University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > Spicing up Mauritius' gardens: informal empire and the hybridity of knowledge and plant exchange in the East Indies, 1740s to 1770s

Spicing up Mauritius' gardens: informal empire and the hybridity of knowledge and plant exchange in the East Indies, 1740s to 1770s

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In the 1740s, the young Frenchman Pierre Poivre (1719–1786) proposed to the Compagnie française pour le commerce des Indes orientales (hereafter the CIO ) to gather ‘useful’ plants and spices in different parts of the world. In the 1740s and the 1750s, Poivre was not only missionary but also botanist, agronomist and later, between 1767 and 1772, intendant of the Mascarene Islands, a group of islands off the East coast of Madagascar, consisting of Isle de France (present-day Mauritius), Bourbon (present-day Réunion) and Rodrigues. On his first mission to the Moluccas Islands – coveted spice monopoly of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) – Poivre aimed at gathering luxury spices, namely clove and nutmeg, and introduce them to Isle de France with the idea to turn the island into the cultivating ground for the French spice trade. I argue that this enterprise was by no means ‘purely’ French but a hybrid project, which involved actors from different backgrounds with different types of knowledge.

The case of Isle de France’s spice garden serves as a particular place-in-the-making in order to understand the wider French imperial system and its dynamics from the overseas actors’ point of view. While stressing the performative character of botany, I will consider actors as mobile agents from different backgrounds. These actors were connected between various geographical regions, yet, their disparity as opposed to their collaboration is assumed – when it comes to Europeans as opposed to Europeans or Europeans as opposed to non-Europeans. Thus, the purpose of my paper is to closely examine the connected and cross-cultural communication in botany through the lens of Poivre’s exchange networks in a bottom-up perspective. What I call ‘informal empire’ is thus an umbrella term for the cross-cultural relations between actors offside imperial rule and rivalry. I hope that I can marry approaches from the history of science, economic history and global history – in short botany as a nuanced global science which I demonstrate through three dimensions: 1) the informal collaboration between European actors, 2) indigenous plant knowledge in the Indo-Pacific region, and 3) natural knowledge and slavery on Isle de France.

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

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