Established in 1859, the Singapore Botanic Gardens are arguably the most important colonial botanic gardens in the world. Not only have the Gardens been important as a park for Singaporeans and visitors, they have had a significant role as a scientific institution and as a testing ground for tropical plantation agriculture implemented around the world. As Timothy P. Barnard shows in Nature's Colony, underlying each of these uses is a broader story of the Botanic Gardens as an arena where power and the natural world meet and interact.
Initially conceived to exploit nature for the benefit of empire, the Gardens were part of a symbolic struggle by administrators, scientists, and gardeners to assert dominance within Southeast Asia's tropical landscape, reflecting shifting understandings of power, science, and nature among local administrators and distant mentors in Britain. Consequently, as an outpost of imperial science, the Gardens were instrumental in the development of plantation crops, such as rubber and oil palm, which went on to shape landscapes across the globe. Since the independence of Singapore, the Gardens have played a role in the "greening" of the country and have been named as Singapore's first World Heritage Site. Setting the Gardens alongside the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and botanic gardens in India, Ceylon, Mauritius, and the West Indies, Nature's Colony provide the first in-depth look at the history of this influential institution.
Timothy P. Barnard is an associate professor in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore, where he specializes in the environmental and cultural history of islands in Southeast Asia. He is the editor of Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore and Contesting Malayness: Malay Identity Across Boundaries, also published by NUS Press.
" [...] gives detail to the shifting function of the Garden, and the competing values projected onto it. There was a shortlived menagerie, which included a chainsmoking orangutan and a tapir that died of tuberculosis after a swim [...] Eventually, the long, tangled networks of empire shifted and new centres emerged in the global, polycentric web of botanical gardens. Singapore became part of Malaysia, then its own state. Priorities changed and there was no place for the Garden in nationbuilding. With the orchid diplomacy between Singapore and Indonesia in the 1970s, when the ruling families of both nations – the Suhartos and Lees – made amends after a military spat by exchanging fantastic hybrid orchids, the garden was now at the centre of geopolitical manoeuvring. After this, it became a pleasure ground but this time for the public, and a key part of the imaginary of a postcolonial, contemporary garden city."
– Adam Bobbette, Times Literary Supplement
"Barnard has researched a masterpiece on the Singapore Botanic Gardens' history, greatly enriching our knowledge and reinforcing its inscription as a World Heritage Site of global significance. We get the fascinating back story to the trials and tribulations suffered by the superintendents and directors as the administrative environment changed during more than 150 years of the Gardens' progress [...] Barnard has given us a new and very different view of the history of gardens in Singapore and how we should interpret them as part of cultural history in an ever-changing world."
– Nigel P. Taylor, Singapore Botanic Gardens
"Nature's Colony is a fascinating exploration of Singapore's long-established botanical garden. For visitors since colonial times, the Garden has been a tranquil window into Southeast Asia's biodiversity. The book conjures up both the changing romantic visions and the scientific imperatives that inspired the Garden's curators. The book also takes us behind the fringe of leaves into scientific politics and the politics of Singapore society during its many transformations. Genially written and rich in anecdote, this book will enchant both historians and general readers."
– Robert Cribb, Australian National University