Posted November 7, 2013 by Cooper Point Journal in Letters & Opinion

Connecting Botany, Empire, and Reproductive Rights

By Cassandra Johnson-Villalobos

When required reading becomes a personal favorite, it’s something worth sharing. Londa Shiebinger’s 2004 publication Plants and Empire: European Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World exposes European botany’s ties to colonial expansion.

Schiebinger uses “bioprospecting”and “biopiracy” as monikers for English, Dutch, Spanish, and French environmental explorations and exploitations outside of Europe. These terms refer to actions that led to the redistribution and repurposing of indigenous plants as tools of empire.

Rather than approaching bioprospecting/-piracy with instant criticism, the Harvard history faculty sculpts a detailed storyscape out of painstaking research. Plants and Empire explores the partially recorded and largely suppressed history of plant medicines used to control fertility during a period when European powers first created a global economy on their own terms.

Many “exotic” abortive drugs were rebranded as profit-heavy trade goods that furthered the trade aims of Western merchant and governing bodies. Asafoetida, used in India’s traditional cuisine, was also a long-standing agent of birth control on the subcontinent. While its versatility as a seasoning was exaggerated to up the East India Company’s spice sales, knowledge of its value to women’s health remained in India. As an extension of European expansion, “mercantilist governments enlisted the aid of physicians, botanists, and midwives in ‘growing’ their populations,” at home and abroad.

Many “exotic” abortive drugs were rebranded as profit-heavy trade goods that furthered the trade aims of Western merchant and governing bodies.”

According to Schiebinger’s research, women were rebranded as “national property” and “morally obliged to (produce) citizens” as well as slaves.

The book traces the birth of the government-industry-medical science nexus that bridged western Europe’s transition from the Scientific to the Industrial Revolution.

Schiebinger contrasts two models for looking at history: “epistemology,” the study of how knowledge is encountered and passed on, and “agnotology,” the study of “culturally-induced ignorance.” She focuses much of her survey on European activity on the central Atlantic seaboard of the Americas (often the Caribbean) before 1750.


The Peacock Flower, Caesalpinia pulcherrima

Colonial scientists encountered natural methods of birth control in virtually every society they came into contact with. One particular naturalist, self-subsidized illustrator Maria Sybilla Merian, is highlighted in the text. Today, Merian is celebrated for her record of the Peacock flower’s abortive use in slave populations in Caribbean plantations.

Merian’s informants told her that many women on colonial plantations did not want their children to be born into slavery, and so acted to spare them a life of suffering. Her work was highly sourced and rarely cited when she returned to her home city of Amsterdam. She lived at a time defined equally by the rising popularity and emerging government suppression of fertility control methods on the European continent.

I recommend Plants and Empire to folks interested in the origins of modern reproductive thought, the history of science, the development of global economies, or societies’ relationships to their environments. It is an impeccably-structured academic masterpiece that respectfully withholds its own conclusions until the last 15 pages, in a revelatory chapter simply titled “Agnotology.”