Pop-up Exhibition reveals input of indigenous population and slaves to the Botanic Gardens
May 23, 2023
Pop-up Exhibition reveals input of indigenous population and slaves to the Botanic Gardens

An exhibition which has placed on display rich information about the Botanic Gardens, and the contribution African slaves made to it was this week mounted in the Anglican Cathedral in Kingstown.

Reader of Theology from the University of Winchester Christina Welch, unearthed the history of the Botanic Garden in this awe-inspiring exhibition using research from 18th-century Scottish Botanist Alexander Anderson, who founded the Botanic Garden in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

The exhibition on May 17 was hosted by the National Parks, Rivers and Beaches Authority which, apart from uncovering hidden information about the Gardens, also debunked some of the history that Vincentians were taught.

The exhibition was held under the theme “Unearthing the contribution of indigenous and enslaved African knowledge systems to the St Vincent Botanical Garden under Dr Anderson(1785-1811)”. It was housed at the St George’s Cathedral where Anderson was married and buried and his daughter was baptized.

“So, last year I led about an international collaborative project about the St Vincent Botanical Garden between 1785 and 1811 when it was under the superintendent of Alexander Anderson, who was born in Scotland in 1748. The project has digitised, transcribed, and interrogated material produced by Anderson which are held in London in three archives- the Linnean Society, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and the Natural History Museum, and also drew on material held at the National Archive,” Welch said.

She said she worked with a range of stakeholders and project partners to unearth and document the contributions made by the indigenous people and enslaved African peoples to the Garden whose knowledge and physical labour fed into its successful development, and to western scientific knowledge more generally.

“The information from this cross-disciplinary project highlighted how late-18th and early-19th century concepts of race, class, and privilege, marginalised the contributions of peoples vital to the development of the St Vincent Botanical Garden (herein, the Garden).”

She said through detailed analysis of Anderson’s extensive archive, the project revealed social injustices and exclusions, and is helping establish which plants were “discovered” by Anderson, and which plants were introduced to the Garden by him, and from where.

“All this information has and will continue to help provide insights into how Anderson derived his understanding of the plants, their uses, and horticulture, and importantly, all this has fed into the pop-up exhibition, which was developed in collaboration with the Garden and has an educational remit.”

Welch said that the St. Vincent Botanic Garden has a long history, being the oldest in the Western hemisphere, with talks about its establishment dating to June, 1765, two years after the country was ceded to the British under the Treaty of Paris in February, 1763.

“The Island came under the control of the British War Office, and effectively was a garrison; Fort Charlotte on Berkshire Hill began construction in 1763 and provided a base for the military and island’s militia.”

She added that the governor of territories ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Paris, was General Robert Melville (d.1809), who visited the island, meeting with Dr George Young (d.1803), the surgeon of the island’s military hospital.

“Melville suggested the establishment of a botanic garden that amongst other things, would provide medicinal plants for the military to help the British troops stay healthy enough to retain control of an island that, under a treaty in 1660 between the British, French, and the Caribbean indigenous people, left the island solely for the Indigenous population.”

She also said that Melville ordered six acres of previously delegated military land to be set aside for this purpose, and instructed Young to get information about indigenous medicines from “all quarters” of the island and to obtain “physical practices of the country, [from] natives of experience and even old Caribs and slaves who have dealt in cures” even if this had to be paid for and was “against [his medical] craft”.

“You can see … that there was a difference being made between British medicinal knowledge, and the medicinal ‘know how’ of indigenous and enslaved peoples,” Welch pointed out.

She said that no financial aid from London was forthcoming to support the Garden, despite its obvious colonial and military benefits, but the British War Office and the hugely powerful imperial East India Company helped by supplying plants and seeds, and Young drew on his own contacts too.

“In 1773, Young produced a list of plants in the Botanical Garden which the naturalist John Ellis (d.1776) noted that they were “the most useful plants, … in time [to] become profitable articles of commerce.”

She also referred to 15 plants that were listed as growing and possessed medicinal properties, and medical knowledge, which was to become vital to the British between 1769 and 1773 when the First Carib War was fought.

Welch said that British encroachment into Carib territory was met with local resistance, and despite larger forces, the British were unable to defeat the then-called Carib fighters. Beset with “extensive sickness among the soldiery”, eventually a treaty was negotiated that brought an end to the conflict”.