With this book, Timothy Barnard continues to pioneer the field of Singaporean environmental history. Author of the edited anthology, Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore (NUS Press, 2014), Barnard weaves together histories of nature, science, and colonialism to produce an insightful study of the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG). Barnard contends that, following its founding in 1859, the SBG became a key site for “imperial botany,” a branch of science that sought to further the aims of empire through investigation of the floral world (p. 3). Playing off Richard Drayton’s scholarship, which describes London’s famous Kew Gardens as the center of “nature’s government,” Barnard dubs the SBG “nature’s colony” (pp. 5, 7). Using this framework, he reveals how the SBG initially served as a Southeast Asian outpost for the Kew Gardens before a greater degree of independence in the early twentieth century allowed for the pursuit of more self-directed research agendas. Barnard adopts a chronological structure, allowing him to examine how scientific imperatives, government agendas, economic motivations, environmental variables, class and race prejudices, and individual personalities shaped the course of imperial botany at the SBG. He presents the story of an institution that frequently teetered on the brink of ruin but always righted itself, making significant research contributions along the way. Barnard reveals that the SBG began life, not primarily as a research institution, but as a private park for the overwhelmingly white and affluent membership of Singapore’s Agri-Horticultural Society. In the 1870s, with the society facing a funding crunch, the government of the Straits Settlements took control of the SBG. They opened the grounds to the public and brought in a series of directors with connections to Kew. Yet despite the efforts of figures like Nathaniel Cantley and Henry Nicholas Ridley to serve colony and empire by researching local forest conservation techniques, they continuously ran up against government funding shortages. A short-lived zoo at the SBG, in which according to Barnard, animal displays served as metaphors for imperial control, also failed to generate sufficient revenues. By the late nineteenth century, the nearly insolvent SBG considered ceasing scientific research altogether. But then Ridley used the grounds to help prove that Brazilian rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) could thrive in Southeast Asia, and he set up the SBG as a major distributor of seeds to aspirant rubber planters in the region. Shipping out more than seven million seeds in total, the SBG played a key role in developing Southeast Asia’s rubber industry. In the early twentieth century, under the directorship of Isaac Henry Burkill, the SBG developed more independent research initiatives. Among the most enduring was an orchid hybridization program that continues today and has helped make Singapore a center for cut flower production. Demonstrating how the SBG continued to operate within a global botanical network, one of these orchid hybrids, the Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim,’ has not only become Singapore’s national flower, but has also served as the main flower in Hawaiian leis since the 1920s. Yet the SBG still faced one last crisis. With Singapore achieving independence in 1965, the gardens increasingly appeared as outdated relics of colonial rule. Despite efforts to make the SBG the research center for Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of a Garden City, the site had become little more than a park by the mid-1980s. At that point a new director, Tan Wee Kiat, reinvigorated the SBG as a research institute, and also proposed and supervised the creation of Singapore’s iconic Gardens by the Bay development, whose spectacular multistory artificial trees are now among the nation’s most recognizable landmarks. Nature’s Colony may not substantially modify the overarching narrative of imperial botany, as established by earlier scholarship, although this book does identify some intriguing new stories and connections. But Barnard does make an important revision to the prevailing story of Singapore’s national history. Many works note that Singapore’s ideal geographic situation allowed the port city to become, first, a thriving British colony, and second, a wealthy independent nation. But Barnard’s research on the SBG reminds us that the trade goods that brought the West and East together in Singapore were not simply lying in wait. They often had to be translocated, selectively bred, or hybridized, and the staff of the SBG played key roles in these processes. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 10, 2018
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