Read about the toxic plant used in poison ordeals in Madagascar as described by the botanist Charles Telfair in 1829.
Hello, my name is Charlotte and I am the newest member of the Directors' Correspondence team based in the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archive at Kew. Over the past few months, we have been digitising the letters sent from Asia in Kew's Director's Correspondence archive and are finding a few surprises along the way. Such surprises - although highly interesting - are not always pleasant as the descriptions of the 'tanghin ordeal' of Madagascar have shown.
Introducing the 'ordeal plant'
The tanghin or 'ordeal plant' (Cerbera tanghin) was used for centuries in a poison ordeal for the judgement of crimes or accusations of sorcery. Plants of the genus Cerbera all contain a potent toxin known as cerberin which acts by disrupting the heartbeat. C. tanghin is widely distributed across Madagascar and the kernel of the fruit - which is highly poisonous and a powerful emetic - was used to determine the guilt or innocence of an individual in a crime.
We have recently come across a few letters which describe the ordeal ceremony in all its gruesome detail. One such letter was written to Sir William Jackson Hooker during his time as Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow by Charles Telfair in 1829 who was living in Mauritius at the time.
Extract of the letter written by Charles Telfair in 1829
Using poisonous plants to detect guilt
The ordeal was used as a means of detecting guilt for crimes such as murder, conspiracy, sorcery or theft. Modifications to the practice were made over the centuries by various Kings but the overall principle remained the same.
In Telfair's account, the poison was prepared by first grinding the kernel of the tanghin nut on a stone to produce a 'soft white mass like grounded almonds' which was mixed with small quantities of banana juice and water. Further accounts written in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics by James Hastings describe in detail how the accused was forced to swallow whole three pieces of chicken skin, each about an inch square, before a dose of the toxic tanghin concoction was administered.
The presiding official, generally a priest or physician, would take note of the direction in which the accused fell to the ground as this was thought to be indicative of the level of guilt. The accused would then drink copious amounts of rice water or a 'flour-soup' until the stomach contents were rejected. Those that vomited all three pieces of chicken skin intact were declared innocent and were considered to lead a 'charmed life' thereafter. Those that did not vomit inevitably died and those that vomited but did not regurgitate all of the chicken skin were put to death or buried alive.
During the reign of King Radama I, the practice became less common for people and was used on dogs instead. The animals belonging to both the accuser and the accused would undergo the ordeal and the owner of the unfortunate animal that died would be considered guilty.
'Ordeal Plant or Tanghin and Parokeets of Madagascar' by Marianne North
Telfair sent Hooker various drawings and descriptions of C. tanghin and his notes on the ordeal were later published in The Penny cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Vol. VI in 1836. Further gruesome descriptions of the ordeal, which again make reference to Telfair's letter, can be found in The Encyclopaedia of Geography from 1839, written by Hugh Murray and assisted by Sir William Jackson Hooker.
- Charlotte -
- All of Kew's Director's Correspondence collection from Latin America is now available to view online for those with access to JSTOR Plant Science and more Asian content is being added all the time.
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