King's College London
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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

A globalised economy of plants

As the examples of cinchona and tea have made clear, the successful transplantation of plant species from one part of the globe to the other was of immense and perennial importance to the major European imperial powers.

As Britain’s empire grew in size and embraced ever more regions of the world, its botanists became increasingly concerned not only with identifying hitherto unknown species of potential economic benefit but with assessing whether these could more effectively be cultivated en masse in other parts of the British Empire.

India, with its huge population and low labour costs, was the most important potential agricultural producer. On display is the Indian edition of Ferdinand von Mueller’s seminal work on the suitability of certain non-tropical plants for transplantation to another non-tropical country, or to a mountainous region of a tropical country, with a view to their eventual naturalisation and mass production there.

Title page of bookTitle page of bookBorn in Rostock, Germany, the botanist Ferdinand von Mueller (1825-96) emigrated to Australia in 1847. He was appointed government botanist of Victoria in 1853 and also held the post of director of the Melbourne botanical gardens from 1857 to 1873.

The author of over 800 botanical works, he remains a figure of lasting importance in Australian botany and much of his research is unsuperseded today. Mueller was an enthusiastic imperialist, advocating the Australian colonisation of New Guinea and Antarctica.

As an inscription in the book records, Mueller sent this copy of Select extra-tropical plants to the Earl of Kimberley, the then newly appointed UK colonial secretary. In his preface to the book Mueller emphasises the importance of an understanding of economic botany to the future citizens of the British Empire, in an increasingly globalised world:

The writer entertains a hope that a copy of this plain volume will be placed in the library of any [sic] State schools … The increased ease of communication, which has latterly arisen between nearly all parts of the globe, places us now also in a fair position for independent efforts to suggest or promote introductions of new vegetable treasures … or to submit neglected plants of promising value to unbiassed original tests.

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