The slave trade could not have existed without African warlords who sold their fellow slaves into captivity. When I discovered that one of their victims, exported to Suriname as a child around 1700, lived to become one of the few recorded hunters of black plants, I was jubilant. But, clumsily, Graman Kwasi not only enslaved others in turn, but was rewarded with the Dutch crown for his diligence in tracking down runaways. History is rarely clean and simple…
Who or what would benefit from recasting Banks and his ilk as evil botanical pirates? Rather, I wanted to seek out those people who weren’t included in the familiar narrative — the unrecognized collaborators, people of color, and women — many of whom were distinguished collectors in their own right. This turned out to be remarkably difficult to do. I knew that a number of Kew directors had corresponded with various women collectors, and their letters were somewhere in Kew, as were important Islamic and Asian texts – but the resources just weren’t there for them. to find. (Covid didn’t help.)
Unable to access the Kew Library online, it was somewhat by chance that I discovered a magnificent Japanese flora compiled by a 19th century samurai. (Who knew such a formidable fighter could also be a flower enthusiast?)
I’ve had a bit more success learning about ongoing collaborative projects, including joint ventures with botanists from South America, Madagascar, and West Africa. And was happy to conclude that in the end, actions speak louder than words.
After quietly removing the ‘D-word’ from its 10-year-old ‘Manifesto for Change’, it looks like Kew is now taking a less panicked stance on the issue, which would be a good thing. But whatever happens next, the organization will have to be truly collaborative, recanting the old ways of intellectual colonialism to accept academic partners from different sides of the debate on an equal footing.
Such an approach certainly makes more sense, given that visitors to Kew (and it is the second most visited attraction in Britain), do not seem very concerned about revisionist narratives: a request for access to the he information revealed that between January 2020 and April last year, Kew received precisely four complaints relating to the colonial nature of its collection and/or interpretation – four out of 1.2 million visitors.
The fact remains that Kew won’t magically become more inclusive by turning heroes into villains, especially if it does so by twisting their stories. But it could tell more different stories – and I’ll be happy to suggest exactly where to start.