18th century

Kew Gardens’ Imperial Connections

Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew were founded by Princess Augusta (1713-1772) in the 1760s. In 1838 a Royal Commission was set up to inquire into the future of the gardens. The Commission concluded that, after years of official neglect, ‘the gardens should either be put on a professional footing or be closed’. The government took the first option and throughout the rest of the nineteenth-century Kew gardens developed and expanded its activities. The following essay will account for the development of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew after 1840 by illustrating that three factors contributed to this. These factors were moves towards rational recreation among the middle classes, imperialism, and in the twentieth-century, conservationism.

In the nineteenth century the emerging middle classes had at their disposal more wealth and more leisure time than ever before. This increase of affluence and leisure time coincided with a growing interest in horticulture and gardening among the middle classes (McCracken, 1997, p.74). This growing interest in gardening and horticulture blended with the prevailing nineteenth-century ideas of engaging in what was known as ‘rational recreation’. Along with the public city parks which were opening during this period, such as Derby Arboretum (1833), and Peel’s Park, Salford (1840), the Royal Botanical Gardens was established to help people ‘improve’ themselves. For example, botanical gardens such as Kew offered, ‘improvement through the findings of natural science’ (Clark, 1973, p.35). Judging by the number of visitors that the Royal Botanical Gardens were receiving, it is evident that many in the middle classes embraced this form of recreation. For example, by 1850 the gardens at Kew were receiving 179,627 visitors per year (Brockway, 1797a, p.81). Thus from the outset the gardens role as a place of rational recreation was popular with the public.

The role of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, however, was to essentially be an agent of empire during the nineteenth century. William Thistleton-Dyer (1843-1928), the third Director of Kew gardens, penned a pamphlet in 1880 entitled The Botanical Enterprise of the Empire. In the pamphlet Thistleton-Dyer had summed up his vision of the gardens’ role in relation to the empire. He stated that Kew should be a ‘botanical clearing-house or exchange for the empire’ (Thistleton-Dyer, 1880, p.6). From the 1840s onwards Kew gardens received substantial government grants. This was because the British nation in general was in an expansive mood after their victory in the Napoleonic Wars and science and colonial activity was a high priority for the government (Brockway, 1979a, p.77). There came to be, therefore, ‘a close connection between imperial expansion and government support for science’ (Brockway, 1979a, p.77).

To further their aims in assisting the expansion of the British Empire, the Directors of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew took steps to ensure that the gardens became the nerve centre of a network of colonial botanical gardens. One of the aims of the gardens was to coordinate ‘the efforts of the many gardens in the British colonies and dependencies, such as Calcutta, Bombay, Saharanpur, the Mauritius, Sidney, and Trinidad, whose utility [was] wasted for want of unity and central direction’ (Brockway, 1979b, p.452). As the centre of a network of colonial botanical gardens, Kew trained up specialist botanists and sent them forth into different parts of the empire. Nathaniel Wilson (1809-1874) had served at Kew gardens and was subsequently appointed to the botanical gardens in Jamaica. He took with him to Jamaica various seed including mangoes and pineapples. The emphasis in this enterprise was upon ‘economic botany’. Economic botany was the planting of seeds and reintroduction of plants which had commercial value for the empire. The experiment in economic botany with pineapples in Jamaica was a success. So successful it was, in fact, that in 1897 it seemed that there was nothing which could prevent Jamaica from becoming, ‘for the quality, variety, and commercial value of its fruit, the most noted spot in the world’ (Fawcett, 1897, p.351). The successful experiment with pineapples in Jamaica has had effects which have lasted into modern times. In 2009 pineapples ranked among Jamaica’s top twenty exports, with the country now exporting over 21,368 metric tonnes per annum (FAO, 2010). Thus Kew gardens had successfully introduced a commercially valuable plant into one part of the British Empire, it thrived, and the effects of this enterprise are felt even today.

Two case studies follow which illustrate Kew’s policies of economic botany serving the needs of empire. The first study is that of the cinchona transfer. Malaria had claimed many a life of the British soldier serving in the tropical climates in the nineteenth century. Quinine, which is used to treat malaria, is extracted from the cinchona bark. The plant itself was originally native to South America. It was one of the region’s most valuable exports. The British government was spending £53,000 per year to purchase quinine for troops in India (Brockway, 1979a, p.113). The East India Company, which governed large areas of India, had previously rejected attempts to introduce cinchona into India. They stated that, ‘after the Chinese teas, no more important plants could be introduced into India’ (Desmond, 1995, p.214). In many ways the introduction of tea from China into India, as orchestrated by the East India Company, served as the model for the transfers of plants of economic importance which the Royal Botanical Gardens would initiate (Brockway, 1979a, p.28). However, in the wake of the Great Rebellion in India in 1857, the Indian government dropped its opposition to the introduction of cinchona. This was because the government had decided to increase the British military presence in the region and needed fit and healthy soldiers. Furthermore, cinchona grown on Indian, and therefore British, soil would be substantially cheaper than importing it from South America (Desmond, 1995, p.214). Botanists trained at Kew were sent out to South America to obtain cinchona seeds which could subsequently be replanted in plantations in southern India. Despite some initial failures, the introduction of cinchona into India was a success. Quinine became available in India for less than a penny per packet (Brockway, 1979b, p.457). However, the losers in this botanical enterprise were of course the newly independent South American countries. The combination of European scientific expertise and finance wiped the Latin American countries’ trade in cinchona off the market (Brockway, 1979b, p.458). Furthermore, the cheap quinine available in India rarely filtered down to the common Indian (Ibid). In spite of this, the cinchona transfer boosted the reputation of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew ‘by confirming its dominance in the botanical activities of empire’ (Desmond, 1995, p.215). Thus Kew gardens contributed to the overall strength of the empire by helping to supply medicine to Britain’s imperial soldiers.

Rubber Plant

Rubber Plant

The next study concerns the rubber transfer of 1876. The native habitat of the rubber plant is in South America. Yet in 1986, Malaysia, a former British colony, was the world’s chief supplier of rubber (Chapman, 1991, p.36). The plant’s introduction into Malaysia was the work of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. In association with the India Office, Kew sent out botanists to South America to smuggle out of Brazil seventy-thousand rubber seeds (Brockway, 1979b, p.458). Prior to this event, Brazil’s exports of rubber ‘seemed capable of supplying all the rubber which the world required’ (Rae, 1938, p.318). Once in Kew’s possession, the seeds were planted with some limited success in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but they thrived in Malaya (Malaysia) (Brockway, 1979b, p.458). With the advent of the motor car, European plantation rubber was by 1938 fulfilling ninety-eight per cent of the world’s rubber requirements (Rae, 1938, p.318). Naturally, the loser in this botanical enterprise was Brazil. In contrast with the 1,090,000 tonnes of rubber which European plantations were exporting, Brazil – once able to fill the world’s demand for rubber – had a mere output of 14,000 tonnes (Brockway, 1979b, p.460). Thistelton-Dyer was enthusiastic about the results of the rubber exchange. The operation was, according to him, a brilliant example of what could be achieved through the proper organisation and coordination of efforts between the various botanical gardens of the empire (Desmond, 1995, p.258). Thus the network of the British Empire’s botanical gardens, with Kew at their head, had served to boost the wealth of the British Empire.

In the twentieth century, when the British was gradually dissolved after 1945, Kew gardens found itself seeking a new purpose. It was in this period that the Royal Botanical Gardens shifted its focus from economic botany, and the imperialist activities of the past, as ‘the conservation ethic came strongly to the forefront of Kew’s thinking’ (Kew, 2008b). From the 1970s until the 1990s, Kew gardens forged strong links with global plant conservation movements and the IUCN (World Conservation Union). Out of the four-hundred-and-fifty plants listed on the IUCN’s endangered species lists, four hundred of these have been proposed by Kew gardens (Kew, 2008a). Additionally, the Royal Botanical Gardens nowadays conduct their own research which attempts to save plants from all over the world from extinction. In 2010, the thermal lily, just one centimetre in diameter and native to Rwanda, had been extinct for two years. However, the plant was successfully regrown by scientists working at Kew and it is hoped that the plant flourish in Rwanda once more (BBC, 2010). Finally, there is Kew’s involvement with the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. This association of conservationist bodies has, with Kew’s assistance, managed to ‘bank’ ten per cent of the world’s wild flowers (Kew 2009c). Whilst Kew gardens had also promoted conservationism in the nineteenth century, the institutions motives were still basically economic and colonial (Kew, 2009b). As has been illustrated above, though, these days Kew gardens focuses on rescuing plants which are most at risk from climate change and human the impact of human activities (Kew, 2009c). Thus from the second half of the twentieth century, especially with the loss of empire, Kew has successfully managed to transform itself into an institution where the conservation ethic is at the front of its thinking, in contrast with the colonial enterprises of earlier days.

In conclusion, it is clear that after 1840 the following factors account for the development of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Firstly, the establishment of Kew gardens was part of a wider move towards rational recreation in the nineteenth century. Secondly, Kew gardens developed and increased its activities to serve the needs of the expanding British Empire. It achieved this through the practice of economic botany and plant transfers. These actions complemented the imperial ideology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. Finally, with the decline and fall of the British Empire, Kew gardens evolved into a conservationist institution. Thus these three factors accounted for the development of Kew gardens after 1840: ideas of rational recreation, imperialism, and conservationism.


BBC (2010). ‘Water Lily Saved from Extinction’. [Internet] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10124250 [accessed 30/11/2011].
Blomfield, D. (1992). The Story of Kew: The Gardens, the Village, the National Archives 2011 Edition. Kew: Leybourne Publications
Brockway, L. (1979a). Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. New York: Yale University Press
Brockway, L. (1979b). ‘Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens’. American Ethnologist. 6 (3) pp.449-465
Chapman, E.C. (1991). ‘The Expansion of Rubber in Southern Yunnan, China’. The Geographical Journal. 157 (1) pp.36-44
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Kew (2008b). ‘Timeline’. [Internet] http://www.kew.org/heritage/timeline/index.html [accessed 02/12/2011]
Kew (2009c). ‘Introducing the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership’ [Internet] http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/save-seedprosper/millennium-seedbank [accessed: 02/12/2011]
Rae, G. (1938). ‘The Statistics of the Rubber Industry’. The Journal of the Royal Statistics Society. 101 (2) pp.317-325
Thistleton-Dyer, W. (1880). The Botanical Enterprise of the Empire. London: HMSO
Underwood, L.M. (1899). ‘The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew’. Science. 10 (238) pp.65-75

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