Jerusha Westbury

  • Fellowship year:2011-2012
  • University: New York University
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Atlantic
  • Dissertation Title: Marvelous and Monstrous: The Thorny Problem of Control in Atlantic Colonial Botany
  • The late eighteenth century saw a proliferation of imperial projects intended to introduce commodity production into new areas or to further 'rationalize' the exploitation of existing resources. These projects have commonly been understood as reflecting the confluence between processes of globalization, the development of modern science, and the exercise of European hegemony around the globe. My dissertation traces the ways in which empires and subject populations understood and attempted to use two valuable classes of New World succulents—prickly pears (spp. opuntia) and magueys (spp. agave)—during this period of imperial botanical initiatives. By mapping the production of scientific knowledge about both plants against imperial attempts to utilize the plants for commercial purposes, I examine the ambiguous outcomes of what historians call "colonial botany," when botanical initiatives met with the biological 'resistance' of the plants themselves or the creative uses made of the plants in local, pastoral, and subsistence economies. A history of empire written from the perspectives of these two plants shows that the systematization of written and scientific knowledge was often inadequate for making plants into instruments of empire, that efforts to do so failed as often as they succeeded, and that environmental change could be detrimental to the very empire that wrought it. This forces us to consider whether the story of colonial botany should be told as it often is—as an imperial (and modern) success story.