Islands, Forests and Gardens in the Caribbean: Conservation and Conflict in Environmental History

By Rudolf, Andrew | The Journal of Caribbean History, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Islands, Forests and Gardens in the Caribbean: Conservation and Conflict in Environmental History


Rudolf, Andrew, The Journal of Caribbean History


Robert S. Anderson, Richard Grove and Karis Hiebert, eds., Islands, Forests and Gardens in the Caribbean: Conservation and Conflict in Environmental History. London: Macmillan Caribbean (Warwick University Caribbean Studies), 2006, xxii + 266 pp.

The conference in 1991 celebrating the bicentenary of the St Vincent Botanical Garden inspired this collection of essays edited by Robert S. Anderson, Richard Grove and Karis Hiebert. The contributors deal with the historic struggle to preserve the ecological abundance and diversity in the Caribbean through an analysis and chronological survey of environmental institutions - botanical gardens and forest conservation, whose founders have a "direct linkage" with the Caribbean, according to the various authors. The connection between botanical gardens and forest reserves is perhaps more apparent than real, which may be a weakness of the collection. The development of botanical gardens over more than two centuries is clearer to follow for the general interest reader, whereas the specialist may see a better structure holding them together with conservation. Arguably, the functions of a botanical garden include the conservation of indigenous and alien plants, but its various aims are more complex and diffuse than simply conservation.

The first two essays neatly contrast the exploitation methods of the Caribs in Dominica with those of the British sugar planters in Barbados. The former's small subsistence patches or "gardens" transformed without destroying the landscape, while the latter replaced the forest with sugar cane, leading to soil erosion, lower yields and uncertain rainfall within two or three decades of their arrival.

The next four essays explore the concept of botanical gardens, starting with an overview of their changing function. Thus, in sixteenthcentury Europe, the thirst for knowledge characteristic of the Renaissance encouraged the creation of gardens for botanical study and research and for increasing the scope for medicinal supplies. The functions of the eighteenth-century curators were to categorize plants, as Linnaeus1 did, improve existing species, and propagate and naturalize new species (including plants shipped from around the world and judged useful for primary products or food, such as the breadfruit from Tahiti). Specific examples of botanical gardens from St Domingue, Martinique and St Vincent illustrate the slight differences between the French and British approaches. The commercial need to improve tropical agriculture was influenced by Physiocratic and Enlightened ideas.

The essays on this theme might have benefited from more detailed explanation than the authors provide. As an international fraternity of thinkers, the philosophes shared common ideals and ideas, and a "network" of horticultural experts shared, nurtured and propagated newly discovered plants. Thus, despite diplomatic and military enmities between the British and French, especially from around 1750, their gardeners continued to exchange useful plants. Moreover, despite the help of corporate bodies like the Royal Society of Arts, individuals such as Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Anderson played important roles in these developments. Banks, almost single-handedly, planned and set in motion a global operation to transfer useful plants from South East Asia via the East India Company to the West Indies during and after the shock of the secession of the thirteen North American colonies from the British Empire. Similarly, Dr Anderson was instrumental in the revival and consolidation of St Vincent's Botanical Garden. …

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