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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Economic Botany Outlives the Empire

National Post, 4 January 2001

For well over a century, one of the most unusual collections of aboriginal Canadian artifacts has lain undisturbed—and largely unknown—in London’s Royal Botanic Gardens. There are no totem poles, no ceremonial masks, no deerhide cloaks, and no decorative fur-lined moccasins. Nothing, in fact, that museums traditionally display to showcase the public and ceremonial life of Canada’s First Nations.

Rather, there are ropes and nets, dried food and simple games—over a hundred artifacts reflecting the practical, commonplace, and thus often forgotten, details of 19th-century aboriginal life in Canada.

“It is an important collection,” says Dr. Laura Peers, a Canadian authority on the Ojibwa of western Canada. Now at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, Peers recently became aware of the collection. “It is an unusually early collection of aboriginal artifacts, and it has a deeply human quality that is often absent from larger collections.”

How the Gardens—or “Kew,” as it is often known—managed to assemble such a collection makes for a curious story. The artifacts represent just a tiny fraction of some 76,000 items that make up Kew’s “Economic Botany Collections.” Established by Sir William Hooker in 1841, the collections were begun as part of a larger effort by British authorities to provide an economic justification for its expanding empire during the nineteenth century.

“Many individuals were trying to demonstrate that the colonies were economically feasible,” explains the Centre’s Director, Hew Prendergast. “Kew’s fundamental role was to understand plants; and plants became a fundamental justification for spending money in farflung areas of empire.” When plantation owners in the Southeast Asian tropics began dying of malaria, British authorities smuggled in South American Cinchona seeds, whose bark was a source for quinine. British diplomats posted abroad considered it a duty to collect plants that might have some kind of economic benefit.

A similar motivation lay behind the Palliser Expedition of 1857-60. Its members travelled by canoe and horseback through Hudson’s Bay Company territories from Lake Superior to the Okanagan Valley, in an effort to assess the potential for economic and agricultural development. One of its members was the great French botanist, Eugène Bourgeau (1813-77). Pudgy, amiable, and indefatigable, Bourgeau would collect over a thousand plant specimens during his travels. In doing so, he also became one of Canada’s earliest anthropologists.

“In most cases, Bourgeau gave the tribal provenance of the plant, as well as the date and the place he collected it from,” explains Barbara Ozimec, a Canadian botanist currently researching the collection. Ms. Ozimec takes me to the chilly room where most of the artifacts are stored.

Spread out on a table, the artifacts look disappointingly humble. A few bulbs of wild garlic are in a paper box, some tea leaves in another. Some shriveled red berries rest next to a slip of paper with some faded handwriting in French. In his small, neat script, Bourgeau writes that the berries were recovered from the gut of a pheasant, and were eaten by Crees “along with the [pheasant’s] flesh.” A small amber-coloured lump is identified as pine tree resin collected in 1858 near Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan. It is chewed, Bourgeau elaborates, “par les Métis et les Sauvages.”

It’s clear that Bourgeau’s sauvages were studying him just as closely. Native craftspeople were just beginning to contribute to the fledgling souvenir industry, and Bourgeau collected some spectacular examples of this hybrid culture. Serving trays and chairbacks were adorned with English floral designs worked with dyed porcupine quills. A birch-bark cup is clearly modelled after metal cups used by fur traders and white settlers. Ms. Ozimec’s favorite example is a small bowl woven from the leaves of an iris. “It’s so tightly plaited that it could hold water,” she says, holding it in her hands. “Look at the ingenuity of it.”

But Bourgeau’s collection pales in comparison with what follows—dozens of artifacts gathered at the turn of the century by the great English collector and physician, Charles Newcombe. Newcombe is famous for his travels among abandoned West Coast native villages, many of which had been devastated by smallpox. Newcombe roamed among the Haida and Salish Indians, purchasing artifacts wherever he could find them. His work is most spectacularly on display at Victoria’s Royal British Columbia Museum, which possesses thousands of artifacts, photos, and notebooks.

“Thank goodness for Newcombe,” says University of Victoria Professor Nancy Turner, an authority on west-coast aboriginal plant use. “His work is priceless now, and without him, many aspects of native industry would simply be forgotten.” But Professor Turner observes that most museum collections “focus on the grandiose, on the culture of the elite. Very few document the lives of ordinary people.”

Newcombe certainly saved more than his share of totem poles from vandals and thieves—one of the poles he purchased is even on display at the British Museum. But what remains at Kew has a quieter expressiveness. Ms. Ozimec shows me a set of carved wooden Haida gambling sticks, with an accompanying hide pouch. A canoe bailer carved out of red alder still has adze marks visible.

But what botanists, anthropologists, and contemporary natives find most fascinating are the myriad uses of plant fiber. Red cedar bark was a particularly fruitful source. Nuu-Chah-Nulth Indians on the west coast of Vancouver island found a solution to a perennial west-coast complaint by weaving raincloaks from it. Haidas used it to roof their houses and build shelters. Mowachaht whalers stripped the bark from young cedar twigs and twisted them, creating a sturdy rope. Salish fishermen wove nets out of hemp or nettles, depending on what was more plentiful. A century later, the nets remain strong and resilient.

Such a collection has come to light at an important moment, as native Canadians are increasingly laying claim to artifacts that have been stored and displayed in museums for decades. And Newcombe’s artifacts have been particularly important. As one Haida representative told Beautiful BC magazine in 1997, “Because of collectors like Newcombe, there are samples of our ancestors’ way of life that can be used to teach future generations of Haida once [those artifacts] are returned to us.”

For now, Kew representatives seem unconcerned about the potential loss of their investment. “The possibility of reclaiming is unlikely,” explains curator Naomi Rumble, “since the artifacts are so humble.”

Director Prendergast agrees, but argues that such humble artifacts have much to teach us about culture and conservation. “Think of a basket made of sedge,” he says. “If the plant is threatened with extinction, then the basket goes as well. If, on the other hand, people find it too tedious to make the baskets, then both basket and plants might disappear, since the wetland has less of an economically viable future. The basket becomes a symbol of conservation—not just biologically, but culturally as well.”

It is a delicious irony. Kew’s Economy Botany Collections, no longer an instrument of British imperialism, might now be promoting a native Canadian cultural renaissance.