University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > Watering plants, drying specimens: the Calcutta Botanical Garden and its fraught relationship with moisture (c.1864–c.1900)

Watering plants, drying specimens: the Calcutta Botanical Garden and its fraught relationship with moisture (c.1864–c.1900)

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Created at the end of the eighteenth century, the Calcutta Botanical Garden was an important element of the network of imperial gardens that served economic and political enterprises of the Raj. In the nineteenth century, it became a centre where plants were nursed, grew, transited, fell sick and often died. Some plants were dried in order to be incorporated into the herbarium, the place which was considered the most ‘scientific’ by the British botanists who claimed to run the garden. Growing plants and drying them both implied controlling quantities of water and moisture, a task that was seen as particularly difficult in what the garden’s administration called an ‘Indian context’. Plants in the ground were subject to drought, plants in pots fell victims to overwatering, and herbarium specimen were never dry enough. Regulating water was all the more necessary as the garden was situated on the bank of the Hooghly, an arm of the Ganges, and was frequently subject to floods. I argue that this constant and sometimes obsessional preoccupation with moisture expressed the failure of the imperial claim to reduce ‘place’ to ‘context’, especially during the period of ‘High Imperialism’ that characterised the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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