The Texture of Empire: Britain’s Colonial Botanic Gardens, Science, and Authority in the Age of Revolution


ACLS Fellowship Program




“The Texture of Empire” uses botanic gardens in India, Australia, and the Caribbean as case studies to explore the construction and exercise of authority in science and governance in the British empire, from the 1760s through the 1860s. Previous scholarship describes these gardens as nodes of a powerful network run from London to exploit the botanical resources of the empire. By adopting a view from the colonies, my project reveals that though the colonial gardens were potent symbols of rational governance and control, in practice they were sites of controversy and imperial weakness. Taking cues from postcolonial studies, “The Texture of Empire” highlights the participation of local people, particularly subalterns, and illustrates their crucial role in accommodating local elites to help create community acceptance for government intervention in agriculture and resource management. Garden staff, from the superintendents managing the garden to the workers tending the plants, including naturalists with advanced education and enslaved people and convicts, all had their own goals connected to their botanical knowledge. These workers helped build authority for botanic gardens as new imperial institutions while seeking recognition for their own knowledge both within and outside of the scientific community.