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Book Review


Tobin, Beth Fowkes. Colonizing Nature: The Tropics in British Arts and Letters 1760-1820 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005). 255 pp, $59.95.

     Beth Fowkes Tobin spent part of her career teaching literature at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Tropical and "colonial" vegetation collided in her garden while her students sometimes discussed independence for Hawai'i. She uses her personal experience with the "colonization" of nature and the political discussions of her students to inform this unusual scholarly book about the British colonial project that won her the 2006 Suzanne M. Glasscock Humanities Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Scholarship. Tobin is now Professor of English at Arizona State University.

     In a long and somewhat wordy introduction, Tobin describes her analytical approach to the goal of "recover(ing) Eighteenth century ideas about the tropics." She uses a variety of literary and visual sources and displays a solid grounding in the secondary scholarly works on or tangential to her subject. In six chapters she uses art history and literary source analysis to present analyses of aspects of the British colonial project in the West Indies, India, and the South Seas, as well as the cult of botany in England.

     In her first chapter, titled "Tropical Bounty, Local Knowledge, and the Imperial Georgic," Tobin shows how the English persevered in their preference for the abstract, universal knowledge typical of the Enlightenment. They employed knowledge of classical literature, such as Virgil's Georgics, as a basis for understanding what they observed in the tropics. What they thought they saw was an Arcadia in which Nature provided the bounty. They seemed to miss the skill and complexity of tropical horticulture as practiced by the indigenous farmers. The British, through their poetic spin, fabricated popular notions of tropical nature and their own social and technological superiority. These notions facilitated the institution of slavery.

     Despite their unwillingness to admit to the knowledge and skills of slaves, British descriptions of slave gardens in the West Indies demonstrated that the food supply of the islanders, master, free or slave, often depended on the bounty of the gardens or larger provisional lands of the slaves. The literary record analyzed in the second chapter provides an historical snapshot of the gardens. Here she uses "plantocratic" sources--writings that emanated from the owners of or visitors to West Indian plantations.

     Visual representations of Eighteenth-century aristocratic society was usually done in the form of a "conversation piece"—a representation of a family in a garden setting, often with a large manor house or hall in the background. Thus, the chapter heading "Land, Labor and the English Garden Conversation Piece in India" underlines the value of land for Englishmen, that labor is done by the invisible other, and that social and economic status must be documented in such a "conversation piece." Some social climbers were willing to do almost anything in order to achieve the wealth necessary to buy a manor and order the painting. Often, corruption took place in the colonies, especially in India. Tobin offers the example of one colonial administrator of Bengal, who was subject to impeachment proceedings and the ire of Edmund Burke who accused him for being as corrupt as the Mughal rulers as they were depicted by contemporary Orientalists.

     As for Orientalism, Tobin uses the example of the illustrator William Hodges, whose travel writings and landscape paintings from Eighteenth-century India helped to fortify the British notion that all that was there belonged to the distant past. In his landscape paintings he falsely depicted the still fortified and manned Mughal castles as deserted ruins. Hodges, a mere illustrator, had his eye on a nomination to the Royal Academy of Art.

     Hodges' visual spin appeared again when he was taken on by Captain Cook for the famous "Voyage towards the South Pole and Around the World." In this chapter, Tobin develops her considerable skill as a scholar in her analysis of Cook's logs, journals and final publication, as well as Hodges's illustrations from the South Seas. Because Hodges was bent on getting into the Royal Academy, he applied the classical strictures of Joshua Reynolds to his depictions of South Sea islanders as white-bearded and robed for meeting the British explorers on the beach. In this chapter, Tobin also describes how Cook, in order to live up to the norms of the higher classes, allowed his logs and journals to be transmogrified into abstractions of Enlightenment writing. In both the visual and written records, the landscapes are emptied of people.

     In her final chapter, Tobin examines the cult of botany in England. She discusses Linnéan botany, social gatherings and one-upmanship based on the display of botanical rarities, and specially built "stoves" (greenhouses) or herbariums for housing exotic plants. Again, the skilled horticulturists who maintained the "stoves," the herbariums, and the gardens are invisible, like the South Sea horticulturists or the slave gardeners. It is the aristocratic collectors, with their noses in botanical books, guiding guests through their "stoves," or picnicking in their parks who suppose themselves to be the masters of nature.

     From James Thomson's Eighteenth-century poem "Rule Britannica" to Michelle Cliff's late twentieth-century novel Abeng introduced in the epilogue, Tobin discusses the British colonial project through various forms of literature, visual arts and gardens, and finally ends with Mrs. Freeman's Jamaican garden, the skills of kitchen gardeners, and the bounty they create in Cliff's novel. Tobin makes use of extensive and varied source material and in her introduction describes her methods of analyzing them. Her book seems addressed to fellow scholars, but not just to those in literature and art history. She also deals with economic and cultural history in the broad framework of the British Empire in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries.

     For teachers of World History there is much in Tobin's book that can be developed into lessons at the secondary and college levels. Much can be pulled from the introduction, including Marxist analysis. The georgics named in Chapter 1 could be used for a discussion of "myths of Arcadia." The idea that Europeans arrived in naturally bountiful regions empty of skilled farmers or horticulturists remains in dire need of discussion. The genre paintings of Agostino Brunius that first appear in the introduction can be found in color on the web. These provide another approach to the colonial idea, visual source analysis, and the understanding of the value of slave gardens in the West Indies. Chapter 6 provides ideas and sources for cross-curricular lessons in scientific method, social history, and botany. The illustrations done by Hodges in India and the South Seas, as well as Captain Cook's documents, are also possible sources for discussion of colonialism.


Carol Adamson
Emeritus, Stockholm International School


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