Science and empire in the Pacific

Mai (aka Omai), the first Pacific Islander to visit Europe, with Joseph Banks in 1774. Painting by William Parry.

By Barry Healy

More than 240 years ago, on April 13, 1769, the peace of Tahiti was interrupted by the visit of Captain James Cook, supposedly observing the transit of Venus across the Sun, but really following secret orders to investigate the Pacific Ocean and its islands for the benefit of British colonialism.

Mainstream Australian history raises James Cook to a pinnacle because he established a white, British dominion on the Australian continent. However, at the time his fame was eclipsed because on board his ship was gentleman scientist Joseph Banks with a posse of staff.

Banks’ star outshone Cook’s because his work acquired the botanical treasures of Oceania for the British Empire, paving the way for Britain to dominate vital areas of science for its own benefit.

Today, when production depends on oil and its derivatives, it is easy to forget the importance of natural science in the growth of capitalism. National governments competed for specimens and urgently examined them for commercial potential.

Something as seemingly straightforward as the classification of plants became a highly charged imperial attribute, to be squabbled over, traded and hegemonised to the greater glory of empire – and profit.

Banks was a major player in this war of science, commerce and power.

Origins of modern science

For a generation of scientists before Banks botanical classifications followed different national systems, or various scientists simply invented their own. Plants were sorted into categories based on their physical characteristics, and their relationships were presumed based on appearance.

What accounted for the patterns of similarities and differences between the plants did not arise as a question for investigation. The basic view was that plants had been created in their present form and remained unchanged since then.

Correspondingly, it was unimaginable that two plants may have a common ancestor or that extinct species may have been ancestors of modern ones. As a result, it made no sense to ask how organisms have evolved through time.

Such questions forced themselves onto the collective consciousness of scientists when advances in industry and production raised them.

Canal building, for example, a grand advance in logistics for developing European capitalism revealed previously unexamined layers of geological strata and fossils, bringing the issue of the Biblical account of the history of Earth into question.

Thus, human culture was advanced by developments in the realm of the mode of production. However, these cultural advances were achieved in fits and starts as old methods of thought were challenged.

Linnaeus’ breakthrough

Swedish botanist Carl von Linné cut through the botanical classification confusion by developing his famous, simplified Latin-based classification method. Because he wrote in Latin, Linné became known as Linnaeus.

His system introduced two Latin name groupings, genus and species, to categorise organisms. A genus is a higher level class that includes one or more species under it. For example, it was Linnaeus’ system which described human beings as Homo sapiens. Homo is our genus and sapiens is our species.

Linnaeus represented the highest level of achievement possible in natural science before the advent of the theory of evolution and was a significant advance in capitalist intellectual culture.

Linnaeus’ System of Vegetables was translated by Charles Darwin’s grandfather with a flowery preface that reveals his commercial intent:

The future improvements in Agriculture, in Medicine, and in many inferior Arts, as dying, tanning, varnishing; with many of the more important Manufactures, as of paper, linen, cordage; must principally arise from the knowledge of BOTANY.

Linnaeus’ contribution allowed plants to be standardised into commodities, to be profitably traded. Moreover, the quality of plant extracts could be guaranteed by proper identification of the sources.

Banks’ intervention: money talks

Many eccentric British gentlemen collected natural oddities but Banks possessed something more: a huge, inherited landed estate. Using his wealth to finance his whims he dropped out of Oxford University and educated himself through mixing with scientific circles in London.

When he joined Cook’s voyage he splashed out £1000 – equivalent to £1 million today – on equipment and staff. Among those he hired was Daniel Solander, a Swede who had studied under Linnaeus.

Before the rise of industrial capitalism, mercantile capitalists had sailed to distant shores to “buy cheap” and return to “sell dear”, taking advantage of the different values of goods in different parts of the world.

The Portuguese, who pioneered mercantilism, established an ``empire’’ of trading posts, dotted along shores from Africa to India. However, they had little effect on the mode of production or the social structures of the places they visited.

Banks’ visit to Tahiti was superficially similar to mercantilism. He simply took botanical specimens from an environment where the mode of production placed a particular value on them, transported them to the context of the capitalist mode of production, synthesised their essence into scientific advances and privatised the results.

The outcomes were vastly different partly because he represented a new, higher stage of capitalism.

His voyage and cultural intervention was spectacularly successful for himself, devastating for the Tahitians and helped build the scientific basis of the British Empire.

Tahitian relationship to nature

Tahitians lived in a natural economy, meaning that exchange through the medium of money was absent and direct exploitation of resources for production was the only means of survival. Axes, for example, were made of stone and houses were constructed without nails.

Despite this, the island was bountiful, well populated and its people marvelously productive. Cook recorded an occasion when he saw a flotilla of 200 war canoes with about 10,000 warriors set out for a near by island.

The Tahitians quickly realised the value of iron nails and steel axes that the visitors brought with them. Visiting ships often reported swarms of islanders invading the vessels, trying to strip them of nails.

Captain Bligh’s famous 1788 visit aboard the Bounty was notable for his supplying a local chief with steel weapons, which advanced his political cause against his fellow Tahitians.

For Banks, Tahiti was like a giant, botanical shopping mall, packed with delicacies –- and all for free! Banks returned with 30,000 plant specimens, including 110 new genera and 1400 new species. These he established on his property, immediately turning himself into the European king of botany; Linneaus seriously proposed that Australia should be named Banksia in his honour.

Banks’ scientific imperialism

Banks sealed Britain’s domination of the botanical field in 1783 when he encouraged his friend James Edward Smith to buy the entire Linnaeus collection, including books, stuffed specimens, dried plants, anthropological artifacts and scientific instruments. “Linnaeus’s herbarium has been purchased by an Englishman & is safely arrived here so we are masters of the definitions of Species Plantarum”, Banks cheerfully wrote to a friend.

The Linnaeus system quickly came to be seen as a British system, competing with the French system associated with Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle.

As Leon Trotsky noted in The ABC of Dialectics:

Linnaeus’ system (18th century), utilising as its starting point the immutability of species, was limited to the description and classification of plants according to their external characteristics. The infantile period of botany is analogous to the infantile period of logic, since the forms of our thought develop like everything that lives. Only decisive repudiation of the idea of fixed species, only the study of the history of the evolution of plants and their anatomy prepared the basis for a really scientific classification.

For a period British botany was held back by national arrogance, because of the refusal to recognise the value of the French system. In time, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which Banks developed as “a great botanical exchange house for the empire”, adopted the French system.

As for the Tahitians, Banks took their plants and Cook’s crew and later European visitors left behind syphilis, influenza and other diseases. Beginning in 1843, France violently conquered the island. Numbering possibly up to 200,000 people at the time of Cook and Banks’ visit, in less than 80 years only around 8000 Tahitians survived.