In the great adventures of botanical discovery from the 17th to the 19th century, expertise about plants was often supplementary cargo in voyages whose main purpose was to find, chart and conquer new lands. You planted the flag and then you named the plants. Making an inventory of the world's plants, learning where they grew (and where they could be made to grow), and figuring out what they were good for, were activities hugely dependent on the navies, armies and trading companies of the big imperial powers. The mutiny on the Bounty ruined a mission in imperial botany: Lieutenant William Bligh's task had been to secure breadfruit trees from Tahiti, then carry them to the Caribbean to provide cheap food for slaves on the sugar-cane plantations. (The trees got to the Caribbean on a second Royal Navy breadfruit voyage in 1793.) The theory of natural selection was also a by-product of empire: Charles Darwin went along for the ride on the survey barque HMS Beagle as unpaid gentleman's companion to the captain. Hydrography, meteorology and cartography in the aid of empire were the Beagle's missions, evolutionary theory its unintended consequence.
LRB 20 November 2008 | PDF Download