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Kew's unique Latin American Directors' Correspondence collection is available online

Kew's Archive contains scientific correspondence received by Kew's Directors and senior staff from around 1841 to the 1940s. This unique collection is now available via subscription to researchers and academics online.

Letter to Kew from Charles Darwin

Kew's Archive contains a wealth of material relating to botanists, their discoveries and their research. One of the largest collections within the archives is the Directors' Correspondence. This collection includes unique scientific correspondence received by Kew's Directors and senior staff from around 1841 to the 1940s.

Eighteen months after embarking on the project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to digitally preserve the Latin American Directors' Correspondence, over 10'000 images from this collection are available to view online via subscription to Aluka and JSTOR, Global Plants Initiative.

Highlights from Kew's collection

Kew's Latin American Directors' Correspondence is a unique resource, containing first hand accounts and observations on botany, ethnobotany, natural history, science, politics and history.

Our collection highlights the important role Kew played in furthering Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century scientific investigation, and the economy of the British Empire.

Flora, Fauna and FigurinesThe majority of our Latin American Directors Correspondence collection describes the living plants, dried specimens and seeds collected and sent back to Kew from Latin America between 1841 and 1940.

Hibiscus bancroftii watercolour

Many of the plants referred to were of economic importance, and Kew acted as a hub for their distribution to parts of the British Empire where they could be most efficiently grown and exploited.

Thousands of plant species are discussed in the letters. Sometimes a correspondent included a rough sketch of a plant, and occasionally a beautiful watercolour illustration. Many bird, animal and insect specimens were also shipped backed to Kew for transmission to other Scientific institutions.

Various artefacts manufactured by indigenous populations were also considered of interest. In the 1860s Robert Blake White offered to send Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker an extensive range of native Colombian 'grave goods', including stone axes, pottery and gold figurines.

Sketch of native pottery figure


Ethnobotany

Local uses of plants, for example as clothing and jewellery, in construction and as food, poisons and medicines, are frequently referred to in the Latin American Directors' Correspondence.

In 1858 Sir William Jackson Hooker received Correspondence from Lady Guillamore, asking for specimens of Datura tatula wood for her son to smoke as a remedy for his asthma. In 1842, Don Carlos Huergo provided a description of the types of herb used in Argentina to make the drink 'Yerba Mate'. His description gave details of how best to prepare and drink it, with a view to its introduction to Britain as a replacement for tea.

People and Politics

Many eminent botanists and naturalists travelled to South America, and their letters can be found within the Latin American Directors' Correspondence . Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Richard Spruce, George Gardner and William Jameson, all corresponded with the Directors of Kew. The hazards faced by these and other travellers to South America are widely discussed.

There are many references to death, disease and discomfort. Particularly poignant are a series of letters informing Sir William Jackson Hooker of the circumstances surrounding the death of his son, William Dawson Hooker, who succumbed to Yellow Fever in Jamaica, 1840.

Political unrest and border conflicts are often commented upon, usually with regard to how these struggles hindered a collector's work. Robert Hermann Schomburgk, however, describes how he took pity on 67 inhabitants of the Dominican Republic, offering them shelter in his home during the Haitian invasion of 1849.

Browse our digital images

The Directors' Correspondence from Africa is available for subscribers to Aluka. The Latin American Directors' Correspondence will also be available to subscribers of Global Plants Initiative, due to 'go online' in the latter half of 2009.

The 10,000 pages of the Latin American Directors' Correspondence that have been digitised to date are also available to view on Kew's in-house image storage facility. Visitors to the Kew library and archives can arrange an appointment to browse the Directors' Correspondence, and copies of specific manuscripts are available, for a small fee, upon request.

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Support Kew's art and heritage

Over two and a half centuries, Kew’s passion for art and architecture and pursuit of knowledge about plants and the natural world has endowed us with an extraordinary legacy - our unparalleled collection of botanical resources and historical treasures.

By giving a donation today, you can help us look after our treasures and collections of national importance. Find out how your donation can make a difference.

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Comments

7 October 2009
This effort by the staff at Kew, some of whom I have met, and one that I know personally, is truly out standing. It will be a boon to both scholars, and the general public.
6 October 2009
This is brilliant. So much information.
5 October 2009
Wow! I had no idea that Kew had such an amazing historical archive. This sounds like a fascinating collection.