Books  General Natural History  Biography, Exploration & Travel 

Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World

By: Londa Schiebinger

306 pages, 20 illus

Harvard University Press

Paperback | Sep 2007 | #168331 | ISBN-13: 9780674025684
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NHBS Price: £26.95 $33/€30 approx
Hardback | Dec 2004 | #149027 | ISBN: 0674014871
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About this book

Plants seldom figure in the grand narratives of war, peace, or even everyday life yet they are often at the center of high intrigue. In the eighteenth century, epic scientific voyages were sponsored by European imperial powers to explore the natural riches of the New World, and uncover the botanical secrets of its people. Bioprospectors brought back medicines, luxuries, and staples for their king and country. Risking their lives to discover exotic plants, these daredevil explorers joined with their sponsors to create a global culture of botany.

But some secrets were unearthed only to be lost again. In this moving account of the abuses of indigenous Caribbean people and African slaves, Schiebinger describes how slave women brewed the "peacock flower" into an abortifacient, to ensure that they would bear no children into oppression. Yet, impeded by trade winds of prevailing opinion, knowledge of West Indian abortifacients never flowed into Europe. A rich history of discovery and loss, Plants and Empire explores the movement, triumph, and extinction of knowledge in the course of encounters between Europeans and the Caribbean populations.

Londa Schiebinger's scholarly study covers botanical exploration during what the author calls 'the long eighteenth century': from the 1670s until about 1802. This was a period of dawning European recognition that the real treasures of the New World lay not in fabled cities of gold but in the vines, bushes, and flowers that crowded village gardens and grew in the jungles beyond...Schiebinger's thoughtful study, then, sheds light not only on how new knowledge comes to be, but also on how some new knowledge comes to be ignored. Natural History 20050401 Londa Schiebinger's ambitious, eminently readable new book focuses on "the long eighteenth century" when botany reigned as queen of the colonial sciences Hopefully, Schiebinger's intellectual voyage beyond Europe's borders will lead many others to recognize the fundamental importance of knowledge formation--and non-formation--on the colonial "periphery" of the Atlantic World. -- Gregory T. Cushman Journal of the History of Medicine This is a curious book. The heart of it tries to explain why something did not happen...[Schiebinger's] focus is, as she puts it, 'the nontransfer of important bodies of knowledge from the New World into Europe.' It is, then, a study in 'agnotology,' that is, of 'culturally induced ignorances.' The study of things that did not happen and of ignorances does not sound promising, but Schiebinger has written an entertaining book that raises some interesting questions, and for people passionate about the history of fertility control, no doubt, an important book. -- J.R. McNeill H-Net [A] fascinating study...Schiebinger has read widely in the natural-historical and medical literature of the period, and she writes engagingly, bringing to life many of the chief protoganists. This book ought to be essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between science and empire. -- Mark Harrison American Historical Review 20050601 Plants and Empire presents a subtle and compelling explanation for why knowledge of West Indian abortifacients was not taken up by scientists in Europe. More broadly, Schiebinger illustrates the explanatory power of agnotology. Her study of scientific ignorance demonstrates that understanding what scientists do not know is just as important as understanding what they do know. -- Stuart McCook Science 20050101


Acknowledgments Introduction "The Base for All Economics" Plan of the Book 1. Voyaging Out Botanistes Voyageurs Maria Sibylla Merian Biopirates Who Owns Nature? Voyaging Botanical Assistants Creole Naturalists and Long-Term Residents Armchair Botanists The Search for the Amazons Heroic Narratives 2. Bioprospecting Drug Prospecting in the West Indies Biocontact Zones Secrets and Monopolies Drug Prospecting at Home Brokers of International Knowledge 3. Exotic Abortifacients Merian's Peacock Flower Abortion in Europe Abortion in the West Indies: The Colonial Sexual Economy Abortion and the Slave Trade 4. The Fate of the Peacock Flower in Europe Animal Testing Self Experimentation Human Subjects Testing for Sexual Difference The Complications of Race Abortifacients 5. Linguistic Imperialism Empire and Naming the Kingdoms of Nature Naming Conundrums Exceptions: Quassia and Cinchona Alternative Naming Practices Conclusion: Agnotology Notes Bibliography Index

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Londa Schiebinger is John L. Hinds Professor of History of Science and Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Stanford University.

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