To what extent is the colonial history of botany realised at Kew Gardens today?

Botany undoubtedly has a historical relationship with colonialism (Brockway 1979; Pálsson 1996; Rojas 2015). Indeed, during the height of the British Empire, botanical science was vital to the economy (Brockway 1979). Kew Gardens was the botanical garden where much of this botanical science occurred. Its significance in the rubber trade, as detailed by Brockway (1979) and in the TV programme Cruickshank on Kew: The Garden That Changed the World’ (2009), was particularly astounding. However, its colonial past is morally reprehensible. But how present is this colonial history in Kew Gardens today? First, it is important to investigate the colonial history of Kew. I will also investigate how botanical art contributes to this conversation, by comparing the art of those who were victims of colonialisation to the art within Kew Gardens.

The history of Kew and the colonial past of botany is exemplified in the colonial rubber trade. Kew’s role in this trade has been immortalised in Brockway’s (1979) article as well as in Cruickshank on Kew: The Garden That Changed the World’ (2009). “Rubber was the best success story that Kew had,” according to Cruickshank (2009). The way in which Kew participated in the production of rubber was through the botanical gardens, as well as sponsoring Henry Wickham, “a plant collector in their employ”, to remove “wild rubber seeds from Brazil” (Brockway 1979, p. 458). These seeds were then planted in the greenhouses of Kew, and were then transported to Singapore, one of Britain’s colonies. Kew instigated the production of what was dubbed by Cruickshaw (2009) to be “the plastic of the 19th century.” This industry was full of immoral activity. Indeed, through Kew illegally smuggling seeds, the countries where the seeds were originally grown would suffer greatly, with their industries collapsing once European nations produced the same materials in their colonies. Brockway (1979, p.459), citing Wolf and Wolf, describes how “1,090,000 tons of crude rubber was coming from British, Dutch and French plantations in Southeast Asia, and only 14,000 tons from all other sources”. Furthermore, in Ceylon during the 1840s, “the government did not intervene to protect the immigrants from working and living conditions that led to an estimated death rate of 250 thousand each year” (Brockway 1979, p.459). Kew and other botanical gardens had a great part to play in this colonial era, with Brockway (1979, p.461), in his conclusion, writing, “Kew gardens and its colonial affiliates emerge as a vital capital asset, transforming knowledge into power for Great Britain.”

Fig. 1 — Coconut oil used for Concordes.
Fig. 2 — Timber used for bowling balls

Indeed, the way in which Kew and Britain during the colonial era treated botany could be seen in relation to Pálsson’s (1996) orientalism paradigm. During the colonialist era, there was a lack respect for the protection of botany, only an eagerness to exploit the environment. Pálsson (1996, p.67/68) describes orientalism as a “colonial regime”, where “scientists present themselves as analysts of the material world, unaffected by any ethical considerations.” Brockway’s (1979, p.453) description of nineteenth century botany as “economic botany” sums this up. The aim of this period was to exploit the environment for profit. Indeed, this history of exploiting the environment, “for diverse purposes of production, consumption, sport, and display”, can be found in Kew today (Pálsson 1996, p.68). In Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, you can see the way in which Kew displays the exploitation that the environment has faced in the name of production, consumption, and sport. During the colonial period, there were no environmental considerations. In this sense, the way in which botany was considered at this time could also be seen through Merchant’s (1990, p.45) taxonomy of the “egocentric ethic”. Merchant (1990, p. 46) describes the egocentric as an “individual ought focused on individual good”. The focus on individual profit over ecology protection at Kew, could suggest that during the colonial era, the ethic was that of egocentrism.

Fig. 3 — Worn material, iron from India

But how present is the colonial in Kew today? The colonial history of Kew is embodied in the materials used for the conservatories, as well as the architecture. The worn architecture of the conservatories, exposing the Indian iron, could be considered a celebration of the 19th century aesthetic and the British Empire. The materials used to create the building are mostly from Britain’s former colony, India. Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 demonstrate the worn architecture and the material’s used.

Fig. 4–19th century architecture/detail

Referring back to Pálsson’s (1996) paradigms, it is clear that Kew has moved on from the orientalist practices of the colonial era, and now sit within the paternalistic paradigm. Here, the relationship Kew has with botany is one of “protection, not exploitation” (Pálsson 1996, p. 69). This is demonstrated in Cruickshank’s (2009) comment that “once collectors collected for the profit of the empire, and now in these different times they’re concerned with the environment and species extinction.” However, a distinction not made in the paradigm of Pálsson is that of protecting the environment for the good of man. Indeed, Kew (2015) documents on its website that one of its main strategic priorities is to “document and conduct research into global plant and fungal diversity and its uses for humanity.” Combine this with Cruickshaw’s (2009) statement that Kew’s recent project, “The Millenium Seed Bank”, is “the last ditch safeguard against the extinction of all plants for the benefit of all mankind,” and it is clear that this paternalistic outlook may be to do with a responsibility Kew has towards the future of mankind, rather than protecting the wellbeing of the environment for the good of nature alone. In this sense, Kew’s position may be more suited to a combination of the homocentric and ecocentric taxonomies that Merchant (1990) describes. Merchant (1990, p. 52) describes the homocentric ethic as based on the utilitarian idea that “society ought to act in such a way as to insure the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. This sounds suited to Kew, who believe that protecting the environment is of benefit to all of mankind. However, Merchant (p.56) claims that both the “egocentric and homocentric ethics” do not “internalize ecological externalities”, and thus do not take into account “ecological changes and their long-term effect”, due to being outside the “humanity/society framework of these ethics.” Thus, Kew is a combination of the homocentric ethic, and the ecocentric ethic, which believes that plants have intrinsic value, and that “of primary importance is the survival of all living and nonliving things as components of healthy ecosystems” (Merchant, p.57). These ethics demonstrate a distance from the orientalist approach of colonialists, thus showing a progression from how botany was treated during the colonial era. However, both the paternalist approach and the orientalist approach consider that “humans are masters of nature” (Pálsson, p.66), implying that Kew is not too distant from their colonial history, as in its approach it shares a common characteristic with its colonial history. Overall however, I argue that the progression from exploiting nature, to protecting nature, is an important and positive step that makes Kew Gardens distinct from the colonial history of botany.

Fig. 5 — Placard next to rubber tree

However, to what extent does Kew recognise its colonial past, and the wrongdoings of that era? From spending time in the gardens, I found that Kew made no recognition of the wrongdoings of its colonial past. The placard next to the rubber tree, as you can see in Fig. 5, makes no acknowledgement of the mistreatment of workers, or the immoral smuggling of the rubber seeds from Brazil. Indeed, it could potentially be down to the common characteristic that Kew shares with its colonial past that prevents these reflections. It is possible that Kew feels within its rights to have smuggled seeds due to their belief that they are “masters of nature” (Pálsson 1996, p. 66). Thus, maybe the colonial history of botany is still realised in Kew.

Fig. 6 — Colombian botanical art

Indeed, by comparing the botanical art in Colombia, to the botanical art in Kew, the colonial history of botany present in Kew becomes even more distinct. Rojas (2015) states that in Colombia, botany became “a means for artists to deal with the legacy of colonial expeditions, sometimes directly reappropriating the pseudo-scientific methods of the 18th and 19th century explorers”. He specifically focusses on the work of Alberto Baraya, who created artificial flowers in order to parody the science of botany, while questioning the role botany played in colonialism. Baraya believed botanical expeditions were “used to exploit and dominate these lands and the indigenous people living in them”.

Fig. 7 — Botanical art in Kew Gardens

This comes in direct contrast with the botanical art at Kew Gardens, with the importance of art described on a placard as “unique in bringing together scientific accuracy and artistic sensibility.” This emphasis placed on science is typical of a colonial outlook that is still present in Kew Gardens today. To implement science on botany is a way in which to signify that “humans are masters of nature”, and until Kew rids themselves of this outlook, perhaps the colonial history of botany will always be present in the gardens (Pálsson 1996, p. 66).

All in all, it is clear that Kew has progressed from the colonial history of botany, as it now has a more paternalistic approach to ecology. The ethic of Kew could be considered a combination of homocentric, and ecocentric ethics, which is a distance away from the egocentric ethic of the colonial past. However, through comparing botanical art at Kew to the botanical art of those who were colonized, it is clear that the emphasis placed on science in Kew Gardens today is a common characteristic it shares with the colonial history of botany. This ties Kew Gardens closely together with the colonial history of botany.


Brockway, Lucile H. (1979) Science and Colonial Expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. American Ethnologist. 6(3):449–465

Cruickshank on Kew: The Garden That Changed the World (2009) BBC 2, 6 May

Kew Gardens (2015) Kew. Available at: (Accessed: 1st May 2015).

Merchant, Carolyn. (1990) ‘Environmental Ethics and Political Conflict: a View from California’, Environmental Ethics 12, 1: 45–68

Pálsson, Gísli. (1996) Human-environmental relations: orientalism, paternalism and communalism. In P. Descola & G. Pálsson (eds). Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives, London: Routledge.

Rojas, Laurie. (2015) ‘Botanical Arts: a Heritage of Naturalist Imperialism’, ArtSlant Worldwide, 26th February. Available at: (Accessed: 1st May 2015).



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