Gardens and empire


An excerpt from the book ‘Sex, Botany & Empire’ by Patricia Fara

During the 18th century the movement of people in Britain’s developing empire was almost entirely outwards from the centre. In contrast, plants were being carried back in the opposite direction. Kew gardens expanded rapidly, and by 1788, 50,000 trees and plants were growing in the beds and hothouses.

Banks superintended an international network of botanic gardens that made this redistribution of the world’s crops possible and also extended Britain’s power. Declaring that Kew should become ‘a great botanical exchange house for the empire’, Banks converted the royal gardens into the head office of an international agricultural chain commited to commercial development.

Portrait painting of Joseph Banks, a portly older white man who is an early 19th century gentleman

Joseph Banks

By the early 19th century, gardens had become a standard symbol of colonial conquest. As part of his schemes to make tea cheaper for British consumers by growing it in India, Banks became intimately involved…

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2 thoughts on “Gardens and empire

  1. It would be exceptional at this time to find a Briton (or a Frenchman, Spaniard, etc) who didn’t believe European countries had the right to conquer and rule, though at this time the emphasis was on making money rather than building a big empire for the sake of it or to increase military might – so Britain was more willing to let go of the expensive American colonies than of the lucrative West Indies.

    As for Joseph Banks (no relation as far as I know), it is quite unusual at this time to find an eminent European who believed the practices of local doctors could improve on European medicine.


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