‘A Few Plain Instructions for Collecting’: Nineteenth-Century Botanical Collection Manuals in the Service of Empire

Writing in 1849 from their Admiralty chambers right off of Whitehall, the Lords Commissioners of the Royal Navy issued a simple memorandum to introduce their new Manual of Scientific Enquiry, a mutable collecting reference reworked and reissued six more times over the course of the century. “Their Lordships do not consider it necessary that this Manual should be one of very deep and abstruse research,” they noted, arguing that “its directions should not require the use of nice apparatus and instruments: they should be generally plain, so that men merely of good intelligence and fair acquirement might be able to act upon them; yet, in pointing out objects, and methods of observation and record, they might still serve as a guide to officers of high attainment.”[1] Pointing to what they considered the most important areas of research conducted overseas, the Lords Commissioners tasked fifteen of Britain’s top men of science with writing short, simple, and clear instruction booklets for naval officers, sailors, surgeons, and those elusive “professional collectors” on how and what to observe while safely bringing specimens (living and dead), notes, and records back home.

Title page to John Herschel, ed., A Manual of Scientific Enquiry, first edition (London: John Murray, 1849), via the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/NHM19639.

Although a number of natural historians had prepared concise instructional booklets for their collectors before 1849, A Manual of Scientific Enquiry marked a unification of science in the service of the British Empire. Eschewing disciplinary specialization, the Royal Navy expected their men to collect anything that might further imperial and scientific expansion. Coral, plants, tidal recordings, meteorological data, “medical statistics,” and even ethnological observations would all make imperial holdings legible and their contents—human or not—more easily fixable into modalities of scientific order centered in growing public museums, gardens, zoos, and libraries. Bringing together the writing of men like William Whewell (1794–1866), Charles Darwin (1809–1882), and Richard Owen (1804–1892) and edited by the polymath John Herschel (1792–1871), the instructional book spelled out the objects deemed important to the advancement of imperial science.

Following the production and reproduction of one of the manual’s ever-changing chapters, “Botany,” opens a window onto how knowledge was communicated across oceans, how floral empires were managed, and how twenty-year-old surgeons brought palm trees to London. The usually twenty-five pages devoted to botanical collection and preservation bely the complexity of working in foreign rainforests and the difficulty of teaching untrained, oftentimes uninterested officers how to see. Nestled between chapters on “Zoology” by Richard Owen and “Ethnology” by Dr. James Cowles Prichard (1786–1848), William Jackson Hooker’s (1785–1865) “Botany” offered “a few plain instructions for collecting and transporting plants in foreign lands.”[2]

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These instructions were largely material-based, focusing on collection, preservation, and transport, and they presumed some basic knowledge of botany. For Hooker, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, “Botany is a science which requires to be studied at home as well as in the field.” He argued that collectors’ observations conducted in situ could only offer something incomplete. Sorting, naming, and ordering had to be done using books at the herbarium or garden.[3] While living plants were of course preferable, years of experience taught Hooker that they were much more difficult to transport. Unless working with less finicky plants such as cacti, collectors should dry and preserve their specimens for the long trip back to London. On the other hand, the proliferation of glass Wardian cases in the 1840s facilitated easier transportation of living cuttings, increasingly valued because, if packed and sealed correctly, these portable terraria “require[d] no watering nor any attention . . . during the entire voyage.”[4]

Most botanical practice, though, took place on and between sheets of paper. Offering detailed instructions on how to dry plant specimens between sheets of blotting paper pressed flat between boards and bound with leather straps, Hooker suggested where collectors might purchase supplies before leaving. Anticipating some grumbling, he also reminded them that botanical materials tended to be less expensive than the glass jars, arsenical soap, and alcohol necessary for zoological collection.

As historians like Daniela Bleichmar argue, botanical science directly served the needs of an expanding empire. Hooker’s call for objects for the brand-new Museum of Economic Botany at Kew served not just to attract the British public to the growing pleasure-grounds but to make the British Empire visible, knowable, and controllable.[5] Hooker neatly delineated the bounds of the British Empire into geographic regions, calling on collectors to “visit them ‘with their eyes open.’” He requested materials that spoke to specific economic or medical “Inquirenda” (read: desiderata).[6] Some plants, like the giant corpse flower, made the list as curious objects of scientific and aesthetic value.

Frontispiece fold-out diagram: “To illustrate Hydrographic delineation,” John Herschel, ed., A Manual of Scientific Enquiry, first edition (London: John Murray, 1849), Plate A, via the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/NHM19639.

In managing a scientific empire of his own, William Jackson Hooker developed a series of even shorter botanical guides, which Kew issued to collectors. Hooker labored over these three-to-five-page booklets while writing his entry for the Manual. Relying on notes from colonial garden workers overseas as well as multiple rounds of unforgiving edits, Hooker culled all “flowery” language from his instructions while eliminating his desiderata lists and geographical distribution of plants entirely. Hoping to simplify his guidelines, he split the text into two sections. “Living Plants for Cultivation” included information about how to transport cuttings, rooted plants, seeds, bulbs, and tubers via Wardian cases or in packed boxes, whereas “On Preserving Plants for the Herbarium” detailed the materials needed to press, dry, and ship dead flora across oceans.[7]

Using fifteen pages less in the Kew-specific guides than he did in his section of the Manual, Hooker’s instructions in them focused more on preservation than collection. Rather than teaching travelers how to identify useful plants or how to gather information about them in the middle of a rainforest or desert, Hooker taught men heading out what paper to buy before leaving and how they should package up their specimens for transport. Key both to his section of the Manual and to his Kew guides, though, was the director’s final line, which claimed incoming plants for Kew. “Such Travellers and Residents in distant countries,” he wrote, “as may desire to increase the collections of vegetable treasures in the noble and Royal Gardens of Kew (which are daily thrown open to inspection and use of the public), will have the goodness to address their packages to Sir William Jackson Hooker, K.H., Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, London (1852).”[8]

As British officers built up monocultured plantations in regions across biogeographic zones over the next several decades, transferring cash crops—and black and brown bodies—between colonial botanic gardens, later editions of A Manual of Scientific Enquiry focused on the most profitable plants to look for. Although collection and preservation techniques remained stable, calls for specific acquisitions grew increasingly specific. By the manual’s fourth edition, published in 1871, “Botany” was transplanted to the very back of the book and edited by the late William Jackson Hooker’s son, Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911), himself now the director of Kew. Of the fifteen pages enumerating almost a hundred “Inquirenda” in the book’s first edition, three pages had been cut, reducing the list by a few dozen plants no longer deemed valuable.

The new list, compiled by Daniel Hanbury (1825–1875) and Daniel Oliver (1830–1916), turned its gaze more explicitly to pharmacological and economic plants. Once designated a “terra incognita to the naturalist,” Southeast Asia received its own section, its desiderata tending towards species specificity.[9] While the 1849 entry for salep simply asked for “the different plants which yield salep in Asia Minor, Persia, and especially the best kinds,” Hanbury and Oliver noted that these plants were “tubers of several species of Orchis and Eulophia, asking collectors instead to directly inquire as to which species “affords the drug called Badshah Saleb, or Royal Salep.”[10] Java pepper, “cubebs,” was not included in the later edition, its source and growing habits presumably described to satisfaction in the twenty-two years since the manual’s first edition.

Geographic distribution of “desiderata” from William Jackson Hooker, “Botany,” in John Herschel, ed., A Manual of Scientific Enquiry, first edition (London: John Murray, 1849), 408-9, via the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/NHM19639.

Several other curious omissions occurred over these twenty-two years. Whereas William Jackson Hooker requested, in 1841, that “several stages” of vegetable-based paper products be collected “not only as objects of curiosity, but because they exemplify the progress of art and science,” his son’s 1871 edition did away with the curiosity entirely, admitting only that paper products “exemplify the progress of art.”[11] It is unclear whether these cuts were mere attempts at cutting down the manual’s word count—a notable task in itself, because it would have made the book cheaper and easier to bring abroad—or whether Joseph Dalton Hooker actively attempted to wrest botany away from the feminized pastime based in natural historical “curiosity” into the realm of “serious” Darwinian science.

Natural history collecting manuals bridged a transitory moment in the nineteenth century. As botanical gardens and museums expanded to admit a larger segment of the British public, their “managers” were faced with the task of instructing this public how to see. Just as illustrated, descriptive guidebooks to museums coincided with a turn towards the didactic in exhibits at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1840s and 1850s, concise collecting manuals emerged as necessary didactic tools to teach imperial servants how to read foreign landscapes.[12] Yet the success of A Manual of Scientific Inquiry is questionable. Although it remained a staple in naval ships’ libraries and in colonial gardens through most of the nineteenth century, William Jackson Hooker still found himself sending countless letters to collectors reminding them of what they should be looking for and how to preserve and ship specimens. For every specimen that made it back, alive or dead, to Hooker’s hands at Kew, hundreds more were lost at sea due to improper preservation or handling.

Managing collectors at the far reaches of empire, from Southeast Asia, India, and Mauritius to Australia and the Caribbean, largely fell to colonial garden administrators who had been living and interacting with foreign flora for years. These collectors and garden administrators also traded specimens back and forth, typically finding more success in shipping live specimens of orchids, for instance, from Sumatra to Madagascar than back to England. Transfers of cash crops like tea and cinchona, the cornerstones of British imperial botany, relied on managers at the so-called periphery, who, oftentimes working without “the use of nice apparatus and instruments,” controlled on-the-ground labor practices and observed climatic intricacies that could not be communicated in twenty-five pages. These “Few Plain Instructions,” perhaps more than anything, acted as a suggestive guide of sorts for young and untrained sailors hoping to contribute to the botanical empire, an easy way to envision themselves as capable of transforming into men of science on the brink of a life-changing, money-making floral discovery.

Elaine Ayers is a PhD candidate in the History of Science at Princeton University. Her Twitter handle is @eayers0.

  1. John Herschel, ed., A Manual of Scientific Enquiry: Prepared for the Use of Her Majesty’s Navy and Adapted for Travellers in General (London: John Murray, 1849), iii, https://archive.org/details/NHM19639. ↩︎
  2. William Jackson Hooker, “Botany,” in Herschel, ed., Manual of Scientific Enquiry (1849), 400. ↩︎
  3. Ibid., 400. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 402. ↩︎
  5. Daniela Bleichmar, Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012). ↩︎
  6. Hooker, “Botany” (1849), 408. ↩︎
  7. Wardian Cases General File, Library and Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1/W/1. ↩︎
  8. Ibid. ↩︎
  9. Hooker, “Botany” (1849), 408–9. ↩︎
  10. Ibid., 411; Daniel Hanbury and Daniel Oliver, “Appendix,” in Herschel, ed., A Manual of Scientific Enquiry (London: John Murray, 1871), 389, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001473311. ↩︎
  11. Hooker, “Botany,” (1849), 407; Hooker, “Botany” (revised by Joseph Dalton Hooker), in Herschel, ed., A Manual of Scientific Enquiry (London: John Murray, 1871), 382. ↩︎
  12. For more on museum guidebooks at this moment, see: Tony Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memories: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism (London: Routledge, 2004); Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995); and Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1992). ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Elaine Ayers, “‘A Few Plain Instructions for Collecting’: Nineteenth-Century Botanical Collection Manuals in the Service of Empire,” History of Knowledge, May 26, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/26/a-few-plain-instructions/.