Dr. Emma Spary (Cambridge), 5. November 2020, 17:15 Uhr – öffentlicher Videovortrag: „The Virtues of Vanilla: Space, Efficacy and Drugs Knowledge in the First French Empire“
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From our present-day perspective, the plant world seems to be a relatively stable realm, visualisable as multiple habitats populated by individual distinct species and populations – for the most part, classified and understood by Western science. By contrast, around 1700, as Europeans were actively creating the first colonial empires, many of the plants that bore the foreign drugs, spices and condiments with which they were already very familiar remained unknown.
While there was extensive interest in locating and learning about such plants, how could Europeans know when they possessed the authentic plant that produced a common commodity such as tea, coffee, vanilla or ginseng? Conflicting claims travelled the oceans back to ministers, merchants and consumers in Europe. Above all, there was widespread anxiety that such plants might lose their valuable qualities in transit, so that even if the correct plant was identified, attempts to propagate it in colonial botanic gardens or plantations were doomed to failure.
Europeans lacked the knowledge that indigenes possessed about both the ’true’ origins of drug plants, and their methods of processing prior to entering global trade routes. Yet these (largely failed) attempts to capture drug plants and to preserve their efficacy or virtues as they moved through space and across cultures were central to European colonial encounters and the formation of natural knowledge around 1700.
Bildnachweis: Leaves and fruit of a kind of Mexican vanilla. Drawing by Thomas Malie, 1730. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). Licence: Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0)