Citizen Cane: Robert Brown’s Malacca Cane

In July's 'Treasure of the Month', Glenn Benson, our Honorary Curator of Artefacts, tells the story of botanist Robert Brown's Malacca cane and how it came to our collections

Published on 25th June 2021

A man with a cane was truly a gentleman, 'who toils not, neither does he spin'. Having the capacity to carry, or more correctly 'wear', a non-essential cane indicated that the wearer was an aristocrat or a professional, and was not engaged in work where his—or indeed her, for women wore them too—hands were required for the purposes of their labours. Canes have a long history going back to antiquity, but from the 17th, and particularly the 18th century, they became more of a 'sartorial extravagance' across Europe, replacing the dress sword as the must-have fashion accessory.

A close up image of the cane in front of a portrait of the Scottish Botanist, Henry William Pickersgill RA (1782-1875).
1) Robert Brown's cane seen here in front of the portrait of the Scottish botanist in the Society’s rooms by Henry William Pickersgill RA (1782–1875), exhibited at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A museum) in 1868.

Holding history in my hands

I was certainly not the first person to hold this cane as I studied it in the Library of the Society, for in its 200-plus years of existence it has passed through many hands far greater than mine, and like many of the Society's artefacts it is a very personal item; you can imagine the times, places and events it has witnessed. The cane's first wearer was the Right Reverend James Brown (1734–91), a Scottish minister. On his death, he bequeathed the cane to his 18-year-old son Robert Brown PPLS (1773–1858), who would become a famous botanist and explorer. Robert kept his father’s cane for over 60 years, and on 10 June 1858, the cane was passed 'on his death bed' to the American physician and botanist Francis Boott FLS (1792–1863), then resident in the UK. Interestingly, Boott discarded the traditional black coat, white neckcloth, knee breeches, and black silk stockings traditionally worn by medical professionals of the day (as seen in the image of James Gregory M.D.) thinking them rather sombre and suggestive of gloomy ideas to the sick. Instead, he wore bright colours when going about his practice.

The history of the cane’s owners up to this point is inscribed on the end of the straight cap copper-alloy (probably brass) handle, with the dates of death of the two Browns inscribed on the ring, or collar, where the handle attaches to the shaft. The handle is probably a later addition, replacing an earlier one, as it shows little sign of wear, unlike the tip of the shaft and its brass ferrule that show signs of use.

An etching depicting James Gregory, dressed in dark clothes and walking with a cane.
2) James Gregory M.D. of Edinburgh (1752–1821) is seen here wearing his cane in this 1797 etching by John Kay (1742–1826).

What happened to the cane after Boott died on 25 December 1863 at 24 Gower Street is unknown. We pick up the story of the Browns’ cane in a letter in the archives of the Society dated 5 May 1904.

Isaac Bayley Balfour FLS (1853–1922) wrote to then General Secretary of the Society Benjamin Daydon Jackson (1846–1927) stating that he had been granted permission to offer Robert Brown’s 'Malacca cane' to the Society. In the letter, Balfour explained that he did not know if the cane belonged to his father (John Hutton Balfour FLS (1808–84), or perhaps to the botanic garden, by which he meant The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, where his father was the Regius Keeper until his death. He stated that he felt that the Society was a fitting final resting place for the cane, joining other prized relics belonging to Robert Brown. The most famous of those is his microscope, about which Brian J. Ford FLS has extensively written and lectured. A talk he gave to the Society in 2007 on the subject is viewable here.

What’s in a name?

The term 'Malacca cane' was new to me, but it was first used in the context of a stick to be carried in 1844 (OED). Malacca (or Melaka in Malay) denotes an area within Malaysia with a port from where many goods (including the woods needed to make these canes) were exported. Canes fashioned from the woods of Malacca were some of the finest, most coveted and expensive. It is no wonder then that James Brown left his cane to his son; it was a family heirloom (though canes were often buried with their owners).

A Malacca cane shaft is made from the stem of the Asian rattan palm plant: Calamus ascipionum (or from Calamus rotang or Calamus scipionum). Canes made from these plants have a distinctive ridge along one side of the shaft—the longer and more defined that ridge, the better quality the cane. Our cane has an overall length of 109 cm, is perfectly straight (a sign of quality), and the 'ridge' runs along the entire length of the shaft.

A closeup shot of the decorative handle of the cane displayed in its wooden case.
3) The decorative handle of the cane, seen in the case that Benjamin Daydon Jackson had made for the cane late in 1904.

'We have no secrets from our readers'

It is a privilege to be the Honorary Curator of Artefacts for the Linnean Society of London. Each artefact leads you on a journey of discovery: lives lived, adventures had, and stories to be told. They can even teach us something about ourselves. I must confess that I discovered that I rather like the idea of wearing an elegant Malacca cane like Brown’s in my hand; it does give you a degree of swagger and I was very tempted to stroll down Piccadilly with it.

Brown’s cane was for day use, not as accompaniment to formal evening wear, but studying it this afternoon in the Society's Library, with Isabelle and Luke working quietly a couple of metres away, I had to fight the urge to sway and twirl it to the music of Hollywood's golden age of musicals, playing in my head: 'Puttin’ on my top hat, Tyin’ up my white tie, Brushin’ off my tails.' (But don’t tell anyone!)

By Glenn Benson, Honorary Curator of Artefacts


Dike, C. 2008. Walking Sticks. Sire Library.

Monek, F. H. 1995. Canes Through the Ages. Schiffer Publishing Limited.