Botany, Explorations, & Imperialism
Anik Khan, Nicole Davis, Ben Goldberg, Meng Qi, Tobias Hoffmann, and Taylor Williams


The Romantic Age was a time known for great scientific discovery in Britain and throughout the world; it was at this time that botany emerged onto the scene as not only an intriguing new study, but also as a force that changed the world. Although the general perception of British botanical ventures in the Romantic Era is viewed as solely imperialistic in nature, there are also several non-imperialistic effects that the British explorations brought to its growing empire in the colonies as well as Britain itself. Without the artistic portrayals of this new scientific craze by Darwin, Cowper, and other influential Romantic writers and poets of the day, botany would not have had as great of an impact on English society as it did between the years 1750 and 1850. Britain’s interest in botany sparked with the voyage of the HMS Endeavour, specifically Banks’s observations in Botany Bay, as well as his visits to the neighboring Pacific islands such as Tahiti and New Zealand. However, this fountainhead of botanical research was not confined nearly to the Pacific. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain’s sphere of influence even reached the shores of India, leading to some interesting effects that botany had on the people, society, and economy of their colonies as well as Britain itself.


British Flower Garden British Flower Garden

These artworks from Robert Sweet's The British Flower Garden (1823-1829) demonstrate the meticulous attention to detail that went to capturing the aesthetics of a plant. This quality of work represents a fascination English society held about botany.

India India

These illustrations are examples of the plants in India. The image on the left is of a Loranthus plant from the Journal of Botany, British and Foreign. On the right is an image of a Ipomoea indica which is also a popular plant in India.

Endeavor Voyage Endeavor Voyage

During Joseph Bank's Endeavor Voyage, hundreds of species of plants were beautifully illustrated. These two, Deplanchea Tetraphylla (left), found in the Endeavor River in Australia, and Xylomelum pyriforme, also found in Australia, are drawn by Frederick Polydore Nodder and John Frederick Miller, respectively.

Endeavor Voyage Endeavor Voyage

Clianthus Puniceus (left) found in Tegadu Bay, Tolaga Bay, Motu Aro (also all locations in New Zealand) is drawn by Daniel Mackenzie. Sophora tetraptera, found in Teoneroa, Tegadu Bay, Tolaga Bay (all locations in New Zealand) is drawn by Gerald Sibelius.

British Botany and Its Effects Around the World

Pacific Explorations

The Romantic Period from the years 1750 to 1850 saw an immense growth in the size of the British Empire which perhaps coincidentally correlated with the blossoming of scientific discovery. The launching of the HMS Endeavour in August 1768 from Plymouth, England marked the beginning of a voyage of discovery both in terms of imperialistic pursuits and scientific curiosity, specifically regarding botany. The question is: were these two rationales working cooperatively to ultimately achieve the goals of the British monarchy, or was science the true motive behind the voyage? On April 29, 1770, Captain Cook and the botanists, Joseph Banks
A depiction of Captain Cook's Landing at Botany Bay
and Daniel Solander, went ashore what is now called Botany Bay, Australia. The land was amazingly diverse, consisting of a vast number of new species of flora which Banks and Solander accounted for earnestly, but the very naming of the area from “Stingray Harbour” to “Botany Bay” could provide insight into its significance to England. Paul Carter, in The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History, introduces the opinions of three historian archivists, Watson, Bonwick, and Beaglehole, regarding possible underlying motives in the naming of this bay. According to Watson and Bonwick, the interpolator for the Endeavour journals, Dr. Hawkesworth, created the name “Botany Bay” in order to “prepare as interesting a narrative as he could…Thus, men of science would be gratified by the selection of the place as Botany Bay…” (10). Such an action of relabeling Stingray Harbour to fit the newfound botanical interests of the British public and current scientists would have succeeded in capturing the public’s desire to continue to gain more knowledge from such an area. Also, such scientific recognition would have increased the sense of appreciation felt by Banks and Solander, thus improving their trust and loyalty to Cook and British government in the whole (Carter 9-10). However, it is often the case that overanalyzing a situation results in misreading it. Perhaps Cook decided to alter the name because of the importance of the plant life in the area; doing so would both suit the characteristics of the land and foster a more scientific outlook on such a discovery, opposing the perception of imperialism. Beaglehole, on the other hand, takes a less “conspiracy theory” approach such that he believes the renaming of the bay is a mixed result of Cook’s personality and his journal compiler, Richard Orton. In other words, the variant forms of the name that occur in his journal are “not evidence of tampering”, but rather “reveal a process of conscious revision” that occurred inside Cook’s mind (11-12). Margarette Lincoln addresses Carter’s views of botany as imperialistic in her Science and Exploration in the Pacific: European Voyages to the Southern Oceans in the Eighteenth Century which sheds light on the Linnaean system of classification used by Banks and Solander. Lincoln argues that although Carter’s claims that the Linnaean system of classification is characteristic of European colonization such that there was a certain “pleasure” felt by scientists when naming specimens, similar to that of the imperial historian “who assimilates occasions and anomalies to the logic of universal reason”, botany as a whole cannot be labeled as imperialistic based upon the use of Linnaean methods which were used in this specific time and situation. The act of naming plants on land that was not yet possessed by Britain is interpreted as a form of conquest such that the “universal” botanical nomenclature was inherently European; by naming it, they then own it (Lincoln 194). An additional resource to be considered in accordance with
"The First Parliament of Botany Bay in High Debate" (A satirical cartoon about the difficult colonization of Botany Bay)
this debate is the journal of Captain Tench, a British marine officer who surveyed the Botany Bay area in 1789 to judge its qualities for future settlement. Tench concluded that the bay proved highly undesirable for settling. He and his crew agreed that if not for Cook’s highly concise set of coordinates, they would have mistaken it for somewhere else, because along the sea coast they “did not find 200 acres which could be cultivated” (138). Such a testament supports the argument that the naming of Botany Bay was not for underlying colonialist motives, but rather in honor of the flora diversity that existed there, as the name suggests. The exploration of Botany Bay was brought to the public not only by the publication of journals from the expedition, but also through the pen of prominent poets at the time. Barron Field’s poem, “Botany-Bay Flowers”, portrays botanists not as doers of good, but instead as scientists who dissect and dry their plants “Till all their blood and beauty are extinct” (Field line 11). The speaker blames the botanist, or “the Bard of Truth”, for classifying and thus constraining the immortal beauty a flower possesses, “ Botanic Science calls/ The plant epacris grandiflora, gives/ Its class,/ description, habitat, then draws/ A line” (Field 26-9). The speaker, perhaps Field himself, views the classification of plants in Botany Bay as depreciating a flower’s worth, however, scientifically studying the complexities of flora actually creates more opportunities for appreciation by poet and scientist alike.

Botany in India

Although Australia, the Pacific, and Botany Bay proved to be important botanic imperial expeditions for Britain, India was also a cornerstone for botanic discoveries. Most of these botanical discoveries were headed by influential men such as Nathaniel Wallich and William Griffith. Both Wallich, who was originally from Denmark but lived in England, and Griffith ventured to India due to their
Ixora Bandhuca from Flora Indica. This plant was infuential in Indian botany and inspired many Indian poets, showing the significance of botany to the British colony.
loyalty to the East India Company, an international trade industry for British empirical empowerment, and their interest in botanical findings (Campbell-Culver 1). Richard Axelby goes into depth about this in his article, "Calcutta Botanic Garden and the Colonial Re-ordering of the Indian Environment", where he addresses the generic roles in which Wallich and Griffith played in expanding British rule through botany. Although Axelby discusses the negative relationships and the integrity of these two historical botanists as well as how they both affected India, he does not consider the contributions of both Wallich and Griffith working together and how they used their specific botanical findings to expand the power of the British empire. Axelby states “he [Griffith] shared an uneasy relationship with Nathaniel Wallich” (Axelby 155). Even though Wallich and Griffith may have had a rough friendship due to their conflicts of interests, Axelby fails to discuss that Wallich and Griffith actually found some plants species together which shows that they had worked together or had conversed for some period of time. In Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker’s work, The Flora of British India, he mentions several plant and insect species that were transplanted and taken back to England founded by both men; some of these species included L. rhopalocarpus, E. cristata, and L. ferrugineus (Hooker 210). Axelby also quotes Wight in the Calcutta Journal of Natural History saying Griffith was “the greatest botanist that ever set foot in India”, but does not support this with any substantial and specific evidence besides that Griffith classified 9,000 species for Britain (Axelby 155). He also goes into depth with similar facts about Wallich stating how he had many botanic talents that led him to pursue his work but without any specific achievements Wallich or Griffith made for the English empire (153). In Sir George King’s, A Sketch of the History of Indian Botany, King notes that Griffith was responsible for finding some of England’s most prominent plants for agriculture including different strands of tea and santalum that are credited in his own book, Transactions of Linnean Society (King 908). It can be drawn from the conclusion that since Griffith founded several different branches of commercial plants and was involved in the East India Company, he helped expand the British economy thus increasing Britain’s empirical power. The resources found in India were able to be shipped back to Britain when the East India Company needed extra resources for transplants (Bowen 48). In the Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, plants such as Loranthus that were restricted to India at the time became so familiar in Europe that they were given nicknames (Britten 460). Through both completely commercial and botanical means, the British empire was expanded by the collection of botanical plants. The efforts from Wallich and Griffith helped make India a prominent place for botanic discoveries and made several plant species known world wide. England became highly affected by the botanical findings and expeditions that Wallich and Griffith conducted in India.

Significance of British Botany

Britain’s thorough study of plants not only affected the native lands of the plants collected, but the country itself benefited from these botanical expeditions. With the new influx of imported plants, the British used a relatively new invention to care for and cultivate the exotic flora that would’ve otherwise died in Britain’s harsh winters. The greenhouse was essential for the proliferation of imported botany in Britain, even gaining mention in William Cowper’s poem, “The Task” in 1807. Cowper describes the “golden boast of Portugal and Western India” as being protected from the wind and snow, and “smil[ing] at what they need not fear” (Cowper 80). Perhaps the more famous, and controversial, poem about plants was “The Botanic Garden”, written by Erasmus Darwin in 1798. While the second part of his poem, The Loves of the Plants, focuses on the sexual innuendos of botany, Darwin uses poetry to connect the Kew Botanic Gardens to imperialism in the first part named The Economy of Vegetation. Darwin describes the Kew Garden as “Imperial Kew” which “sits ’d in vegetable pride” by the river Thames’s “glittering side” (Darwin lines 591-2). The wording of these lines is significant as
Paeonia Corallina from English Botany illustrated by James Sowerby
his description of the garden is similar to that of an empire, which Britain was at the time. The many varieties of plants and flowers in the garden represent not only the lands that Britain has explored, but in many cases the ones they have begun to colonize. The next stanza of Darwin’s poem takes into account the fostering of the plants which involves “plant[ing] the young bulb, inhum[ing] the living seed” and “prop[ping] the weak stem” (597-9). As Darwin points out, the well-being of the garden required constant maintenance such as planting, pruning, and reaping. Similarly, controlling an empire required the British government to undergo processes of planting seeds of nations, pruning the unnecessary resources of colonies, and reaping the benefits of their expansion. If it weren’t for the prominent British botanists of the day, these gardens would not have existed. They possessed certain knowledge essential for the transplantation and cultivation of the plants in the land. These botanists included John Hill who introduced the Linnaean system of classification to England, William Curtis who published Flora Londinensis which catalogued all plants around London, George Brookshaw who published the grandiose book of esteemed fruits cultivated in Great Britain, and Robert Sweet who was a horticulturalist, working at many botanical nurseries (The Art of Botanical Illustration). Along with the botanists, their illustrators played an enormous role by sketching the plants found on expeditions and elsewhere. Sydney Parkinson’s illustrations on the Endeavor voyage, James Sowerby’s English Botany, and Sydenham Teast Williams’s Botanical Magazine illustrations were quite valuable to the study of plants (The Art of Botanical Illustration).


British botanic expeditions were made all around the world but the most influential discoveries were founded in India, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. At first, botany seems to have been just a recreational science at the home front but it soon shaped into a more sophisticated role for British society. Due to the accessibility of the botanical science, everyone could gain access and get involved in its study. From the Endeavor voyages to Wallich and Griffith’s discoveries, Britain’s botanical influence was evident globally. Observations, taxonomy, commercial trading and transplants were just some of the ways Britain was able to expand its territorial and financial power as well as its intellectual scientific studies. Territorially, Botany Bay could easily be seen as an English imperial conquest just from its renaming, but after more in-depth review, that may not be the case. Due to Griffith’s and Wallich’s classifications of thousands of species in India, they were able to use this as a financial advantage for the East India Company while also adding to Britain's collection of known plant species. By taxonomizing and using the Linnaean classification system, botany was revolutionized from a form of entertainment or art into a science that needed precise data collection and specific knowledge to carry out certain procedures. Through these means, Britain was able to pursue and fund other botanical expeditions in Tahiti and New Zealand. Erasmus Darwin and other poets became interested in this scientific field as its popularity grew exponentially, as shown through their poetry. The influence of Britain’s explorations in botany gave them a huge advantage in being able to change the world empirically. Since Britain was so invested in the study, they were able to shape the people, societies, and economies of the world.



  1. Griffeth, William. Posthumous Paper Bequeathed to the Honorable the East India Company. Calcutta: Bishop’s College Press. 1847.
  2. Hardwicke, Robert. Journal of botany: British and foreign. London: West, Newman, and Co. 1899.
  3. King, Sir George. “A Sketch of the History of Indian Botany.” A Report of the 69th Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. 1899.
  4. Erasmus Darwin. “The botanic garden: A poem, in two parts.” New York: T.&J. Swords. 1798.
  5. Cowper, William. “The Task”. Piccadilly: John Sharpe, 1817.
  6. Field, Barron. "Botany-Bay Flowers." Old Poetry. 1817. Web. 1 May 2011. <>.
  7. Tench, Watkin. "A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales." Literary and biographical magazine, and British review 1793: 138.


  1. Lincoln, Margarette. Science and Exploration in the Pacific: European Voyages to the Southern Oceans in the Eighteenth Century. Boydell & Brewer, 2001.
  2. Carter, Paul. The Road to Botany: An Exploration of Landscape and History. 1987. U of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  3. Bowen, H.V. The Business of Empire: the East India company and Imperial Britain. London: Cambridge University Press. 2006.
  4. Oliver, Francis Wall. Makers of British Botanists. London: Cambridge University Press: 1913.
  5. Axelby, Richard. “Calcutta Botanic Garden and the colonial re-ordering of the Indian environment.” Archives of natural history. 35(1): 150-163. 2008.


  1. Redouté, Pierre-Joseph. Les Roses. Paris: C. L. F. Panckoucke, 1824.
  2. Sweet, Robert. The British Flower Garden : containing coloured figures & descriptions of the most ornamental & curious hardy herbaceous plants. 1783-1835.
  3. Smith, E.D. Drawings. London: Published for the author by W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1823-1829.
  4. Route of Endeavor's first voyage. London: Natural History Museum. 2011.
  5. Nodder, Frederick Polydore. Deplanchea Tetraphylla. The Endeavor Botanical Illustrations. Australia: Natural History Museum, 1889.
  6. Miller, John Frederick. Xylomelum Pyriforme. The Endeavor Botanical Illustrations. Australia: Natural History Museum, 1809.
  7. Mackenzie, Daniel. Clianthus Puniceus. The Endeavor Botanical Illustrations. New Zealand: Natural History Museum.
  8. Sibelius, Gerald. Sophora Tetraptera. The Endeavor Botanical Illustrations. New Zealand: Natural History Museum.
  9. Roxburgh, William. Ixora Bandhuca. Flora Indica. Seramphore: Mission Press.1820.
  10. Burman, Nicolaas Laurens. Ipomoea Indica. 1842.
  11. Sowerby, William. Paeonia Corallina. English Botany. Wilks and Taylor, Chancery Lane. 1802.
  12. The First Parliament of Botany Bay in High Debate. 1787.

Additional Reading

Key Word: Indian Botany

Ixora Bandhuca Image: This primary source displays the Ixora Bandhuca plant of India. Even before the first Westerner set eyes on this flower, it already permeated much of Indian literature. When British explorers came across the Ixora Bandhuca, they gave it the name of Jungle-Geranium. Because the nativesvalued this plant so highly, English botanists visiting India were confronted by many samples of the flower in the local culture which they encountered.
Posthumous Papers Bequeathed to the Honorable the East India Company: This primary source is a series of paper written by William Griffith about specific plant species that he discovered during his expedition that was sponsored by the East India Company. A detailed section of the flower and the development of its organs of particular plants, such as the development of the ovulum and stamen is explained as well.
The Flora of British India: This primary source is a book that is about the various different plants in British plants. it seeks to categorized all these plants, describing them in very specific ways through their appearance, their reproductive cycles, and the number of plants available. It is interesting to note the amount of detail and knowledge that encompasses this categorization.
Flora Indica: Descriptions of Indian Plants: This secondary sources discusses William Roxburgh's botanical study Flora Indica in great detail, focusing on many of the plants that Roxburgh describes. Included in this list are various types of indigo, which were of great importance to the British colonialists who grew indigo in great abundance in India as a cash crop. Descriptions of Indian Plants also features historical images of many of the plants that Roxburgh talks about in his botanical reference book.
Calcutta Botanic Garden and colonial re-ordering of the Indian environment: This secondary source explicitly uses three maps of the Calcutta Botanic Garden to illustrate the functions of the garden and the evolution of the garden, and how that seemed to better explain the changing views of science and nature during the Romantic period. In many respects, the extension of European power, particularly that of the British Empire, was immensely tied the activities of botanists. A detailed section of important India botanists like Nathaniel Wallich and William Griffith who were in charge and involved with Calcutta Botanic Garden and India is also included.

Key Word: Colonialism/Imperialism

An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the Colonies of South Carolina and Georgia: This primary source, written by Alexander Hewatt, gives examples of the advantages that come with being a colony of the British Empire. Focusing specifically on the new world colonies of Georgia and South Carolina, Hewatt states, among other things, that British colonial life offers both safety and wealth to the colonists, since they can depend on trade with the mother country and the support of its fleets and troops.
The First Parliament of Botany Bay on High Debate: This primary source displays a political cartoon from the Romantic period, portraying the public sentiments about the current government in the Botany Bay colony. Because the colony had many difficulties when it was first founded, which mainly concerned early farming efforts and “civilizing” the natives near the settlement, many people thought the colonial government was doing a bad job of providing a save haven for colonists.
The British Review: A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson: By Captain Watkin Tench. This primary source is the personal Account of Captain Tench of the the British Marines, who lived in the Botany Bay colony for over four years. In it, he describes the colony's early farming efforts and the natives surrounding the settlements. Included in the account are also mentions of a small pox epidemic that broke out among the natives, as well as various building projects that were undertaken while Tench was there.
Science and Exploration in the Pacific. By Margarette Lincoln: This secondary source describes various voyages to Pacific islands during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, highlighting the reasons of the voyages and who undertook them. The main focus are the Endeavour voyages of Joseph Banks and Captain James Cook, including the astronomical and botanical reasons for the trip. The transportation of plants from one continent to another are also briefly discussed, focusing on the political and logistical problems associated with it.
The Road to Botany Bay An Exploration of Landscape and History. By Paul Carter: This secondary source is about the colonization of Botany Bay as well as the motives behind the colony's naming. Due to conflicting reports gained from the journals of various early expeditions to Botany Bay, the actual reason behind the name remain unclear. Many historians believe that Cook's intention was to acknowledge the scientists' involvement aboard the Endeavor, while others think that Cook was trying to gain the favor of Joseph Banks, one of the most influential scientists in England at the time.

Key Word: British Botany

The Task. By William Cowper: This primary source is that of the blank verse masterpiece, “The Task”, which was in many respects William Cowper’s crowning achievement. The six highly descriptive books of “The Task” demonstrate his poetic expression on various subjects of importance during that time period, including nature, society, and man. Of particular interest is his interpretation of one of his books called “The Garden” which responds warmly to the blessings of nature and that of the garden.
Manual of British Botany: This primary source is a field guide for the both the hobby and the professional botanist in England, written by Daniel Chambers Macreight. It discusses various classification techniques for plants utilized at the time, including the number of stamens and petals in the flower. This manual also includes descriptions of many common plants found in British gardens, and around the country side, in addition to some non-native plant species brought to England via previous explorations.
The botanic garden. By Erasmus Darwin: This primary source is a set of two poems that was intended on popularizing and educating the Linnean system of plants. It embraces Linnaeus's sexualized language, and celebrates scientific discovery and innovation. It was one of the first popular science books, especially considering the popular of botany during the eighteenth century.
Joseph Banks and the continuing influence of European colonization on Australian herbal practice: This secondary source discusses the procedure of bringing medicinal herbs from England to Botany Bay colony to Australia. It mentions problems that occurs in terms of the transportation of the plants brought from across the sea (they died easily) as well as what types of plants were exported over. Sir Joseph Banks was in charge of choosing the plants for cultivation in the new colony Australia.
The Art of Botanical Illustration Scientific Botany: This secondary source discusses more specifically the revolution of the botanical illustration and how the Linnaean system changed the focus of botanical images from the whole plant to the flower alone. It then precedes to include several visual examples of botanical images, where you can explicitly see the evolution of the illustrations.
Erasmus Darwin’s Cosmopolitan Nature: This secondary source discusses the controversial Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden and how his poetry really represents the commercial ideals of eighteenth century British society. Darwin’s idea of nature in his poetry seems to greatly address the cosmopolitan culture and legacy of the British Empire, considering its emergence as an imperial nation during the Romantic age.