Botanic Gardens and Quinine: To Cure or Colonize?

Cinchona plantations in India, ca. 1910–1920. [Wellcome Collection]

From the pleasure-grounds of paradise to the herb pots on our windowsills to the public flowerbeds in our cities, gardens at all scales can promote healing and health. Yet plantations, like agribusiness fields and forests clear-cut by commercial loggers, remind us that gardens have also been landscapes of extraction. The difference depends largely on who exactly is meant to be served by a garden or a plant — and this history is, in turn, entwined with histories of colonialism.

Through the biography of the cinchona tree, source of the anti-malarial drug quinine, we can consider the complicated history of the British botanic garden: in particular as both a producer of the medicinal knowledge that contained the malaria epidemic in imperial India, and as an institution that exacerbated colonial domination.

Cinchona, native to the Andes of Peru, is documented in 15th-century texts dating from the Spanish colonization of South America. However, as with many plants that circulated through colonial networks, its pre-contact history and the associated native knowledge remains bracketed as “legend” in the conquerers’ narratives.1George Urdang, “The Legend of Cinchona,” The Scientific Monthly, vol. 61, no. 1 (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1945), 17–20. But we do know that sometime in the 16th century cinchona bark reached the monasteries of Europe, where physic gardens facilitated its study along with other plants brought from the Americas.2Matthew James Crawford, The Andean Wonder Drug: Cinchona Bark and Imperial Science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630-1800 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), 91-128. Malaria outbreaks occurred frequently across England, France, and Italy over the next century, which made the distribution and study of cinchona immediately relevant.

The British botanic garden both produced medicinal knowledge and exacerbated colonial dominion.

By the 18th century, physic gardens had come to be associated with European universities; institutions like the Oxford physic garden, founded in 1621 — later the Oxford botanic garden — were devoted to the science of botany.3Sarah Rutherford, “Botanic Gardens”(London: Shire Library/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), 9–27. The British also established gardens at diverse geographical and climatic locations, from St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean and Kirstenbosch in South Africa to multiple sites in India, forming a transcontinental network that systematized plant transfers.4See Zaheer Baber, “The Plants of Empire: Botanic Gardens, Colonial Power and Botanical Knowledge,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 46, no. 4 (Routledge, Oct. 2016), 659–79. doi:10.1080/00472336.2016.1185796; Lucile Brockway, Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens (New York: Academic Press, 1979); Donal P McCracken, “Gardens of Empire: Botanical Institutions of the Victorian British Empire” (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), 12-14. For more on botanic gardens and domination, see Daniel R. Headrick, “The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 51, no. 2 (University of Chicago Press, 1979), 231–63.

By the 1860s, the cinchona tree had traveled across this network.5For a detailed account of cinchona in imperial networks, see Mark Honigsbaum, The Fever Trail: In Search of the Cure for Malaria (New York:: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 2002. Although malaria was endemic in tropical climates and claimed millions of lives every year, British colonial powers recognized it as a major threat only when their own forces faced heavy military and economic losses; at which point it was dubbed “the disease of empire.”6Donal P. McCracken, “Gardens of Empire: Botanical Institutions of the Victorian British Empire” (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), 134.

An advertisement for quinine produced by Burroughs Wellcome & Co., from Sir Ronald Ross, The Prevention of Malaria (London: J. Murray, 1910). [Wellcome Collection]

Meanwhile the high demand for quinine in global trade and the decline of cinchona forests in South America were provoking widespread interest. The French tried and failed to grow cinchona in Algeria, while the Dutch in Java had successfully established a cinchona plantation by 1860. The British illegally smuggled specimens from Peru, which then journeyed from the botanic gardens at Kew to the newly established Ootacamund botanic gardens in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu, as well as to the Munsong plantation and Calcutta botanic gardens in West Bengal. In less than a decade, factories in Nilgiri and Munsong were manufacturing quinine.7Brockway, 109-16; see also Rohan Deb Roy, Malarial Subjects: Empire, Medicine and Nonhumans in British India, 1820–1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 50–52, 66.

Even today we have little choice but to be consumers of ‘public health’ systems often rooted in colonialism.

Quinine allowed for the management of malaria outbreaks among British troops and eased fears among British officers and their families, in this way directly supporting the expansion of settler colonialism in India. Although the practice of cultivating cinchona was framed by Great Britain as an act of benevolence toward the poor in India — especially in seeking to appease the population after the anti-colonial rebellion of 1857 — quinine distribution was initially confined to government employees, armed forces, and plantation laborers.8Brockway, 121–123. For a detailed history of quinine in India, see Roy, 216–72. It was only when private competitors such as Burroughs Wellcome entered the trade that quinine became available to the general Indian public as an affordable commodity, advertised through newspapers and posters and sold at public institutions like post offices. But even then the quinine distributed by colonial administrators was priced higher than that sold by private firms. The government justified the difference by touting their product as being of superior quality and hence more effective.9Brockway, 219–222.

The cinchona tree and the quinine it produced lubricated colonial mechanisms of extraction and reinforced British domination of colonial subjects. While botanic gardens helped to heal the colonial body, both the gardens and their products were accessible to the Indian public only when that public became consumers. And, of course, even today, in the global pharmaceutical network, we have little choice except to be consumers of “public health” systems that all too often remain rooted in colonialism.

Notes

  1. George Urdang, “The Legend of Cinchona,” The Scientific Monthly, vol. 61, no. 1 (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1945), 17–20.
  2. Matthew James Crawford, The Andean Wonder Drug: Cinchona Bark and Imperial Science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630-1800 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), 91–128.
  3. Sarah Rutherford, “Botanic Gardens” (London: Shire Library/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), 9–27.
  4. See Zaheer Baber, “The Plants of Empire: Botanic Gardens, Colonial Power and Botanical Knowledge,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, vol. 46, no. 4 (Routledge, Oct. 2016), 659–79; Lucile Brockway, Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens (New York: Academic Press, 1979); Donal P. McCracken, “Gardens of Empire: Botanical Institutions of the Victorian British Empire” (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), 12–14. For more on botanic gardens and domination, see Daniel R. Headrick, “The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 51, no. 2 (University of Chicago Press, 1979), 231–63.
  5. For a detailed account of cinchona in imperial networks, see Mark Honigsbaum, The Fever Trail: In Search of the Cure for Malaria (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).
  6. Donal P. McCracken, “Gardens of Empire: Botanical Institutions of the Victorian British Empire” (London: Leicester University Press, 1997), 134.
  7. Brockway, 109-16; see also Rohan Deb Roy, Malarial Subjects: Empire, Medicine and Nonhumans in British India, 1820–1909 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 50–52, 66.
  8. Brockway, 121–123. For a detailed history of quinine in India, see Roy, 216–72.
  9. Brockway, 219–222.

About the Author

Deepthi Bathala

Deepthi Bathala is a Ph.D. candidate in Architectural History and Theory at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Michigan. Her interests lie in colonial networks and food transfers as these have shaped architecture. She received her M.S. Arch at the University of Washington, Seattle — where her Masters’ Thesis, “Cultural Translations: A Global History of the Chili Pepper in Architecture,” was awarded the Thesis citation for 2020 — and her B.Arch at the College of Engineering Trivandrum of Kerala University in India.