Tag Archives: Joseph Hooker

Nature’s Government

9780300059762

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“).

Coffee

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.

Imperial Nature

Jim Endersby published the aptly titled Imperial Nature in 2008. The book is an absolute delight to read which is one of the reason it has taken so long to get a post up. It is a book that is so interesting that you simply cannot scan through for the high points. My penchant for word play heightens the enjoyment of the title. At first glance it may mean simply nature that belongs to the Empire, but deeper within you will find that this type of botanizing (and science methodology, actually) is part of the nature of the Empire as well.

Imperial Nature

The book’s subtitle Joseph Hooker and the Practice of Victorian Science reveal the hook on which an intriguing argument takes place. the younger Hooker’s (Joseph being the son of William) career path provide a case study in which to map the expansion of science as a profession, that is something “professed,” as Endersby points out, as well as the low side of the curve for gentlemanly pursuits of scientific inquiry for interests sake, or the gentleman hobbyist as it where. Having spent considerable time on this subject myself through the analysis of the Piltdown Affair it is refreshing to see that my own experience and thinking about that particular system are not idiosyncratic or singular.

Endersby separates the aspects of the new scientific climate into chapters on subjects like “collecting, “publishing,” “corresponding,” “seeing,” and other narrow bits of methodological shaping–all the while reminding readers that these are separated for clarity, and not because they acted independently of one another in practice.

The struggle for authority between the metropolitan scientist (Hooker) and his colonial collectors (Colenso in New Zealand and Gunn in Australia) is the best part of this book. Here is one of the finest examples of exploring the relationship not only between who gets to “do” science, but who also has the authority to create scientific knowledge. Hooker needs well trained collectors (especially ones he does not have to pay) but he also needs to remain aloof enough to exert his botanical knowledge over their “idiosyncratic” and often misinterpretations in naming separate species. He, after all, is poised on top of the world looking down on creation, as the song goes, with the largest herbarium collection at his disposal (no less than Kew Gardens) to make varied and broad conclusions where his local collectors could not. To twist an old cliche Colenso was missing the herbarium (the forest) for the flowers (trees).

William Colenso. Friend of Hooker, Missionary in New Zealand. Also only printer in NZ and ever sympathetic to Maori. He even printed the Treaty of Waitangi.
William Colenso. Friend of Hooker, Missionary in New Zealand. Also only printer in NZ and ever sympathetic to Maori. He even printed the Treaty of Waitangi.

The trade network revealed here should serve as a model for anyone studying scientific relationships between any central power and periphery. The colonial collectors required adequate tools to provide Hooker with adequate specimens, so the latter may send gift of books, collecting paper, or even a highly prized microscope in order to maintain congenial relationships. In return the gentleman Gunn and the missionary Colenso continued to work hard at their collecting.

Never working for pay, only "con amore" Gunn used botanical collecting to become a gentleman of the old style
Never working for pay, only “con amore” Gunn used botanical collecting to become a gentleman of the old style
A typical dried and pressed page of collected specimens that Gunn provided Hooker
A typical dried and pressed page of collected specimens that Gunn provided Hooker

 

Early tools of the trade. The Wardian Case hoped to be a little greenhouse of sorts to help colonial plants survive the trip back to the gardens. The vasculum was the Victorian precursor to a ziploc bag that you blew into (botanists will get it).
Early tools of the trade. The Wardian Case hoped to be a little greenhouse of sorts to help colonial plants survive the trip back to the gardens. The vasculum was the Victorian precursor to a ziploc bag that you blew into (botanists will get it).
A larger vasculum for more rigorous field collecting.
A larger vasculum for more rigorous field collecting.
Hooker's vasculum
Hooker’s vasculum
A dissecting microscope was one of the sought after tools for the field collectors but not easily obtained
A dissecting microscope was one of the sought after tools for the field collectors but not easily obtained
The highest of prizes, especially for those studying and collecting cryptograms (algae, moss, fungi). Almost impossible to get in the colonies.
The highest of prizes, especially for those studying and collecting cryptograms (algae, moss, fungi). Almost impossible to get in the colonies.

If there ever was a single book that provided a shining example of the relationship between science and art it is certainly this one. The discussions of drawing as a way to see should be part of any curricula not only at the university level, but down the the beginning of formal education, and would parents would not be remiss to utilize it before then. There is even a nice comparison between the painters of landscape vs. the botanist illustrators as well as a nuanced inclusion of the many (many) women who were involved in this particular aspect of the science. That itself should provide an avenue to explore gender in the historical context as it occurred and not just as a checkbox to make sure we are including the big three in every single thing we write. (That is, race, class, and gender–which in practice usually is only the big two of race and gender with class being ignored or, worse, broken down in terms of race).

One of the few botanical illustrations to contain location background information (more than a blank white page)
One of the few botanical illustrations to contain location background information (more than a blank white page)
Colored version of Walter Hood Fitch's Rhododendrons. Source
Colored version of Walter Hood Fitch’s Rhododendrons. Source

Many in the profession of science, and probably most people in general, will take the standardization of science for granted. Standardization is something so integral to modern science that it surely would have been the basis for all historical sciences, especially those that were created by exacting Victorians. Imperial Nature reveals that is not only the case in botany, but proves the general rule for most disciplines. Systematics, labeling, descriptions, and even the plants themselves were all up for debate with different players choosing different methods and fighting for the most disciples in order to claim superiority. That is all here as well.

Hooker tried to hurry along standardization to his method by providing labels to his collectors that would leave no room for excessive descriptions
Hooker tried to hurry along standardization to his method by providing labels to his collectors that would leave no room for excessive descriptions

The book is at once incredibly readable and thoughtfully heady. I venture to guess that this is in no small part by Endersby’s professional relationship with his former supervisor James Secord. It is, however much praise I can heap upon it, not without some (more than) slight annoyances. First and foremost is the constant self reference to what is coming up. “I shall explore further,” “in chapter x,”, “below”, “which I will explain later,” and similar asides are in there enough to break the readability enough to be annoying.

Secondly, for a book about Joseph Hooker making it on his own into a paid science position, it talks much about his father’s position and his friends which acted as patrons young Joeseph’s early (and even later) exploring career. While the premise is these relationships got the young man started, the reliance and continued influence of this old system all but cuts the legs from Hooker being a good type specimen for the “new” Victorian Scientist.

A final bit of recurrence that was enough to be evident (that I will include here to bother my professor) is the constant appearance of Darwin (sorry Piers). Now, before Darwinians get defensive here (too late, I know) I understand why this is part of the story. I am fully aware of the relationship, correspondence, and support Darwin received from Hooker, but to start a book subtitled about a particular man by recounting how that man first met Charles Darwin is a little grating. I don’t think it was disingenuous but it wasn’t where I was expecting it to go. As it developed from there the narrative went something along the lines of Joseph Hooker was making a way for himself and doing things on his own–here are the various and sundry ways that his father’s influenced helped him do those things. I started counting the number of times his father’s help was mentioned only to stop after the number of Darwin references began to outnumber them.

That being said, and losing any favor from the Darwinists, this book should be required reading in a general survey that covers any aspect of Victorian Science. As it also continuously compares the emerging professional botanists with the amateur flower lovers and casual gardenists I believe it also serves well to illustrate modern concerns between professional and amateur “science” and especially collecting. It may be my particular background in paleontology that keeps this dichotomy continuously in my view, but with Endersby’s work I can most definitely see the seeds (History of Botany never wants for bad puns) of collecting debates of the 1890s and throughout the 20th century. Not only that, but going a step beyond amateurs collecting for science and into the world of “professional” collectors for profit gives yet another solid base conversation starter regarding modern fossil collectors outside the establishment.

For fun, and really because Imperial plants, and it’s The Tick, here is an episode featuring one of the best villains ever: El Seed: “Army of corn, lend me your ears…”