Tag Archives: Linnaeus

Plants and Empire

Plants and Empire (and abortion) by Londa Schiebinger
Plants and Empire (and abortion) by Londa Schiebinger

This is a book about abortion. That is to say that this work is about plants used to induce an abortion in the early modern period. Deep in the heart of the book it is also about abortions as political economy against slave-owners. Thankfully for the publisher,  it is also a book about “indigenous knowledge” and the transfer of knowledge through trade routes and from colonies/territories to the imperial possessors. In fact, it is more about the nontransfer of knowledge in the case of a particular plant used as abortifacients (a word you will truly get sick of seeing in not because of its connotations, but simply for the repeated use).  You wouldn’t get the sense that “abortion as resistance” is a major theme in Schiebinger’s work from the title of the subtitle. I believe this is a calculated move on the part of Harvard University Press to allow this book to appeal to more than academics, which is should because Schiebinger is a fantastic author and the book can be easily taken up by non-specialists and it should be.

It is not only a book on abortion. On either side of that main theme is a wealth of information regarding trade networks for both goods and knowledge and the explosion of bioprospecting, scientific exploitation of new lands, and not a little bit of ego.

Early on Schiebinger outlines her overall plan writing that she would pay attention to the standard European players as she lacked adequate training to go deeply into anything involving the Spanish. She does not ignore the Spanish, in fact many (many) accounts involve Spanish territory in the new world, but not much on the analysis of what was coming out of Spain and into Europe or even back into the Americas. This is something that I have explored before with Jorge Conizares-Esguerra’s book Nature, Empire, and Nation. In fact Jorge’s works show up in Schiebinger’s notes, but not in the text as she is drops other scholar’s names and arguments. Spary and Utopia’s Garden are both present and cited especially during the heroic adventurer stage.

The idea that plants are directly involved in the making and sustaining of empires should be common knowledge and it makes sense when you think about it, but we never do think about it. It is always God, Guns, and Gold. This book goes a long way to prove that plants sustained commerce and money long after the finite bits of shiny things were exhausted from the colonies. “Green gold” which I understand in sentiment, but has to be one of the more ridiculous phrases I have ever seen, right up there with “black gold.” Which, when you think about it, is just metamorphosed decaying plant material from swamps of the carboniferous period. This means that in essence, or technically, “black gold” and “Green gold” are the same thing and that oil exploration is still a form of bioprospecting that began in the 17th century.

The root (ha!) of this research lies in Schiebinger’s discovery of Maria Sibylla Merian’s work on plants in Surinam, most specifically the Peacock Flower. Merian’s Peacock flower is the one that came with the accounts of use as the abortifacient of choice by slave women, both Amerindian and African. From this flower, little described by Merian as she was a lepidopterist and only interested in plants inasmuch as they were food and shelter for her chosen subjects.  Many of which she beautifully illustrated herself. You can find the one below and many others at ctgpublishing.com, which is fitting since Merian’s family was one of the largest publishing companies in Europe.

A nice colored version of Merian’s Peacock flower. (from ctgpublishing.com. link in text)


Schiebinger’s research into knowledge transfer (or the lack thereof) stems (ha! again) from the description of the plant’s use among the slave women as a means to end pregnancy. From here Shiebinger’s work gets incredibly interesting for anyone interested in the dispersal of ideas in general, and during the Early Modern period specifically. She follows the trail of other known abortifacients with Europe and those documented from elswhere, but continually finds no mention of the Peacock flower in any of the Pharmacopia  or  Materia  Medica (think of these as Early Modern Physician Desk References) as treating anything but fever and minor ailments.

Why would information such as this not make it into the established medical canon when other such plants had? She asks a lot of questions that are answered to the best of available resources (so far as I know) and here is where the involved and extensive analysis of abortive practices during the period really comes into play. The short answer (and perhaps an Occam’s Razor sort of thing) is that abortions became illegal and anything that could induce one should remain a secret. Now, we all know how making something illegal immediately ends the thing in question, right? Yes. Well it was the same for abortions. So, who knows if the Peacock Flower wasn’t put into the canon so it wouldn’t be banned from apothecary shelves later and was still available for women seeking to “purge their fruit.”

A for real and true life Peacock Flower from our good friends over at wikipedia commons
A for real and true life Peacock Flower from our good friends over at wikipedia commons

The book ends with an excellent discussion on medical experimentation and  the Linnean system of classification.  The “Linguistic Imperialism” chapter follows the establishment (through backlash) of the Latin/Greek based system of classification that we all know and love today. That arguments against a general “old world” style of classification was that it superficially presented relationship where no existed, removed any indication of a plant’s geography, and stripped away any particular uses for the plant. On the other hand, they were merely a symbolic named agreed upon by those using them (similar to money). This argument was strongest for plants from the Americas whose  Nahuatl (Aztec) names indicated the general essence of the plant and its uses (similar to Hebrew names for things but that is another post for another time.)

There is much to learn from Schiebinger’ book beyond the fact that abortions constituted resistance to slavery, and beyond even that some knowledge was actively or passively restricted between Non-Europeans and Europeans (and incidentally between Europeans living and working in places other than Europe or those born in the colonies to European parents (Creoles) and those comfortable armchair gentlemen explorers and botanical Europeans in Europe).

I will end, as I so often do, by giving you the brightest thing in my mind as I read this book. Sometimes they are humorous, sometimes odd, but they are the string of pearls that connect all my wide ranging thoughts into a discernible fashion. Discernible only to me perhaps, but perhaps not. As I read I kept drifting to, for my money, the most powerful scene in the entire movie Amistad. John Quincy Adams, portrayed so marvelously by Anthony Hopkins, is showing Cinque around his greenhouse where, among the botanical collection, the latter recognizes a piece of his home

The power of plants.