Plants And Botanical Gardens In The Spanish Empire During The Nineteenth Century.

A- A A+

AguileraManzanoJosé Aguilera, HEC MW Fellow 2006-2007 (*)
When in 2006 I became a Max Weber postdoctoral fellow, one of my goals was to try to study the history of Havana’s Botanical Garden; this centre and its activity became a privileged place to study the process of construction of Cuban national identity, which was the goal of my research at that time. Today, some years later, and with more consolidated research and an academic career, I intend to make this very local project into a more global study. I am studing how the Spanish government, from the base of the Botanical Garden of Madrid, planned a strategy to understand and classify the flora and natural wealth of the Spanish Empire in America, Asia and Africa.

Botanical gardens in the Canary Islands, Fernando Pó, Havana and Manila played a key role in this regard, along with the economic societies that had been created earlier in the Iberian Peninsula and in the empire’s colonies. The knowledge of the flora and natural wealth of colonial possessions became an obsession for the metropolitan government, which aimed for better control over its possessions. Although Cuba and the Philippines were in the antipodes of the western world, the science practiced there was very original, especially everything in connection with the acclimatization of plants. When the first European contacts took place, most of the island of Cuba and of the archipelago of the Philippines were covered by forests. With the passage of time, however, these big reservations were cut back. Trees were cut to open the way to agriculture, to provide construction material ‒ the wood itself ‒, to the navy, and to produce firewood.

With the aim to safeguard, to know and to exploit the resources of their possessions well, the metropolitan government subsidized the naturalist Ramón of Sagra’s trip from the Iberian peninsula to the island of Cuba. The central government supported Sagra’s idea of revitalizing the Economic Society of Havana, created at the end of the eighteenth century but clearly in decline by 1824. The objective was to create a place for discussion on the best way to exploit the island economically; with this in mind the writing of the Memorias de la Sociedad Económica began. Sagra was also able to create a botanical garden in Havana, in 1824, directed by himself and devised as a study centre and a nursery for plants with an economic value, such as sugar cane, cocoa, indigo, cochineal and some spices. Finally, he obtained money to found a chemistry class inside the botanical garden to study these products and to improve the techniques used to cultivate them, and to produce another periodical publication, the Anales, where all these advances were published. In addition the different delegations of the Economic Society, distributed in the main cities of the island, created commissions for the study of the flora of the island; their members also developed reports on the plants of their territories and these were sent to the Spanish naturalist. Sagra compiled all these data and the samples he received and the culmination of his work resulted in several studies of the flora of the island, highlighting its work Historia económico-política y estadística de la Isla de Cuba (1831) and Historia física, política y natural de la Isla de Cuba (1832-1861); this last was made up of thirteen volumes written between Havana and Paris and financially subsidized by the metropolitan government. This work, in spite of its significant errors, has not been superseded by any other. The Botanical Garden of Havana continued working after Sagra’s return to Europe at the end of the 1830s, although at a slower pace.

Something similar happened in the archipelago of the Philippines. As professor Greg Bankoff has explained, there the most remarkable of these naturalists was the religious brother Manuel Blanco, who arrived on the archipelago in 1805 as an Augustinian friar. As a representative of this order, he travelled a great deal through Luzón and Visayas, and thanks to this he was able to study their flora. Blanco’s work, titled Flora de Filipinas, published for the first time in 1837, is still the most complete study of the the flora of the Philippines; nevertheless, it did contain errors, owing to the small number of available texts the firar could use to identify species. Two posthumous editions of the work, published in 1845 and 1877-83, did much to remedy the deficiencies of the first edition. The last edition identified plants according to Linnaeus’s system (Bankoff, 87).

As had happened in Havana, the Economic Society of Manila, created in the eighteenth century, was also revitalized at the begining of the following century and its members began the writing of the Memorias, a periodical publication, with the same objective, the study of the economic value of plants. In 1858 the Botanical Garden of Manila was founded and within it was created a botany and agriculture school. In spite of the botanical garden’s unfavorable location, in an old rice field surrounded by a river and the cemetery of the capital, the enthusiasm of its first directors ensured experimentation and the successful introduction of a considerable number of exotic plants with great economic potential. The most important achievement in these first years was the publication of an elementary text on agriculture, Cartilla de agricultura filipina, by the second director of the institution, Zoilo Espejo, and used to teach native people in schools. Later on, the garden was directed by Domingo Vidal y Soler. Unfortunately, the legacy of that botanical corpus was lost almost completely at the end of the nineteenth century because, during the war of independence, the botanical collections, the detailed maps on the forests of the archipelago made by the Commission of Flora of the Economic Society, the herbaria and more important collections of the natural history of the colony, were destroyed.

I think the botanical gardens of Cuba and the Philippines were part of a network of botanical centres connected with the Botanical Garden of Madrid, the objective of which was to create a great system (network) of botanical exchange. The metropolitan government connected the Botanical Garden of Madrid with those of Havana and Manila through two plants nurseries that it had built in the Canary Islands and Fernando Pó, in Africa. This system helped many businessmen to build empires based on sugar cane, cocoa, coffee, etc. Later on, the central government, with the objective of controlling the damage that this economic growth could cause in the nature of the colonies, supported the founding of a general inspectorate (inspección general de montes) in Cuba and in the Philippines. These institutions developed surveys or systematic polls of the forests of both territories, they helped to identify the main species that grew in each place and they estimated the proportion of wood in each territory, a task of enormous proportions. As professor Bankoff explains, it is certain that all those scientific successes in the Spanish colonies were few compared with the advances in western Europe. Nevertheless, the colonies of the Spanish Empire were not a scientific desert, and far from being a society collapsed in superstition, it was a place of scientific activity. Frequently, this colonial moribund state, in spite of its severe penury, found the necessary money to support important research centres like the botanical gardens of Havana and Manila. (Bankoff 92-93). In a second phase of this project I will compare the results for the Spanish Empire with the British, French and Dutch Empires.

One of the elements that has helped me to progress towards a more global view of history in general and botanical gardens in particular has been my work as professor at the university. I came to the University of Cordoba a few years ago and I have taught history to students with very different backgrounds; a large number of Erasmus students from Europe are concentrated in this Andalusian city, as well as students from Latin America and the United States. This has given me contact with various historiographical traditions and forced me to take a global view of events, and not to look only at the local impact.


(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme