Colonizing Nature: The Tropics in British Arts and Letters, 1760-1820

Colonizing Nature: The Tropics in British Arts and Letters, 1760-1820

Colonizing Nature: The Tropics in British Arts and Letters, 1760-1820

Colonizing Nature: The Tropics in British Arts and Letters, 1760-1820


With its control of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and tea, cotton, and indigo production in India, Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries dominated the global economy of tropical agriculture. In Colonizing Nature, Beth Fowkes Tobin shows how dominion over "the tropics" as both a region and an idea became central to the way in which Britons imagined their role in the world.

Tobin examines georgic poetry, landscape portraiture, natural history writing, and botanical prints produced by Britons in the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and India to uncover how each played a crucial role in developing the belief that the tropics were simultaneously paradisiacal and in need of British intervention and management. Her study examines how slave garden portraits denied the horticultural expertise of the slaves, how the East India Company hired such artists as William Hodges to paint and thereby Anglicize the landscape and gardens of British-controlled India, and how writers from Captain James Cook to Sir James E. Smith depicted tropical lands and plants.

Just as mastery of tropical nature, and especially its potential for agricultural productivity, became key concepts in the formation of British imperial identity, Colonizing Nature suggests that intellectual and visual mastery of the tropics--through the creation of art and literature--accompanied material appropriations of land, labor, and natural resources. Tobin convincingly argues that the depictions of tropical plants, gardens, and landscapes that circulated in the British imagination provide a key to understanding the forces that shaped the British Empire.


Plants, Gardens, and Knowledge

For the nearly two decades that I lived in Hawai‘i, I couldn’t garden. When we first moved into our house in Hawai‘i, my husband, who came late to his love of gardening, would repeatedly ask my advice on landscaping and planting since I, as a country girl, was supposed to know these things. Somehow I could not bring myself to help him. He would say in response to my seeming indifference: “Why can’t you help me or at least help plan our garden especially when all you do all day is read and write about plants, gardens, and agriculture?” I began to realize that I couldn’t plant precisely because I was reading about plants, gardens, and agriculture. Reading, for instance, Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, John Barrell’s The Darkside of the Landscape, William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, Lilikalā Kame‘eleihiwa’s Native Lands and Foreign Desires: Pehea Lā E Pono Ai?, and Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things had convinced me of the ideological status of gardens and the political implications of having knowledge about plants. I had become so overwhelmed by this recognition of the ideological implications of gardens that I was unable to take pleasure in planning and planting a garden in our backyard. Seemingly simple questions from my husband about what to plant or how to design the garden would become ideological conundrums for me, and I would become immobilized by my thoughts.

Once my husband asked me what I thought about building a curving path through our garden. His query reminded me of Pope’s Twickenham garden, his clever use of a small space to create the illusion of greater space, and how the serpentine walkway had helped achieve this. At first the serpentine path seemed a good idea, and then I remembered Pope’s landscaping advice to his Whig magnate friends, and the incredible gardens designed by Kent, Brown, and Repton, all of which were displays of aristocratic power, the power to exert one’s will on the land and the wealth to take large parts of rural land out of agriculture, to level villages, to move peasants off the land, all to create “pleasing” prospects. Unable to divorce the serpentine walk from the class politics implied by the country house garden, I hemmed . . .

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