An Ethnobotanist's Journey Through the Linnean Society's Archives

Jonn Gale introduces their collaborative PhD project on researching human-plant relationships through specimens and manuscripts originating in the Caribbean, how botanical histories shape scientific ideas, and using the Society's collections.

Published on 26th October 2022

I feel immensely privileged to embark on my doctorate research journey exploring the Linnean Society material archives. As an ethnobotanist, I see the Linnean botanical collections as abundant and multidimensional research domains that provide me the unique opportunity to situate, reflect on and analyse human-plant relationships through a historical lens. In researching the contexts, ideas and people responsible for the collection and creation of plant specimen, I hope to scrutinise the ways in which botanical histories shape and inform scientific practices and ideas, but also to utilise the archival records to locate and uncover hidden histories, and stories relating to plant collecting during colonisation.

The late 18th century when botanical collections came into being, is part of a period of Europeans navigation across the globe in search of new trades, material and symbolic wealth and dominance, and a context in which many Africans and other Indigenous people were forcefully displaced, enslaved, entangled and made inter-dependent to and within European Empires. Because plants played such an integral role in colonial projects (both as witnesses and as instruments), it is crucial to examine the types of human-plant relationships forged in those contexts as a way to transform their legacy today.

Caryophyllus LINN-HS 951.2

Specimen of the archaic plant genus Caryophyllus, collected in French Guiana in 1806, LINN-HS 951.2

In my research, I will focus on the herbarium record, manuscripts and other archival material from the Linnean Society originating in the Caribbean region during late 18th and early 19th centuries – this material represents a period of immense ecosystem change triggered by colonisation, with the Caribbean being a key setting for the conception, negotiation, and implementation of this change. I hope to uncover the types of traditional plant knowledge and practices appropriated, absorbed and even lost as result of colonialism, and to highlight some of many contributions to early science made by African and Indigenous people of the Caribbean. My research is just as much about unearthing evidence pertaining to collaborations, as it is about reassessing the ways in which evidence becomes defined within a botanical archive. I hope to both identify and scrutinise the subjectivities evidenced by and in the very definitions of scientific knowledge, and practices. As such, I employ ethnobotany as a kind of treasure map that might help guide the unearthing, and the repair of damage and loss sustained through colonial sciences’ extractive, reductionist, and linear cosmologies.

I draw inspiration from Jane Bennett’s radical lens on materiality; there botanical collections are not simply sites for knowledge production (as they were somehow considered in the past), but also affective assemblages and “vital materialities” with agency in their possession (Jane Bennett 2010, p.21). The agency of the collection is an interesting idea that can perhaps aid in subverting museum practice, provide the necessary opening from which to examine the kinds of human-plant relationships that come to define it as such, and give us a better chance of participating in and encouraging within natural history collections the production of and the types of situated, inclusive and multiverse history and knowledge that our world calls for today.



Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things (2010, Duke University Press).


Jonn Gale's Collaborative Doctoral Award is funded by CHASE, and is a collaboration between Birkbeck University (supervisor Dr Emily Senior and co-supervisor Dr Sarah Thomas) and the Linnean Society (co-supervisor Dr Isabelle Charmantier).