Green Colonialism


Date: 06.11.2023 — 14.11.2023

Enslaved people were not the only ones who were unwillingly removed from their homeland since 16. century. There were others both organic and inorganic beings invasively moved across the seas. The curatorial screening titled “Green Colonialism” focused on the colonial dispersion of seeds and power and the movement of colonial botanical goods.

Several Notes on the History of Botanical Gardens in the Context of Decolonization

In today’s cultural context, we understand botanical gardens as sources of knowledge, places of aesthetic and horticultural inspiration, sites of experiments in plant breeding, and finally conservators of biodiversity – particularly in attempts to reintroduce endangered species into their original habitat. But why were botanical gardens even founded, in those first years of the modern period? What needs did they fulfill? What complexes of knowledge stood behind their establishment?

One key element in the establishment of the first botanical gardens was the “discovery” of the Americas and the ensuing exchange of living organisms – primarily plants – across continents. One of the founding ideas of the Renaissance botanical garden was the notion of paradise, containing all plant life that existed on Earth in various climates and regions. The aim of the botanical garden, then, was to collect as many plant species as possible in one place, thus approaching the paradisical ideal to the greatest degree conceivable. Historian Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra has drawn attention to the belief among the botanist-colonisers in Peru that the Andes possessed the potential for paradise itself, given this mountain range’s climatic variety and the presence of almost all layers of vegetation within it. These botanist-colonisers understood these optimal conditions to be ideal for economic development brought about by the cultivation of a wide range of cash crops. In the 17th and 18th centuries, European botanists believed that plants from the tropics and other warm regions could be acclimatised and then grown in Europe or the colonies belonging to the state that had financed their research. The reasoning behind this research was economic, often motivated by an effort to avoid the import monopolies of competing countries for a particular crop, or by attempts to achieve complete economic autarky. Such experiments included the cultivation of tea and other exotic crops in Sweden (by Carl von Linné in particular), England, and France – and all of these attempts at acclimatisation took place in botanical gardens.

Another one of the key functions fulfilled by botanical gardens was the cultivation of plants for medicinal purposes. In the early modern period, botany was taught alongside medicine, as the principal aim of botany at that time was the ability to apply the healing properties of plants in practice. However, as the numbers of colonists arriving in tropical regions increased, a new problem arrived: previously unknown diseases emerged that European medicine did not know how to treat. This meant that the colonisers not only attempted to plunder the plants themselves from the indigenous population, but also knowledge about their applications. Predictably, the colonisers encountered problems, stemming partly from a reluctance to learn the indigenous languages and partly from the locals’ reluctance to help the colonisers, who terrorised and massacred them. Knowledge about the plants that then arrived in Europe was framed within an apparatus of knowledge that ignored the symbolic and ritual functions plants had played in the cosmology of the indigenous population. In many cases, this meant the colonisers failed to capture the range of healing properties the plants possessed, or else ignored these entirely. The botanists working in Europe’s gardens acquired knowledge about the imported plants mediated by European colonisers, who collected it at best by observing indigenous practices, and at worst through coercion and violence. In many cases, they learned about the medicinal effects of tropical flora not from the indigenous American populations, but from African slaves brought to the New World. To some extent, these slaves could apply their knowledge of tropical plants native to Africa to the diseases they faced in their involuntary exile. One example of such a plant was the “peacock flower”, (Caesalpinia pulcherrima), originally from Central America. Maria Sybilla Meriam, who made drawings of the flora and entomofauna in Suriname in the 17th century, described how slaves brought to Suriname by Dutch colonists used this plant. The seed, bark, and leaves of this tree all lead to miscarriage, and the slaves from present-day Ghana and Angola used them in desperation to avoid bringing children into these terrible conditions to serve their Dutch masters. But when poinciana arrived in the botanical gardens of Europe at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, its abortifacient effects were concealed and the plant was praised only for its decorative qualities.

During the first few centuries that followed the dawn of modernity, botanical gardens thus served primarily as a supply of pharmaceutical material and knowledge whose origins in the cosmology of indigenous populations were generally withheld. As co-editor Londa Schiebinger noted in a collective monograph entitled Colonial Botany, botanical research was considered essential for the economic development of the European colonial system. While the mining of gold and silver in the Americas mostly took place in the 16th century, the years that followed were characterised by bio-prospecting and bio-extractivism, which the colonial powers used as a source of income. This included the Dutch East India Company’s monopoly on the import of spices from West India, Java, and Borneo, as well as teas from China; French (Saint Domingue) and English (Barbados) colonies grew sugar cane , and later, also tobacco, quinine, rubber, and other goods. The breadth and diversity of the plant kingdom that the botanical gardens represented thus had a much more prosaic message than the ideal of paradise: a message about the power of the colonial empires that had this enormous natural treasure at their disposal. 

By contrast, major botanical gardens today take part in biodiversity conservation projects on a global scale. The Kew Gardens are a flagship example of this approach: their programmatic statement for the coming decade (“Our Manifesto for Change 2021–2030”) emphasises five pillars on which they aim to base their activities. These include actively including and inspiring people to protect the natural world, not only through educational activities but also public involvement. This means projects to renew wilderness (for example, by providing seeds and know-how for the renewal of flower meadows); broader collaboration with the arts and humanities, fields that offer different perspectives than classical botany; and, most importantly, collaborations with partners from the UK’s former colonies. These collaborations, anchored by the collections that the Kew Gardens have gathered in the last 260 years, have been planned based on the desire to “move quickly to re-examine our collections to acknowledge and address any exploitative or racist legacies, and develop new narratives around them”.

As an artist with no professional botanical training but who has learned intermittently from botanists, academic literature, field observation, and occasional visits to botanical gardens, I might have missed something. Perhaps one of you reading this short text will correct me and provide examples of good practice in the Czech Republic. Personally, I haven’t noticed any Czech botanical gardens – or historical gardens connected to various historic buildings – reflecting on or revising their colonial legacies (if these are historically relevant) in the narratives they present to visitors. What stories can we tell about the renewal of gardens that had been established in the 18th or 19th centuries to grow exotic plants? What ties did the founders of these gardens have to the economic currents that flowed on a global scale? It is not enough to focus solely on a historically accurate reconstruction of the gardens in terms of architecture and taxonomy. We must also explore the social ties in which the plants themselves have been entwined. Only then will we learn the full story.

Překlad: Ian Mikyska


CURATOR: Sára Märc

ARTISTS: Maria Thereza Alves, Patricia Domínguez, Anežka Horová and Klára Trsková, Erin Johnson, Elmar Klos, Uriel Orlow

ESSAY: Barbora Lungová

The project was financially supported by the City of Prague, the State Cultural Fund, and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic.