Society for the History of Discoveries

Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2004.X, 306 p. ISBN 0674014871.

The heart of this book concerns a non-event: why did the Caribbean abortificient, the peacock flower known as flos pavonis,  not enter the pharmacopoeia of doctors in Europe?   Though well known to a variety of people in the West Indies, and though identified by various visitors, this drug was entirely disregarded by conventional medicine in Europe. On the way to explaining this apparent problem, the author investigates many by-ways, often of great interest to readers of this journal; indeed, to read over the extensive bibliography is to be reminded of how many important books we ought to have read.

The first chapter analyzes the nature of those who investigated the flora of the new World. The author’s leading protagonists are Maria Merian  (Surinam 1700-1701) and Sir Hans Sloane (Jamaica 1687-1688). Both identified the peacock flower, and both relied heavily on local informants, an aspect of Europeans’ investigation which became less common as time went by. Merian and Sloane and their ilk – Charles-Marie de La Condamine, Nicolas-Joseph Thiery de Menoville, Philibert Commerson – also sought a wide variety of other plants, of which the most notable were probably ipecachuana, jalap, cincona and chocolate. All these, of course, were successfully integrated into European medicine-cabinets.

The second chapter moves into “bioprospecting,” noting the observation in 1752 of Moreau de Maupertuis that “it is quite by accident and only from savage nations that we owe our knowledge [of medicines]; we owe not one to the science of physicians.” Here we encounter such prospectors as Jean-Baptiste René Pouppé-Desportes, Lieutenant John Stedman, Pierre Barrère and Alexander von Humboldt.  All of these were keenly interested in learning the local languages, realizing that their research would be greatly hampered if they knew nothing of them. But their investigations were often hampered not only by local unwillingness to yield up secrets, but also by international competition for commodities that could be very valuable to home countries directed by mercantilist statesmen.

Chapter 3 and 4 attempt to tie down the use of  flos pavonis as an abortificient among West Indian slave women, and then describe how this elegant plant made its way to Europe, where it was highly prized as an ornamental, and grew to a great height in well-tended greenhouses.  It was also used there for medicinal purposes, but only for curing fever and belly-ache. The rest of the book offers various explanations of why this was so.

It notes that the flos pavonis was not the only tropical abortifacient to be left out of the pharmacopoeia in Europe, where enthusiasm for curbing fertility was decidedly lacking, not only from a moral standpoint, but also from that of mercantilist statesmen, who always feared the effects of a declining population on recruitment for armies and navies, as well as on general prosperity. In the end, we thus come to a commonsense and perhaps slightly obvious resolution of what could almost be considered a non-problem. But the reader will surely enjoy the many unexpected paths traveled on the way to this unremarkable conclusion.

David Buisseret
The University of Texas at Arlington

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