opium Wars and the forceful opening of trading ports China was never a colony under the British Crown. FullSizeRender-19

That is something that is easy to overlook within all the accounts of British fieldwork is lumped together into the standard imperial-vernacular polemic.  Maybe polemic is too strong a word. Either way it is the standard narrative of the boundary lands–theoretical as well as physical. In less than 200 pages Fan is able to reveal that is much more than what meets the scholars eye, and that much more is needed to understand the nuance, and highly independent (and interdependent) relationship between those that knew the raw material and those that wished to classify it. FullSizeRender-21

Fan’s methodological approach to including the knowledge of the Chinese everyman into the larger scope of Imperial Botany and the powers at Kew should provide anyone researching fieldwork in any region with a more than adequate framework with which to present a fully nuanced and historical account. FullSizeRender-18

He deftly begins with the standard setup presented in historical sources of how Britain was setup in Canton in a line of warehouses and were forbidden to enter the city proper. It is when he looks deeper into the relationship between diplomat and merchant, trade consul-man and informant, outsider and local, that his research provides both a broad view of natural knowledge and a focus on the actual objects and information being traded.


One of the joys of the book is the attention that Fan pays to the folklore and literary influence that existed during the early 19th century Chinese natural history.  Throughout the book he shows just how intertwined natural history and sinology was during the period. One had to understand the nature of the Chinese culture before they could understand the nature of China.


One of the largest differences that face the standard explorative travel adventures was that China was no “Dark Continent,” or unexplored rainforest. China had an infrastructure that lent itself to travel in ways Dr. Livingstone could only have dreamed about.  Once Kew (and other collectors) had established their network in Canton, and eventually other locations, those naturalists on the ground set up networks of their own. Sometimes they had to create a network from scratch, but this was rare due to the expansive success of the French missionaries that had been in China for much longer than British naturalists.

Many of the Chinese natives that provided local knowledge, translations, and information to the naturalists were Catholic converts. The “imperial model,” while still employed by many of the British travelers in China, carried much less authority. In fact, outside of British controlled trade ports it carried nothing.  Armed with their own superiority, many found themselves relying on the Chinese more than they cared to admit. It is also a delight to see just how much the naturalists relied on the knowledge and skill in collecting among the rural Chinese farmers and hunters in order to fulfill their orders and fill their collections. FullSizeRender-17

My favorite story within the book is actually a really good case study into the operations of British natural history in China, and it was undertaken by a Frenchman. Albert A. Fauvel was a member of the Chinese Customs and as such worked closely with the British. In charge of the Natural History Museum in Shanghai Fauvel’s interest in the natural history of China was far more than a hobby.   It was Fauvel who first published description of alligators in China.

The Land Dragon (also known as Tuo.
The Land Dragon (also known as Tuo.

Fan’s analysis of Fauvel’s article is the perfect way to understand how necessary it was for naturalists in China to also be involved in the study of China itself. Fauvel traced the descriptions of the Chinese character tuo to disprove it referenced either an iguana or a lizard. Following descriptions of tuo wherever he could, he surmised that the land dragon with medicinal meat and skin good for drums was indeed an alligator, not unlike those described by John James Audubon and others working in Mississippi and Guyana.

What set Fauvel apart was not his mere description of the Alligator sinensis. Fauvel took the time to understand where the alligator fit into Chinese mythology, legends, and folklore. In China, Fauvel worked from Chinese text to understand the alligator in theory, but was unable to establish it as a new species without specimens. From the specimens in China he was able to work backwards–comparing the Chinese specimens to images in taxonomic reference books. Here we see an almost perfect mirroring of practice in the field involving both text and object.

For my own interests into account, even those beyond the study of field work, is the early discussions of paleontology with China. Early geology in China was limited even more than the other field sciences. One of the brief asides (which will lead me in search of the reference) was the mention of William Frederick Mayers working with Chinese text (in the same manner as Fauvel) to understand China’s prehistoric life. Without any physical remains or specimens to collect, Mayers was forced to work exclusively with Chinese literature, folklore and myth to find “descriptions and drawings of a huge, hairy, rat-like creature living underground, which he believed to be a mammoth” (118).

Modern paleontology is making up for lost time on the China front. Just during the few days I was reading this book,  dinosaur eggs found by workers building a road and the discovery of a bizarre leathery winged dinosaur were announced. Some things have not changed however, as any spectacular, too-good-to-be-true discovery is announced, it is received with some skepticism. This isn’t exactly the same mistrust that 18th century naturalist had of unobservant Chinese, or those who did not bother to separate fact from fable. There have been some high quality fakes coming out on the black market of China, and in the case of fossils in the 21st century just as many are made in China as found in China.

It was described in vivid detail
It was described in vivid detail


I try to always balance out everything I read with something that I wish had been included or different about the book. With this book it was more difficult for content, but easy to be petty. It is an oft repeated lament of mine about color images and illustrations. There are a host of reasons that black and white and greyscale are the case–ultimately I would say would be the cost of the final result being restrictive to its intended audience. However in this case the beautiful description of the illustration of the betel palm that included fruit that is in varying stages of ripeness along with the cross sections of the fruit, a full leaf and the entire tree would have been nice to see in the detail with which Fan describes it.

Mapping an Empire

Mapping an Empire

Matthew H. Edney’s book Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India 1765-1843 is not a book one grabs to read before bed. In fact it is almost impossible to digest in the week that we scheduled to discuss it in my directed reading meeting.  It is, however, an excellent text book on the history and science of surveying and construction of empire. I mean the latter quite literally on paper (maps) and ideologically (colonial minds so to speak).  That being said, it is difficult to provide a simple overview to that Edney’s work is all about. One one level, a base level if you will, it is about mapping. It is also about colonialism, empire, governance, surveying, and more precisely control.

It is surprisingly short on illustrations, although the few it has are excellent. It provides a nice overview to what he calls “A Spatial History of India.” He takes it from the ideological roots of mapping and space representation through to the hard on-the-ground creation of teams that surveyed and marked up the subcontinent into something economically and empirically (and Imperially) useful. What may come as a surprise (or not, depending on how familiar the ready is with Indian history) is that the institutionalization of early colonial India was, in many ways, re-appropriated during independence. Edney does well to distinguish between British India and India proper early on. There are also tedious notes in the introduction explaining the exchange values of British and early Indian currency in their historical values and what they may (roughly) be translated into today.

To take full advantage of this book, it should be taught over the course of a semester when there is enough time for in depth analysis and discussion of the myriad of points made about India, British India, and “Cartographic Anarchy.”  If you do plan to use this book in class go one step further and pair it with D. Graham Burnett’s Masters of All they Surveyed. Both books are from University of Chicago Press–Edney’s in 1990, 1997 and Burnett’s in 2001.  The baselines are the same and while Eden’s covers India, Burnett’s looks at British Guyana and surveying in the South American colonies. There are numerous areas of comparison available to see what exactly was standard policy and practice and what was changed because of the idiosyncratic problems surveys and (colonial) government officials faced on the ground.

Masters of All They Surveyed

I picked up Masters of All they Surveyed back in 2008 to take along on an archaeological field site/school in Belize ran by the University of Texas-Austin. Like Mapping an Empire it is now a casual read in the jungle field diversion. I described to my field colleagues (who were reading things like Rosetta Key  by William Dietrich) as reading someone’s dissertation. Because of the surveying I trudged through it, and in spite of the work, enjoyed it. Moreso now as I see how it follows Edney’s and was one of the books suggested for this reading series.

The Surveyor's Life

The surveying is what hooks me to both of these works. I actually worked as a surveyor during the time I was between going to university. I also worked as a carpenter (which I had done since I was 14), and a boilermaker, but so far neither of those has really permeated colonial science culture). The company I worked for mainly shot right-of-ways and roads for oil well pads and the like. Before I started, one of the owners (who, incidentally, I found out later had went to high school with my grandfather) was an expert witness on the boundary dispute case between the US and Mexico. One of the guys on my grew was the GPS holder for the survey that established the final boundary. He said the work consisted of holding the GPS staff on the US side of the Rio Grande, taking a reading, and then wading to the Mexican side for another reading. This is exactly the same sort of thing that Edney and Burnett talk about in their books.


The process has not really reduced in price either. The total stations, which are a vast computerized and laser improvement to the early British surveyor tools are still hundreds of thousands of dollars. These are one time purchases for a surveyor tool that costs more than a house.  Further ironically, having put off posting this until the weekend, my TimeHop app showed me some posts from a few years ago when I was talking about that very job. What had sparked the memory then was a trip to the Norman downtown Post Office next to some of the city buildings. There in front of city hall as it were is a statue of Abner Norman for whom the town is named. It is a fantastic statue with the man carrying the tools of the surveyor’s trade.

Abner Norman statue downtown Norman, OK.
Abner Norman statue downtown Norman, OK.
Statue detail
Statue detail

The power of surveying and mapmaking cannot be overstated in cases of early colonial power markers and even modern international borders. They are emblems of order among natural chaos, they are tools or empire as easily as rifles or steel propellors are (see Headrick’s early Tools of Empire).  Of all the work that was put into industrializing and creating a colony from architecture to agriculture it is all based on the backs of these early ground expedition crews.  My own research looks at the same men working for, first, the Railroad Surveys, and then the USGS surveys, as they marked out the American West. Maps and Empire lie at the heart of the artifacts and authenticity world that I have slowly built around my work. It is almost as if the surveyors and mapmakers could fall into the hipster class of imperialists. They were there before the merchants, before the buildings, and if it weren’t for them getting into things at the “indie” level (some with government backing–and instruction) you would not have even known where to sail your trading vessel.

All this focus on Britain “out in the world” really belies the argument that it happened here in the US as well. Most people see American History starting in 1776, but it actually goes back much further than that even for just the white people. One of the interesting things is you can follow the same carving up of the North American eastern seaboard in much the same manner as Edney does in India and Burnett does in Guyana. They were products of the Empire as well. I am sure there are the same instances in Australia, but I am not as familiar with their history as I probably should be. To that end I will close with a song that highlights that same struggle and impact as are in both of these books. The song follows two members of the Royal Society as they sail to the American Colonies in order to establish an authoritative line in a border dispute between Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The Mason-Dixon Line has become a “dead metaphor” in the US and is more of a cartoon (or television in general) trope of the line demarcating “Yankee Land” from “The South.” It behooves us all to remember that we are not separate form this process, but are fully influenced by the very same policies that shaped British India and British Guyana.


Nature’s Government


In the modern vernacular Richard Drayton’s 2000 book Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World falls somewhere between a “mic drop” and ” could’ve had a v8.” That is to say that his main argument that Britain was just as influenced by its colonial holdings as its colonies were by the crown is either an astonishing bombshell of historical argument or is the most obvious thing you have ever heard. As you follow his argument from the broadest coverage of colonialism down to the minutiae within the offices of Hooker and Gladstone in Kew and Parliament (respectively).

Tipping the scales at just under 350 pages, including nearly 75 pages of notes, this comes in as one of the most dense works read in this series.  The work spans 500 years of history but these centuries are not divided equally throughout the text. The bulk of the work looks at what historians call the “Long 19th Century” which spans from the French Revolution to The Great War (World War I). This section covers much of the same ground as the previous accounts on the Kew Gardens and Hooker’s network of collectors. What it adds is more interaction between Hooker and politics which he had little or no control over. If we compare it to the previous book on Hooker we have people like Gladstone treating Hooker in much the same way he was treating his underling collectors Colenso and Gunn. (If that does not ring a bell, see the post “Imperial Nature“).


India, the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown, shows up with some real heft in the latter portion of the book and it would be a useful addition to any seminar on Indian history even removed from the broader narrative of nature, botany, and Kew (which, incidentally is really impossible to do once Drayton reveals how important they all were to each other). That this book is not part and parcel of every general Victorian England course since its publication in 2000 is a bit of a missed opportunity. While it is not a book one would casually pick up at Barnes and Noble, it is both readable to a general interest audience and in depth enough to be used as a textbook.

bird of paradise flower

Drayton also provide a large canvas to analyze what the subtitle called the ‘improvement’ of the world.  Like many of the Renaissance paintings (if we are to stay with the painting analogy) Drayton’s canvas is painted on both sides. The most obvious, and most displayed side, is the general unidirectional history of how Britain conquered the the world, brought in multitudes of land, culture, and innumerable people under the crown, and how the sun never set on the British Empire without asking permission first. It is when Drayton’s canvas is flipped that the reader is given a view of the influence that flowed back upstream and  into the head of the largest landowning government in the world. That powerhouses of trade and politics in London were (and could be) influenced, however indirectly, is exactly that point which makes this book either breathtakingly important or glaringly obvious.

The importance that agriculture (specifically botany and forestry in the case of Drayton’s smaller argument) played on the establishment and continued success of such an empire is also something knew for readers who are only family with England as a “nation of shopkeepers.”   He even admits in the preface that another subtitle might have been “The agrarian origins of the British Empire” (xvii). As someone who grew up on a farm in the middle of the Big Thicket of Southeast Texas and was active in the Future Farmers of America (FFA)–including Forestry–in high school this seems like a more obvious direction of inquiry than not. Even one of the most popular authors of the 19th century was involved in agricultural reform all across the British Empire.  H.Rider Haggard was sent to South Africa to work of the governor, and through a series of reappointments managed to be on hand when the British annexed the Transvaal. While not evident in his adventure novels, British colonial agricultural practices were an enormous part of Haggard’s life.

Bath Butterfly

The book is lavishly illustrated–even with color plates!–for a university press. Colored plates, maps, and photographs are not random choices, but each further the argument that Drayton structures throughout the text. The chosen illustrations go well beyond the standard portraits of the Joseph’s (Banks and Hooker) in move into very helpful visual analysis additions to the text. It is little wonder that the math through the preface work out Drayton’s labors to around a 15 year endeavor. My favorite image for image sake is Joseph Banks as a Bath Butterfly. My choice for the image that warrants having another book written about it is an image connected with Hooker’s “absentee master” status at Kew. Drayton reveals that it was all Hooker’s traveling abroad, taxonomy work at home, and presidency of the Royal Society that allowed William Thistelton-Dyer to work as the de facto director of Kew even before Hooker officially retired. The photograph shows Joseph Hooker on a collecting trip to, of all exotic places available in 1875, the American West. Since a third of my comps are overseen by a professor of art and art history of that same American West, I was excited to see this connection. Especially given that my original connection to even visiting the University of Oklahoma came under the guise that I would be studying Victorian Science  (and under the very person that I am working through this reading list with). While 1875 is a bit late to be looking at the U.S. as a colony, it does reveal Imperial Science knows no geographic, political, or temporal bounds.

Hooker in the American West

If there is no other example of Drayton’s argument within the book, the very existence of this work would do well as an object lesson for his philosophy.  “Richard Drayton was boen in the Caribbean and educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale. A former fellow of St. Catharine’s College Cambridge, and Lincoln College, Oxford. he is currently (2000) Associate Professor at the University of Virginia” (from the back duskjacket). On top of the back and forth of the author through the academy, the book was published by Yale University Press’ London office.