Millie Schurch: "Paper Colonialism: Instructions, Institutions, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, 1790-1815"

Instructing Colonial Natural History Seminar Series

Forskningspresentation av Millie Schurch, Uppsala universitet.

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This paper examines the role of written instructions in the establishment of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as a colonial organisation in the 1790s-1810s. Joseph Banks, as informal director of Kew from the 1770s, issued formalised sets of instructions to each botanist that he sent on expeditions to collect plant specimens and commercial intelligence from colonial destinations. In this paper, I examine the instructions written by Banks to the botanist Archibald Menzies for a circumnavigation captained by Lieutenant George Vancouver in 1790. The instructions stipulated a set of botanical aims, broader colonial knowledge that Menzies should gather, and how he should comport himself in relation to his finances, correspondents at Kew, and in his relations on board. These written instructions, I suggest,proposed an ideal relationship between Kew and its botanists that served to stimulate and evaluate botanical collecting and colonial prospecting. But, in addition, the form of instructions played a significant role in instigating an institutional culture at Kew, and establishing it as a colonial organisation. Written instructions for expeditions provided Banks a means to standardise botanical collecting, to cohere internal relationships, and to establish administrative norms. I argue that Banks was aware of the capacities of instructions to establish social and epistemological practices, and also hierarchies: between individuals working on behalf of Kew, and between the geographical spaces of the British metropole and colonies. Analysing Banks’s instructions therefore offers a glimpse into how Banks enlisted textual and paper technologies to enact his vision for Kew, and to position it as a metropolitan centre in an expanding colonial network.