Decolonisation of Botany

Fragments allow for insights into a hierarchical “culture of collaboration” (Jacobs 2006: 569). Barber depended on African and Dutch expertise in her local knowledge network. While boundaries were strictly controlled, this did not prevent an interchange of information. Everyday practices testify that colonial botany was “the grounds for intimate as well as instrumentalist politics” (ibid: 599). The collected information from her local knowledge networks of Afrikaners, amaXhosa and KhoiSan was adapted to Western conventions and circulated in a cosmopolitan knowledge network. She ignored the cultural significance of plants and the circulation of informal plant knowledge in songs, poems, rituals and other forms. Her approach to nature was utilitarian and she formalized information to that would help her building a reputation as a naturalist. The information she forwarded in her cosmopolitan knowledge network was further negotiated, as the next blog post shows.

Barber’s type specimens at various institutions have been digitised as part of The African Plant Initiative that was initiated at the Association for the Taxonomic Study of the Flora of Tropical Africa meeting in Addis Ababa in September 2003 and funded by the American Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Herbaria worldwide were requested to scan their type specimens of African plants and to make them accessible for the interested public on the digital library ALUKA. This name derived from the Zulu word meaning ‘to weave’, which was chosen to reflect the “commitment to connect resources [in and about Africa] and scholars from around the world.” The open access platform consisted of three sections (African Plants, Cultural Heritage and Struggles for Freedom) and made visuals and textual sources in English, French and Portuguese available. African Plants consisted of “high resolution images of type specimens, photographs, drawings, handwritten field notes by Europeans and explorers such as David Livingstone, botanical art, and taxonomic and reference data” (Masinde and Rajan 2010: 88). The digitalization of letters started with the Directors’ Correspondence at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew London, thus reproducing the ‘colonial archive’, before making other historical sources from different parts of the world accessible.(1) In addition, its accompanying JSTOR Plants Blog focused on how Africans used plants for musical instruments and other cultural purposes while Western naturalists described them ‘scientifically’, thus strengthening the dichotomy between informal and formalized knowledge. (2)

In February 2007, ALUKA released its digital library in conjunction with the XVIII Congress of the Association for the Taxonomic Study of the Flora of Tropical Africa held in Youndé, Cameroon. In 2008, ALUKA became part of JSTOR, another project funded by the Mellon Foundation. The data available under African Plants on ALUKA – among them Barber’s and her relatives’ type specimens – became part of JSTOR Plant Science in 2008 and could be accessed by people at institutions with a JSTOR licence. Herbaria that had scanned their specimens were granted free access. In May 2013, JSTOR Plant Science was renamed JSTOR Global Plants. In the process, the African specimens that were first available to people interested in Africa, then to plant scientists, eventually became “global” and available to everyone interested in plants.  It is a prime example  for how interdisciplinary collaboration is required, as this project is a missed chance to create an archive that was also relevant for historians of botany not just botanists.

With the name change to JSTOR Global Plants the interface became less user-friendly and the access policy changed. JSTOR-clients could now only access miniatures of the high-resolution photographs. In October 2013, the 308 partner institutions in 75 countries that had scanned their specimens since 2003 received an email (as several botanists have told me). They were informed that the American Literary Association’s Choice magazine had named JSTOR Global Plants one of the Top 10 Resources in 2013. At the same time the email announced that their licence would expire within eighty days and that they had to pay a new annual licence fee. This fee goes up to $3,800.

JSTOR Global Plants allows researchers to locate information and offers enormous possibilities for botanists and historians of botany, but it restricts access to a limited amount of sources. It misses the chance to historicize the botanical knowledge production; it ‘re-colonizes’ botanical information and ‘re-silences’ historical actors in the former colonies. As such it strengthens the Great Divide between ‘the West and the Rest’. The decolonization of science takes time and this topic requires our attention.


(1) In general, botany seems to experience an Americanization, as the Index Herbariorum is based at the New York Botanical Garden, the Biodiversity Heritage Library that – similar to San Francisco based – allows open access to important botanical works in the history of natural history is based at the Smithsonian Institute Washington and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

(2) URL (accessed 7 November 2013): (no longer available).


N. Jacobs, The Intimate Politics of Ornithology in Colonial Africa, Comparative Studies in Society and History 48: 3 (2006): 564–603.

S. Masinde, R. S. Rajan, Aluka : Developing Digital Scholarly Collections From and About Africa, Africa Media Review 18 :1&2 (2010): 85–93.

Einen ähnlichen deutschen Blog-Eintrag habe ich am 24. November 2013 unter “Intransparent Privatisierung des Wissens” auf Zeitnah geschrieben.