To Whom It May Concern:
The Missouri Botanical Garden houses a display showcasing the Garden’s botanists in Latin America and how they are “exploring” new areas for unknown flora. It is in the Garden’s best interests to remove this display because of the impression it leaves of the Garden serving as a more capable protector for a habitat and people that seemingly cannot protect itself. Specifically, by looking at the four individual displays of Ecuador, Bolivia, Mesoamerica, and Peru, it will become evident as to what myths these displays are reinforcing and what they silence, especially regarding practices in colonial Latin America.
The Ecuador display describes Garden scientists as having discovered a “botanical mystery” and their attempts to “elucidate” said mystery. This diction is important to note because it implies others have not already discovered the supposed “mystery”. In fact, it emphasizes how, in terms of the Garden’s standards, these plant genera are a botanical enigma without reference to what Ecuadorian botanists or residents know about the flora and whether individuals have already elucidated said enigma. The impression this leaves is that the Garden can decide what has and has not been “discovered”, which is unfair to Ecuadorian communities who may have already “discovered” what the Garden has not. In fact, this is exactly how colonists would rewrite history to showcase themselves as having discovered something that was shown to them by indigenous populations, and this is even evident in the claim that the Europeans “discovered” America. Another example is of Viceroy Francisco de Toledo, who essentially rewrote the history of the Incan Empire via native testimonies.[i] Toledo issued surveys with questions phrased in a manner such that most answers would prove the illegitimacy of the Incan Empire.[ii] Toledo’s history also illustrates the idea that the Spanish were superior to the Incas, which is a similar impression the display leaves of the Garden botanists being superior to the citizens of Ecuador in terms of plant knowledge. Furthermore, the display attempts to justify the need for Garden scientists in Ecuador. In this display, there is mention of having to discover the “mystery” to answer questions the Garden does not have answers to. This justification is similar to how the Requerimiento (Requirement), a Spanish document that provided legal justification for the subjugation of natives, was implemented in colonial Latin America. The Requirement, which was meant to be thoroughly explained to natives to establish why the Spanish were in Latin America, was in practice only implemented to “subject and acquire land” more efficiently.[iii] Thus, saying that it is necessary to “elucidate” the mystery and, as will be seen later, to train the people for “their own benefit” is simply a symbolic justification for the Garden to gain information to benefit itself.
The Bolivia display mentions “vast areas” of the region that botanists have never visited and impresses the feeling that the Garden scientists are saviors of nature. This display states that they are “racing against time” to “discover” and record “unknown” plant species. This type of rhetoric parallels descriptions of Portuguese entradas in Brazil, which were expeditions to reveal vast territories and uncover “myths” and “mysteries”.[iv] Many of these entradas had a heroic quality to them, essentially highlighting the success of foreign influence over a land that had not been properly explored. Captains of entradas were often described as “brave” and able to “courageously persist in [their] aim”.[v] In short, captains of entradas were given credit for uncovering the “mysteries” of Brazil because of their persistence, courage, and efficacy. Similarly, the Garden is suggesting that they have accomplished something significant by exploring “unknown plant species”. The display even uses the same diction as Portuguese colonizers by stating that Garden botanists need to go on “explorations” to find inaccessible regions. Further along the display, the diction becomes almost ridiculous as it implies that the residents of the area are unable to protect their own land from “habitat destruction” and that they require the guidance of the Garden. This is an inappropriate portrayal of the residents as feeble and weak, much as natives were often characterized by colonists. Viceroy Toledo is another prime example of a Spanish administrator who compared natives to children that required guidance from Spain.[vi]
The Mesoamerica display is very similar in its description to the Bolivia display. It refers to areas as “remote” and “botanically unknown”, which is again only relevant to the scientists and not necessarily the residents, and emphasizes the importance of categorizing these floras in Spanish as creating the “essential basis” to protect endangered plant resources. These statements, which emphasize the Garden’s knowledge of the area, silence and underestimate the voices of individuals who live in the area. For example, rebel letters during the 1780s sent by and to indigenous people reveal a higher literacy rate during the colonial era than the Spanish had expected.[vii] Another example is the mining center of Potosi during the 17th century, where the role of women in managing businesses was silenced since the official tax documents would mask the wife’s name with her husband’s[viii]. Just as this would provide the husband with a form of control over a business that was not his, the display provides the Garden with a form of control over a land that is not theirs. Furthermore, silencing the voices of residents undermines the actions and knowledge of others, which is also evident in the transfer of scientific knowledge during the 1800’s. For example, Edward Long, an 18th century British historian, dismissed the notion that Africans had thorough knowledge about tropical diseases, preventions, and cures, and instead insisted that Africans only had this medicinal knowledge by “randomly” applying herbs.[ix] Long dismissed the possibility that Africans could consciously create suitable medicines and instead gave credit to chance.
The Peru display states the Garden is helping residents for “their own benefit” and that they will allow the residents to “understand” their own “biological resources”. This type of rhetoric is very demeaning and radiates an air of superiority. The approach of having to educate others for their benefit ignores the actions these “others” are taking to benefit themselves. It instead suggests that a few, intelligent scientists from the Garden are needed to enact the proper change. This is the same type of rhetoric found when discussing how a few, exceptional explorers were superior to the natives and thus were successful in their conquest.[x] This myth is found in the history of Columbus, which often portrays him as a visionary and a lonely dreamer.[xi] In addition, the impression of the Garden saving the flora in Peru has the same effect Bartolome de las Casas has today on his humane treatment of natives. De las Casas is often remembered as a larger-than-life hero who spoke out against inhumane treatment, but one of the crucial flaws in idealizing a figure like him is that it suggests that someone else had to speak out for the natives.[xii] Furthermore, the idealization of de las Casas ignores his evident cultural separation from the indigenous population.[xiii] This display ignores the cultural separation as well by not acknowledging the roles of Peruvians and their understanding of preservation for “their own benefit”. Here it seems appropriate to ask, wouldn’t the local residents know better what is and is not necessary to benefit themselves?
It should now be clear as to why these displays are not appropriate to have in the Missouri Botanical Garden. The demeaning nature of these displays is a prime example of how we have evidently not moved on completely from a colonial era. This neocolonial rhetoric is not something that should be tolerated and has no place in the Garden.
[i] Lecture 10/06/16.
[iii] Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, Historia general y natural de las Indias, 14 vols (Asuncion, Paraguay, 1944-1945), 7:131-132. “The Laughter of Dr. Palacios Rubios”. Excerpt translated by Benjamin Keen.).
[iv] Lecture 09/20/16.
[v] “Portuguese Colonizer”.
[vi] Lecture 10/06/16.
[vii] Boyer, Richard E., and Geoffrey Spurling. Colonial lives: documents on Latin American history, 1550-1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 203.
[viii] Mangan, Jane e. Trading Roles: Gender, Ethnicity, and the Urban Economy in Colonial Potosi. Durham: Duke University Pres, 2005, 136.
[ix] Shteir, Ann B. "LondaSchiebinger.Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard University Press, 2004 no. 1 (2006): 82.
[x] Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford University Press, 2003), 8.
[xii] Lecture 09/27/16.