15 May 2019

Botany, Trade and Empire: Discover the Miscellaneous Reports Collection

Rachael Gardner, Assistant Archivist, provides a snapshot of a current Library display highlighting our Miscellaneous Reports Collection.

Rachael Gardner pic

By Rachael Gardner


In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the transportation and cultivation of useful plants around the globe was of critical importance to imperial Britain and its colonies across the world. From tea, coffee and tobacco, to quinine and lime extract, plants were useful sources of food, medicine, clothing, and construction materials.

As the botanical arm of Government, Kew played a prominent and influential role. Kew’s botanical experts were consulted extensively as to the properties of different specimens, and the environments in which they could be successfully cultivated. Kew was also a central linchpin in coordinating the movement of seeds, plants, and botanists, across the expanding web of Botanic Gardens, Agricultural, and Forestry stations established by colonial administrations. Information flowed between Kew and a global network of botanists, colonial administrators, scientists and commercial interests. 

Kew’s Miscellaneous Reports Collection, held in Kew’s Archives, is the result of these interactions.

Consisting of 772 volumes of letters and notes, administrative and scientific reports, photographs, plant and other specimens, drawings, newspaper cuttings and maps, the Collection frequently contains references to specimens sent to Kew, and provides important contextual information relating to our Economic Botany and Herbarium collections. The Collection dates primarily between 1850-1928, and subjects range from sugar cane disease in Barbados to silk worms in China, and even the exploration of Australia.

A new display, now open in the Library, explores this exciting collection through the inseparable themes of botany, trade and empire. Here we highlight some of the unusual items within this display.

Vin Mariani ‘peculiarly adapted for the use of children’

This advertisement for Vin Mariani dates from 1888. Mariani wine was produced from leaves of the erythroxylum coca plant, and contained over 7mg of cocaine per ounce of wine. It claimed ‘fortifying’ and ‘strengthening’ qualities, ‘peculiarly adapted for the use of children’. Marketed as a medicine, the advertisement reads ‘Of all the preparations of Coca, “Mariani Wine” has been found the most effective and agreeable, and is generally recommended by medical men’.

Vin mariani
Advertisement for Vin Mariani 1888. Credit RBG Kew.

Preserving the rare palm tree, Coco de Mer, in the Seychelles

These photographs of the legendary coco de mer (Llodoicea maldivica), a palm tree that produces the largest seeds in the world, from Praslin, Seychelles, were sent to Kew in 1925 by Paul Evenor Rivalz Dupont, then Director of Agriculture in the Seychelles. Dupont corresponded frequently with Kew about how best to protect the habitat of the coco de mer. Kew’s Director, David Prain wrote in 1920 that

“this palm is quite unique and its proper preservation and care in the Seychelles is a matter of deep interest and concern to botanists all over the world”.

This was not the first time that Kew had received images of the coco de mer. In 1881 General Charles George Gordon, who would be known a few years later as Gordon of Khartoum, visited the Seychelles and became fascinated with the coco de mer. He corresponded frequently with Kew’s previous Directors, Joseph Hooker and William Thiselton-Dyer, and proposed that the Seychelles was actually the site of the Garden of Eden, and that the coco de mer was the ‘Tree of Knowledge’. The display features illustrations and notes drawn by Gordon himself, which he sent to Kew.

Old photo of Coco de Mer trees
Photograph of the coco de mer sent by Paul Dupont to Kew in 1925. Credit RBG Kew.
Illustrations and notes drawn by George Gordon sent to Kew. Credit RBG Kew.

Ugandan Rope

Harry Hamilton Johnston was a prominent explorer and colonial administrator, who in 1899 was sent as a Special Commissioner to Uganda. This letter dates from 1900 and accompanies a package of rope ‘made at this place by natives of Uganda and also by an enterprising Italian merchant from the fibre of a Sanseviera growing in the locality’, which Johnston sent to the Kew Museum. 

He requests that Thiselton-Dyer, Director of Kew,

‘would inform me frankly whether the rope is a good one, and whether the fibre of which it is composed would be of any value outside Uganda’.

The specimens of rope and cordage that were sent by Johnston are still held within Kew’s Economic Botany Collection.

Ugandan rope
Specimens of the rope and cordage are held within Kew's Economic Botany Collection. Credit RBG Kew.
Letter from Harry Hamilton Johnston that accompanied the Ugandan rope
Letter from Harry Hamilton Johnston that accompanied the Ugandan rope. Credit RBG Kew.

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