University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > Death, decay, rot and ashes: the 'discovery' of the corpse flower and the politics of loss in colonial botany

Death, decay, rot and ashes: the 'discovery' of the corpse flower and the politics of loss in colonial botany

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  • UserElaine Ayers (New York University)
  • ClockMonday 19 October 2020, 13:00-14:00
  • HouseZoom.

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During the summer of 1818 in the mountains of Sumatra, British naturalist Joseph Arnold found himself face to face with what would be called the ‘prodigy of the vegetable world’: the giant corpse flower, later named Rafflesia arnoldii. Despite his team’s attempts at collecting and preserving this flower, whose size, smell, and unusual characteristics upended blurred the lines between plant and animal, the specimen quickly rotted into a pulpy mess, resisting all attempts at ‘normal’ practices of preservation. Within two months, Joseph Arnold was dead. Indeed, such narratives of loss haunt narratives of the ‘discovery’ of the corpse flower by colonial naturalists – men perished, collections went up in flames or were consumed by ants, specimens rotted, and, through it all, the ‘monstrous’ plant remained, resistant to all attempts of scientific control. Tracing the history of this plant in its Sumatran rainforest home, this paper unravels constructions of political and affective loss in tropical colonial botany, arguing for the prevalence and centrality of decay in natural history collecting and collections.

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

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