Jungles of the Mind the Invention of the `Tropical Rain Forest'

By Stott, Philip | History Today, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Jungles of the Mind the Invention of the `Tropical Rain Forest'


Stott, Philip, History Today


Philip Stott unravels the emergence of myths about the tropical rain forests.

ONE OF THE EARLIEST European accounts of the tropical is found in the famous letter, dated February 1493, of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) describing his first voyage of 1492-93. This was published in Spanish in Barcelona in April 1493 by Pedro Posa, with a Latin version appearing a little later. His account helped to establish a number of European myths about the tropics that still flourish today.

Columbus offered an image of great fecundity and diversity, yet did not see `vegetation' as such, but rather `a great variety of trees stretching up to the stars'. Using a modern colloquialism, we might say he couldn't see the forest for the trees. Columbus described the islands of the Caribbean as intensely `fertile' and `distinguished by various qualities', the palm trees numerous and far excelling `ours in height and beauty, just as all the other trees, herbs, and fruit do'. His focus was on individual plants and organisms, and on their extraordinary variety of forms and functions.

Columbus's letter was a classic example of what James Krasner has called (1992) `a disordered and fragmented visual field'. The notion of tropical `vegetation', which is a prerequisite for the idea of the `tropical rain forest', today an emblematic icon of the `environment in danger', had not yet been invented in the European mindset. Europeans would not, in fact, see the tropics `organismically' (holistically) for another three centuries.

Columbus's `fractured seeing' is exemplified in the sections of his `Letter' dealing with Hispana (now Hispaniola) and the island of Juana. In these, he described the plants he encountered as `different' or exotic -- and in this we might say he was adopting an `orientalist' view of the exotic `Other', in the sense espoused by Edward Said, whose Orientalism (1979) comprises a complex discourse on power, domination and hegemony with regard to the relationships between the West (Occident) and the Rest (Orient). Yet Columbus balanced this with careful analogies with the home country:

   trees ... the leaves of which I believe are never shed, for I saw them as
   green and flourishing as they are usually in Spain in the month of May.

Indeed, until the late-nineteenth century, European observers ,of the tropics saw little but a riot of individuality, or alternatively a gloomy area of highly generalised `forest'. However, one word, `jungle', did enter the English language in the mid-eighteenth century. This word derived from Indian origins and would change its meaning radically in European hands to become an important `organismic' construct.

A very early reference to `jungle' appears in The Journals of Major James Rennell, first Surveyor General of India, written for the information of the Governors of Bengal during his surveys of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers 1764-1767:

   We find the depths of Water from 34 to 8 Cubits (in ye dry Season), the
   Banks being mostly covered with Jungle we have very troublesome work to
   survey them.

Rennell here seems to have been equating the word `jungle' with some sort of scrubby riverside vegetation. As he approached the Sunderbans, the great coastal plain on the Bay of Bengal, he appeared to distinguish `jungly' vegetation from what he called `woody' vegetation, by which he most probably meant mangroves and mangrove swamps that are influenced by the inflow of saline water from the sea. He later observed that there are many `Tygers' in the `Jungle'. His use of the word, therefore, does not equate with `forest' in a modern sense.

`Jungle' is derived from a Hindi and Marathi word, jangal, which, in turn, comes from a Sanskrit word (jangala) for `dry', `dryland', `wilderness', or even `desert'. The fundamental meaning is thus `wasteland', or foret in the Norman French sense -- that is, `uncultivated and unenclosed land'. …

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