The Alexander Anderson Manuscript Collection
Digital Assets Manager Andrea Deneau highlights the latest addition to our digital collections
Published on 10th May 2023
In 2021, we were approached by Dr Christina Welch from the University of Winchester about an exciting collaboration. With a successful bid to the AHRC and NERC’s collaborative ‘Hidden histories of environmental science’ funding, Dr Welch was able to lead a two-year project called ‘Unearthing the contribution of indigenous and enslaved African knowledge systems to the Saint Vincent Botanical Garden under Dr Anderson [1785-1811]’, with partners including the Linnean Society, St Vincent Botanical Garden, RBG Kew, and the NHM. Some of the funding from this project allowed for the digitisation of the Society's Anderson manuscripts, giving them worldwide access. Dr Welch has also been working on further transcriptions of some of these manuscripts.
Alexander Anderson FLS (1748-1811) was a Scottish surgeon and botanist, who, among other things, trained under the famous horticulturalist, William Forsyth, at the Chelsea Physic Garden. In 1774, he moved to New York to live with his brother, where he continued plant collecting for Forsyth. However, to avoid the American Revolutionary War, Anderson sailed to the Caribbean, where on his travels, he met with Dr George Young, the first superintendent of St Vincent Botanical Garden – the first and oldest botanic garden in the Caribbean. Young had been charged with growing and collecting plants that would be useful to the British military, particularly medicines for wounded soldiers. From his travels and meetings with Anderson, Dr Young was impressed with Anderson’s skills as a botanist and ‘active field man’  and recommended that Anderson succeed him as superintendent of the gardens in 1785.
Upon taking up the directorship of the garden, Anderson was critical of the ‘standard gardening techniques of the British’ , and turned to the techniques used by the enslaved African workers in tending their designated areas. Taking up the mission of Dr Young, he also used the knowledge of the enslaved Africans and indigenous people of the island to record the uses of many of the garden's plants. In fact, in his manuscript plant catalogues, he lists plants growing at St Vincent using their Latin names, along with their common names as were known in English and French, but also by the names used by the indigenous people and the enslaved Africans. By turning to the traditional and local ways of planting, Anderson transformed the garden from having initially only about 60 species of plants to over 1,300 species by 1806.
It is clear that Anderson had planned to publish a catalogue of plants, often referred to as ‘Hortus St. Vincentii’, and the manuscript for this catalogue is among the manuscripts held at the Society . Along with this manuscript catalogue are 147 botanical drawings, with many of the drawings by Antiguan artist John Tyley - a self-taught botanical illustrator and a free person of colour. When Tyley was around 20 years old, he came to the attention of Anderson, and was employed to draw and paint the plants growing at St Vincent. Tyley worked for and lived with Anderson for approximately seven years. His talents speak for themselves when his drawings are observed. Additionally, Tyley signed some of his works, which was not standard practice for eighteenth century botanical art. Eleven of the 147 drawings in this collection were signed by Tyley, and it is believed that he drew many more.
In 2021, the Society was fortunate enough to acquire another drawing by Tyley: that of a breadfruit tree (Artocarpus incisus, MS/608). Unlike Tyley’s other works, this painting includes a human figure, most likely meant to represent an enslaved individual, sitting under the breadfruit tree. While botanical illustrations made by Black artists in the early Atlantic world are rare, even rarer are colonial-era works by Black artists representing Black subjects. The painting was the subject of a workshop titled ‘In the Shade of the Breadfruit Tree: Slavery, History, and Art’, hosted by the Society earlier this year, which brought scholars together to discuss its significance.
The Anderson manuscripts do not solely focus on St Vincent. They also include accounts of the natural history, geography, and topography of other islands he visited, including Barbados, Grenada, St Lucia, Guyana, and Trinidad. Richard and Elizabeth Howard, who transcribed a few of Anderson’s manuscripts in the 1980s, and who are also the source of much of what is now known about Anderson, described Anderson as a ‘God-fearing, Christian man’ , which may account for the several manuscripts about the Deluge.
While we have learned much from the Howards about Anderson, thanks to projects like Hidden Histories and the Endangered Archives Programme, and researchers like Dr Welch, Dr Julie Chun Kim, and Dr J'Nese Williams, we now have a greater picture of the invaluable impact enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples had in shaping these colonial islands. And, with the ability to now share these manuscripts with a global audience, we can only hope to make even more networks and associations in order to put together a richer history.
Andrea Deneau, Digital Assets Manager
*All images © The Linnean Society of London.
 Howard, 1996, p.3
 From Dr Christina Welch's pop-up exhibition, 'Unearthing the Hidden Story of...', Panel 2
 The manuscript referred to as ‘Hortus St. Vincentii’ is MS/607. It was re-ordered and divided into 10 sections, after consultation with Dr Christina Welch and Dr Julie Chun Kim.
 Howard & Howard, The St. Vincent Botanic Garden, 1983, p.iv
Howard, R., ‘The St. Vincent Botanical Garden – The Early Years’, Harvard Papers in Botany (Vol. 1, No. 8, 1996)
Howard, R. & Howard, E., Alexander Anderson’s Geography and History of St. Vincent, West Indies (1983)
Howard, R. & Howard, E., Alexander Anderson’s The St. Vincent Botanic Garden (1983)
Kim, J.C. & Charmantier, I., ‘John Tyley at the Linnean Society’, The Botanical Artist (June 2021)
Welch, C., ‘Black History Month: Unearthing the Hidden Stories of the St Vincent Botanical Garden’, University of Winchester, accessed 10/05/2023: https://www.winchester.ac.uk/news-and-events/press-centre/media-articles/black-history-month-unearthing-the-hidden-stories-of-the-st-vincent-botanical-garden.php
Welch, C., ‘Unearthing Indigenous Caribbean Contributions to Western Knowledge’, University of Winchester, accessed 10/05/2023: https://www.winchester.ac.uk/research/our-impactful-research/research-in-humanities-and-social-sciences/research-projects/unearthing-indigenous-caribbean-contributions-to-western-botanical-knowledge-/
Welch, C., ‘Unearthing the Hidden Story of…’, Pop-up Exhibition in the Wycombe Museum (Nov. 2022-Feb. 2023)