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Brugmansia: illusions, insanity and imperceptible buried treasure

Jessica Smith
2 June 2014

Meet the plant that is widely known to produce dangerous hallucinogenic effects but was once used to discover mines and buried treasure – as digitisation officer, Jess Smith, explains.

Miscellaneous volumes

Having completed the North American collection of letters, the Directors' Correspondence team have now moved on to the 'Miscellaneous Volumes' within the archive. These volumes include letters from all over the world, many sent by famous botanists such as Nathaniel Wallich and Francis Boott. The Miscellaneous Volumes are particularly interesting to digitise as one moment you can be reading about plants, the next moment about fantasy sea serpents!

Brugmansia sanguinea

One of the most interesting things we have come across so far is the flower which produces 'second sight'. Datura sanguinea, more recently known as Brugmansia sanguinea, is from a group of plants known to possess hallucinogenic effects. They are part of the Solanaceae family, also known as nightshades.

Photo of illustration, jar and dried specimen

Illustration, specimen in spirit and dried herbarium specimen of Brugmansia sanguinea [Illustration from Huanduj: Brugmansia by Hay, Gottschalk & Holguín; Specimen number 29047.256; Herbarium specimen K000701277]

In the 1850s, a man called Samuel Bond worked as a paymaster at the gold mines of Marmato, New Grenada [now known as Colombia]. In 1853, Bond wrote a letter to Sir William Jackson Hooker regarding the botany of the area. He went into great detail describing the effects of Datura sanguinea, also known as 'tonga' by the natives, which was believed to produce second sight. Its use was prohibited in New Grenada as it could produce madness in excessive doses but this law was often ignored by native people who wanted to search for hidden fortunes. It was believed that by taking this plant in the correct dosage, a person's perception of objects would be heightened, allowing them to discover buried treasure and hidden mines.

Photo of a letter by Bond

'...I repeat, that I am constrained by the evidence of unimpeachable eye-witnesses, men of veracity & penetration, with no bearings to the marvellous or miraculous, to believe that persons who have taken this tonga, have in consequence become endued with extraordinary faculties...' [Archives Ref: DC 71 f.40]

Insanity

In order to gain this enhanced vision, seven seeds must be macerated, following an ancient tradition. Bond writes that there is a person in most towns who possesses the gift of administering tonga according to the practise of the art. However, many natives wanting to use the plant would consume a larger dose.

Bond was well acquainted with a native miner who ‘betongaed’ himself in order to discover treasure. The result was that he went mad and apparently remained so for a whole year.

Photo of extract from a letter by Bond

'I often visited him in his madness; he had violent paroxysms at times, & had to be bound; & for weeks kept up an incessant flow of incoherent talk, with small intervals of sleep. He got over the effects by degrees, & is now, & has been for two years, perfectly recovered' [Archives Ref: DC 71 f.40]

Bond had no doubt that this plant could enhance the senses, but believed that success was mainly down to having faith in the drug. Brugmansia has been recorded in history many times as a hallucinogen, used for oracular divination, contacting the dead, and to stupefy wives and slaves so they could be buried with their dead warrior husbands! You can read more about Brugmansia and its hallucinogenic properties in Huanduj: Brugmansia by Alistair Hay, Monika Gottschalk and Adolfo Holguín.

Just another great example of the fascinating stories we come across while digitising the Directors’ Correspondence.

- Jess -

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