Not everyone who contributed to the plant collections at Kew was an evil racist in a pith helmet

The institution is committed to ‘decolonisation’. But why is it so hard to tell new stories about the past?

'The fact remains that Kew will not magically become more inclusive by turning heroes into villains,' writes Ambra Edwards

I am feeling murderous. I am feeling bloodthirsty. No writer likes her purple prose interfered with, and I am being told I may not use these words in a book I am writing for Kew (The Plant Hunter’s Atlas, see below).

These adjectives, I insist, are entirely accurate when applied to the actions of a band of Tibetan warrior priests who fell upon the plant explorer George Forrest and his party in Yunnan in 1905, massacring all but the fast-fleeing Scot and one porter, and hideously torturing the elderly Jesuit priests who had been Forrest’s hosts, before disembowelling and decapitating them.

But no, it seems I am guilty of using racist and offensive language. Surely I should see things from the lamas’ point of view, entirely justified in a little light eyelid-slitting and mass murder…

A few months later I visit the British Library, where I find the great 18th-century botanist Sir Joseph Banks, revered by David Attenborough as one of the most important figures in the history of British science, is now denounced (in a very tendentious new rubric by his bust in the entrance hall) as a murderer, a kidnapper and a “symbol of violence and oppression”.

James Cook in Botany Bay; botanist Sir Joseph Banks

In reaching this interpretation, Banks’ diaries, from his voyage to Australia with James Cook, are conveniently forgotten – for in these he bewails the conflict attending the attempted landings of the Endeavour’s crew in New Zealand (“the most disagreeable day my Life has yet seen”), and record his growing admiration and respect for the resourceful Maori people.

We are all learning to navigate a post-truth world, but still, it is somewhat shocking when the British Library can no longer be relied on as a source of unbiased information. In rushing to “decolonise” our great learned institutions, I can’t help thinking that would-be reformers are taking a somewhat Trumpish approach to historical fact: one curiously at odds with their usual commitment to academic rigour.

This distresses historian and garden writer (and sometime contributor to these pages) Ursula Buchan. Trained as a gardener at Kew, Buchan believes that a publicly-funded scientific institution has no business to engage in politics of any kind, and in a recent paper for Policy Exchange, a think tank, she suggests that Kew is eroding its “distinctive and invaluable reputation as a non-political, rigorously scientific resource”.

She’s all for making Kew more inclusive; but the best way to do it, she proposes, is not to spend Kew’s slender resources on PC “reinterpretation” signage, but instead to slash the ticket prices – standard adult admission is now £19.50. And while, to Kew’s credit, they have recently introduced £1 admission for people on Universal Credit, and generous concessions for local residents, that still leaves a lot of people outside the Lion Gate. When I was a young mum in the 1990s, one could buy an annual season ticket for £12 – well worth it for a 300-acre playground guaranteed free of dog poo – with the added benefit of beauty and education thrown in. Today, at £94, I couldn’t afford it.

As I was writing my book in March 2020, Kew published a 10-year “Manifesto for Change”. It included a commitment to “decolonisation”: specifically, to “acknowledge and address any exploitative or racist legacies, and develop new narratives around them”.

It was in one sense a welcome statement, as I was hard in search of new narratives. However, it seemed to assume that everyone who contributed to Kew’s collections was an evil racist in a pith helmet. On the contrary, I knew that many of the overwhelmingly white male plant explorers I was writing about admired and respected the people whose lands they visited, and eagerly sought indigenous plant knowledge, whether from Aztec shamans, Chinook warriors, Himalayan herdsmen or Japanese astronomers.

While it is fair to call out the arrogantly Eurocentric approach Western institutions have long brought to their historical narratives, we have to be careful not to be equally arrogant ourselves, wagging our fingers with the easy superiority of hindsight. Historians use the term “presentism” to denote the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. To take a frivolous illustration, consider TV depictions of medieval or Tudor England made in the 1970s and 1980s, with their peculiar diction and extraordinary hairstyles: imposing the standards and aesthetics of one time on another is clearly absurd.

More importantly, history is messy, and tangled, and contradictory – and we have to beware of a simplistic “four legs good, two legs bad” approach that lacks all nuance. For example, we can all agree that slavery was – is – abhorrent. But all great civilisations, from Ancient Egypt, Athens and Rome to Song China to 18th-century Britain, were built on slavery. Thomas Jefferson – scientist, statesman and greatest of Americans – was a slave-owner.

Left: iris forrestii; right: acer forrestii

The slave trade could not have existed without the African warlords who sold their fellow men into captivity. When I discovered that one of their victims, exported to Surinam as a child around 1700, lived to become one the few recorded black plant hunters, I was jubilant. But, awkwardly, Graman Kwasi not only enslaved others in his turn, but was rewarded by the Dutch crown for his assiduity in hunting down runaways. History is rarely clean and simple…

Who or what would benefit from recasting Banks and his ilk as wicked botanical pirates? Rather, I wanted to seek out those people who weren’t included in the familiar narrative – the unacknowledged collaborators, people of colour and women – many of whom were distinguished collectors in their own right. It proved remarkably difficult to do. I knew that a number of Kew’s directors had corresponded with various women collectors, and their letters were somewhere at Kew, as were important Islamic and Asian texts – but the resources were simply not there to find them. (Covid didn’t help.)

Unable to accesss Kew’s library online, it was quite by chance that I discovered a magnificent Japanese flora compiled by a 19th-century samurai. (Who knew that such a fearsome fighter could also be a dedicated flower fancier?)

I had rather more success finding out about current collaborative projects, notably joint ventures with botanists in South America, Madagascar and West Africa. And was glad to conclude that, in the end, actions speak louder than words.

Having quietly removed the “D-word” from its 10-year “Manifesto for Change”, it looks as though Kew is now adopting a less panicked stance on the issue, which would be a good thing. But whatever happens next, the organisation will need to be genuinely collaborative, abjuring old habits of intellectual colonialism to accept academic partners from different sides of the debate on equal terms.

Such an approach certainly makes more sense, given that Kew’s visitors (and this is the second most visited attraction in Britain), don’t appear to be much concerned about revisionist narratives: a Freedom of Information request revealed that between January 2020 and April last year, Kew received precisely four complaints related to the colonial nature of its collection and/or its interpretation – four among 1.2 million visitors.

The fact remains that Kew will not magically become more inclusive by turning heroes into villains, especially if it does so by misrepresenting their stories. But it might by telling more, and different, stories – and I’ll gladly suggest exactly where to start.