Modern Taxonomies and Colonial Violence

Tracing the Routes and Roots of Botanical Gardens

Senne Nout

Publicatiedatum: 27 januari 2022

Walking through a botanical garden, one can feel as if in Eden itself: a place of lush vegetal abundance and botanic peacefulness. Yet, tracing the colonial routes and roots of botanical gardens, these places are not just the apolitical sites of leisure as they appear today: many botanical gardens came into being as colonial institutions that were vital for the expansion of European empire. The aim of this article is to show how botanical gardens are entangled with the history of European colonialism and the rise of the modern sciences, which is a power/knowledge nexus that in turn gave rise to violent taxonomies that included racialized ideas about being properly and truly human. Engaging with a selection of philosophical, decolonial, and historical works, this article will therefore examine the shared colonial histories of botanical gardens and the emergence of the ‘human’ and a ‘less-than-human’ category. In order to do so, this article will be divided into two parts. The first part will trace how botanical gardens proved crucial for the expansion of European power on a material and epistemological level, referred to as ‘routes’ and ‘roots’. The second section will further examine the colonial underpinnings of the botanical sciences, and show how these are tied to an exclusionary definition of what it means to be ‘human’ as well.

Colonial Routes/Roots: Gardens as Colonial Sites

Whereas European gardens with organized assortments of plants and herbs are not a specific colonial invention as such (so-called ‘physic gardens’ were built in medieval Europe for the study and use of plants with medical properties), [1] botanical gardens as we know them today came into existence through colonial efforts. The years following Columbus’ first transatlantic colonial mission in 1492 led to a global displacement of plants and seeds, as European colonizers became highly interested in the tropical flora they encountered. Philosopher and historian Carolyn Merchant notes in Reinventing Eden that these colonizers thought to have arrived at the actual remnants of Eden when they arrived at the mild climate and lush and green lands of (what is now known as) South America. Moreover, because the belief was that the garden of Eden had grown medical plants for all ails and illnesses, they intended to take promising ‘new’ plants back to Europe. [2] Here the role of gardens for colonial conquest emerges. Besides religious views on the biblical garden that implicitly shaped how colonizers plotted the land and mapped out natural resources, botanical gardens proved to be concrete infrastructural necessities to start transporting plant specimens around the globe. The following subsection will explain how botanical gardens became entwined with colonial journeys.

View in the Hortus Botanicus (Lange Nieuwstraat) in Utrecht; in the background the orangery on Kleine Eligensteeg. Producer: Photo service GAU, photographer. Earliest date: 01-02-1931/ Latest date: 28-02-1937[*]

Colonial Routes of Gardens

The first transatlantic mission opened up a whole new world of vegetal richness to Europe, as botanical explorations quickly followed colonial routes. While the movement of plants around the world was not new – spices, medicines and botanic dyes had been shipped by Arab traders from India and Indonesia, to Egypt, to Rome since antiquity [3] – the explosion of plant movements in the wake of 1492 was. Colonial routes opened up new paths to ship plants directly to Europe, and as the colonial project unfolded, thousands of tropical plant species were taken from their environments. In the early colonial years, these plants were mainly trafficked straight to Europe for study and an increasing commercial market at home. However, plants became even more widely dispersed throughout the world when European nations started to build large monocultural plantations on colonized lands. Through the implementation of massive colonial plantations, that grew botanical goods by means of slave labour, plants and seeds were not merely taken to Europe but started to move around the globe.

Of course, not only plants were taken from their lands and trafficked between continents: so were millions of humans. As early as 1493, Columbus initiated the violent transatlantic slave voyage on his second colonial mission to the Caribbean, when he shipped hundreds of indigenous Taíno people to Spain. By 1510, enslaved African people started to be transported to plantation colonies on a systematic level. [4] What followed was an enormous population displacement and replacement as European colonizers decimated the majority of the Indigenous population of the Americas and forcibly relocated African people to work on slave plantations. Through the transatlantic slave trade and the forced labour that plantations relied on, botanical yields such as sugar, cotton, tobacco, tea, and coffee could develop into the main source of capital maximalization for European nations. Plants, this way, became of such commercial value that colonizers were no longer looking for gold and silver by the end of the eighteenth century: the historian Londa Schiebinger maintains they sought after ‘green gold’. [5]

However, the transportation of living plants required specific conditions to withstand long transatlantic voyages. This is where botanical gardens enter colonial history: to aid the transportation of plant specimens, European powers built botanical gardens along their trade routes. These gardens served as important stopover places and coordination centres for the movement of plants, functioning as ‘living warehouses’ for the tropical plants involved. [6] As Zaheer Baber remarks in ‘The Plants of Empire’: modern botanical gardens ‘were developed mostly as rest stops essential for the survival of exotic species of plants that were shipped over very long routes’. [7] Colonial botanical gardens were built in strategic places in Europe as well as in the colonies to function as collection stations and forwarding posts for botanical specimens. They were also used to acclimatize and harden tropical plants to weather changes and different ecological environments. During this time, the number of botanical gardens therefore increased rapidly: at the end of the eighteenth century, around sixteen hundred botanical gardens were built in Europe alone. [8] An entire network of botanical gardens arose along colonial routes, and it was this infrastructure that enabled the transplanting of plants that proved crucial for the plantation economy and the expansion of colonial empire.

Interior of the orangery of the Hortus Botanicus of the University (Nieuwegracht 185) in Utrecht. Producer: Photo service GAU, photographer. Earliest date: 01-05-1984/ Latest date: 31-10-1984

Colonial Roots of Gardens

The vital role of botanical gardens for colonial expansion was not merely related to the physical transportation of plants. In order to facilitate the circulation of plants between continents, European powers not only needed plant specimens, they had to acquire knowledge about the plants involved. With the instatement of plantation economies in the Americas especially, it became of economic and commercial value to learn about ‘profitable’ plants and their environments. For example, European states had to acquire knowledge about the properties of flora they encountered on colonized land, the transportation of these plants, and their acclimatization to the ecological conditions of plantation colonies. As such, a system to identify and classify ‘valuable’ plants became essential.

Importantly moreover, botanical knowledge in this period was (more than today) obtained from actual living plants, which entails that gardens to grow plants and study and experiment with them were essential. For this reason, botanical gardens developed into formal scientific institutions geared towards generating knowledge about the identification, transportation, cultivation, and adaptation of productive plants. [9] Schiebinger refers to botanical gardens as ‘the laboratories of colonial botany’: [10] experimental stations to cultivate plants that were essential for colonial trade and the plantation economy. In similar lines, Baber argues that botanical gardens ‘constituted one of the key sites […] in which colonial power was literally rooted’. [11] Botanical gardens grew the plants that generated the knowledge needed for the construction of colonial plantations and the global trade of botanical goods.

What this entails is that the rise of botany as a science is tightly linked to the colonial enterprise. ‘Botany’ was not a distinct science yet in early modern Europe, but as Baber explains: the time of European expansion was ‘roughly the period during which the structural and cultural conditions of possibility for modern rational science – as distinctive form of knowledge, practice and institutions – was in the process of being constituted and stabilised’. [12] The expansion of colonial empire was conjoint with an upsurge in botanical knowledge production within Europe, and it was this proliferation of knowledges about plants that led to the eventual solidification of botany as a distinct modern science. [13] This, Schiebinger states, affected the way botany was done: ‘The botanical sciences served the colonial enterprise and were, in turn, structured by it.’ [14] Schiebinger traces how eighteenth-century botany was different from its current counterpart: one of the defining characteristics of botany in this period was that it did not prioritize ‘pure’ systems of classifications and taxonomies, but ‘utility’ was the principal objective of the study. Research served primarily to develop knowledge about the ‘useful qualities’ of plants. ‘Utility’, then, became increasingly understood in terms of the economic value of plants. [15]

For example, Schiebinger notes how the famous Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) ‘often saw his taxonomic innovations as secondary to his many economic schemes’. [16] Many botanists at this time, Schiebinger elaborates, saw their work as a contribution to the state and national wealth. As colonial possessions and the production and trade of ‘tropical goods’ were believed to generate a maximum of profit for European nation states, this entails that the economic schemes of botanists were tied to colonial efforts. Similarly, Baber traces how Linnaeus’s ideas were enmeshed with imperialist beliefs and considerations of state power. Linnaeus envisioned to acclimatize valuable tropical plants to the colder European soil, so these goods could be grown directly in Sweden. This way, the state could create a monopoly of botanical goods without the risks and dangers of long voyages. [17] Schiebinger concludes therefore that eighteenth-century botanists were ‘“agents of empire”: their inventories, classifications, and transplantations were the vanguards and in some cases the ‘instruments’ of European order’. [18] Botanists directly and indirectly facilitated the expansion of colonial empire.

The new science of botany, rather than coming into being as an ‘objective scientific exercise’, developed according to state objectives and as such arose together with the rise of European colonial empire. Arising systems of classifications were therefore far from neutral: they prioritized ‘useful’ plants that were essential for the wealth of the nation state and its colonizing efforts. [19] Botany was big business, politically and economically, and botanical gardens functioned as indispensable scientific institutions and experimental agricultural stations to make this business possible.

View of a patch of cacti in the Hortus Botanicus (Lange Nieuwstraat) in Utrecht. Producer: Photo service GAU, photographer. Earliest date: 01-02-1931/ Latest date: 28-02-1937

Violent Taxonomies: Modern Nomenclature and the Emergence of ‘Race’

This second part will dive further into the study of botany and the way it relates to other arising systems of classification in modern Western Europe. Central to the solidification of botany as a formal science was the act of classifying, labelling, and naming plants, in a consistent and standardized way. To chart, exploit, and occupy colonial territory, categorizations were crucial: resource extraction and exploitation could only happen on the basis of systems of classification that ordered the ‘newly discovered’ natural environment. Important to note here is of course that this environment was only ‘new’ for European colonists, who imposed their grids of meaning and reality onto colonized lands. In this move, local worldviews, narratives, and knowledges – that were often oral traditions as well – were erased and rewritten to fit European epistemological frameworks.

Rumiko Hagiwara, Name Garden, 2012, 113 x 76 cm, photo, inkjet print. Picture retrieved from, last accessed 6 November 2121.

The piece of art by the Japanese artist Rumiko Hagiwara exemplifies the modern European drive to order and classify their surroundings. [20] This picture, called Name Garden, shows a botanical garden in winter: ‘without any plants visible above ground, it looks like someone planted only name plates.’ [21] On the plates one can see that the plants have names that consist of two words. This binomial system of classifying nature, in which a plant is given one generic name and one specific name (as in Homo sapiens), has been established by Linnaeus, who sought to create a universal ‘science of names’. The rising science of botany became premised upon Linnaeus’s binomial nomenclature, and his system remains in use to this day. [22] Universalist ambitions notwithstanding, these systems of classifications were neither universal nor neutral, as the previous section explained: they derived from specific European perspectives with specific objectives at its root, often related to the maximalization of profit and power. The way plants became named, demonstrates the specificity of emerging scientific systems. In line with his goals concerning plant transfers to Swedish soils, Linnaeus’s system of naming disconnected plants from their geographical and cultural context. As Schiebinger argues, colonisers brought plants to Europe to collect in museums and botanical gardens but discarded the cosmologies that were tied to those plants: ‘They collected the bounty of the natural world, but sent “narratively stripped” specimens into Europe.’ [23] In many Native American languages, for example, plants were named for their medical properties, biogeographical distribution, and cultural importance. Linnaeus’s naming procedure, on the other hand, was to name plants after prominent European botanists known to him. [24]

This not only erased the plants’ ‘biogeography’, but also contributed to the consolidation of Western hegemony. In Schiebinger’s words: ‘Naming practices celebrated a particular brand of historiography – namely, a history celebrating the deeds of great European Men.’ [25] Linnaeus’s system of naming enforced the idea that science is done by elite Europeans, and in his books he even defined who had the privilege to name, ‘regulating who could and could not do science’. [26] Women, for example, were formally excluded, as were young men, and anyone that was not from Europe. This was further enforced when the standardized language of botany was made to be Latin (the language of ‘educated European men’) – displacing all other languages. [27] The practice of naming, therefore, is highly political, and the birth of the formal science of botany was rooted in capitalist and imperialist motives.

The linkage of naming and colonial power can be placed in a wider context with decolonial theorist Aníbal Quijano, who makes explicit how European ‘modernity’ and ‘coloniality’ are inherently tied up and can only be understood in relation with each other. [28] Quijano uses the term ‘coloniality’ to refer to the structures of power and hegemony that emerged during the time of European colonial conquest, but that prevailed after colonialism as an explicit political order formally ended. [29] Inherent to the colonial project, he argues, was an epistemological imperialism that gave rise to a particular framework of knowledge, and then standardized this as the only real and reliable form of knowledge production. In other words: Western knowledges were regarded as objective, rational, and universalizable, while all other knowledges were relegated to the realm of subjectivity and irrationality. As such, European epistemologies produced an ‘epistemological cut’ [30] in the field of knowledge, that differentiates the European rational autonomous subject – active producer of knowledge – from the colonial Other who can only come into being as the passive, determined, ‘natural’ object of knowledge.

Modernity and coloniality form two sides of the same coin because modern systems of classification by definition excluded non-Western forms of knowledge-production.

Evidently, this has vast ramifications, not only epistemologically but also for the way non-Western humans are perceived and valued. As Jamaican writer and philosopher Sylvia Wynter argues: this epistemological cut ‘makes it normally impossible for them/us normally to see other human groups as fully – if differently – co-human’. [31] What Wynter specifically sheds light on, is that some people were never considered fully ‘human’ under the Western order of classification – which the following subsection will further explain.

View of the rear facade of the Botanical Laboratory (Lange Nieuwstraat 106) in Utrecht, from the Hortus Botanicus. Producer: Photo service GAU, photographer. Earliest date: 01-02-1913/ Latest date: 28-02-1913

The Invention of the Human Self and Less-than-Human Other

Modern naming and labelling did not stop with plants: with the rise of the sciences, all living beings – including humans – became integrated in modern systems of classification. This can be recognized as the start of the naturalization and biologization of life. In secularizing Europe, life was increasingly understood through the lens of nature and (later) biology, rather than biblical narratives. This considerably changed views about the world and the human in it: Sylvia Wynter refers to this as a shift from a theocentric order to a ratiocentric (i.e., reason-centred) and biocentric one, which affected how humans understood and defined themselves. [32] Through a changing political order and upcoming humanist ideas, the human began to be seen as the focus of God’s creation, which entailed that humans would be close to the ‘godly’ realm of rational knowledge. [33] These new ideas about humans’ unique place within the universe formed the basis for the first conception of ‘the human’, in which nature and rationality became central characteristics: the human as a natural species and rational and political subject of the state. The human, as such, is not universal: it only came into existence in a particular time and place – modern Europe – tied to structures of power and hegemony. [34]

Wynter moreover stresses that colonialism and an early construction of racial difference lay at the heart of the formulation of humans as naturally ‘rational’. This can be exemplified by looking into Linnean classifications again, as Linnaeus was one of the first European theorists that incorporated the human (Homo) in scientific arrangements of life. He did not yet include humans on biological grounds: he did not define Homo anatomically, but as ‘Know thyself’ – distinguished through reason. [35] Linnaeus moreover also formulated a discontinuity between humans, by distinguishing different kinds of human categories. In his Systema Naturae (1758), Linnaeus divided the human into four different ‘variations’, differentiated along continents, skin colour, temperaments, and forms of government. For example, Europeans were seen as governed by laws, whereas Americans and Africans were thought to be governed by customs and chance. [36] Because Linnaeus’s system was as such both descriptive and normative, it naturalized geographical differences and social hierarchies, which makes explicit how scientific classifications are entangled with colonial power. [37] As Wynter shows, in the post-1492 colonial era, a triadic human order came into being that classified Europeans as ‘free rational humans’, Indigenous peoples of the Americas as ‘nature’s children’ (still in potential capable of reason – but only under ‘colonial guardianship’) and humans from black African descent as ‘civil slaves’: predestined to be enslaved because of a presumed total lack of reason. [38] Only European humans, in this order, were seen as fully rational, and therefore as fully human.

The scientific classification of different human variations, based on a presumed innate difference in rational capacity, enforced the notion of a natural hierarchy within the human species. This, in turn, served to naturalize colonial relations. Here it becomes apparent how African people could become transfigured as an enslavable category. Quijano argues that the colonial order relied on a reinvention of colonized groups: the slave plantation system was organized around these supposedly ‘natural’ human differences, and the idea that non-Western people were ‘less rational’, and as such ‘less human’, was necessary to enforce violent colonial structures. Indigenous peoples and black Africans had to be redefined as something outside humanity, as less-than-human categories, to legitimize violence and enslavement. Through scientific frameworks such as Linnaeus’s, colonial hierarchies could become transfigured as ‘natural’ racial differences between humans, which presumably legitimized colonial oppression: it conceptualized the colonial order as natural, and as such normal and inevitable. [39] While Linnaeus did not use the term ‘race’ itself, his system of classification played a significant role in the invention and solidification of the idea of race, and conjointly, the development of (colonial) racism. [40]

All in all, what this entails is that colonial relations were partly made possible by modern scientific classifications of vegetal as well as human life. As such, the European drive to classify, control and exploit its surroundings has far-reaching consequences. European states used the tropical colonies to experiment with nature and alter the ecological arrangements of plants in the world. At the same time – and linked to it – these colonies became subjected to experiments regarding the social organisation of categories of humans. Colonialism violently transformed the world into ‘a readable map of resources’ [41] with extractable territories organized around colonial and racializing logics. In this move, Indigenous land became categorized as private property for white colonists and black African people classified as an enslavable category.

Accumulation on one side of the ‘colonial line’, as such, corresponds to displacement and dispossession on the other side. Wynter refers to this as the ‘Janus face of the invention of Man’: [42] the humanist project of freedom and equality relies on the negation of freedom of those cast as ‘less-than-human’. [43] Modern European empires gained much of their wealth through the plantation system and trade monopolies on botanical goods. As such, European colonizers benefited from the physical labour and botanical knowledge of the people they colonized, along with the plants and seeds they found on their lands, to experience economic and intellectual growth. The quasi-universalist modern category of the human as ‘free and rational subject’, this way, came into existence within the context of a colonial order that required the symbolic dehumanization and material enslavement of a less-than-human category. Modern botany – and the gardens from which much botanical knowledge arose – took part in providing the physical structures and epistemological frameworks that made this order possible.


This article examined the entanglement of botanical gardens, colonial power, and modern scientific classifications of life – including human life. It aimed to show that the emergence of gardens and colonial relations were not merely parallel historical developments, but that they are deeply entwined: they touch on and link into each other. The first part of the article explained how colonial economies could emerge on the basis of a material infrastructure of botanical gardens and the knowledge that was produced in and circulated between these gardens. Furthermore, the economic need for a ‘universal’ system of botanical classifications catapulted the development of botany as a formal science. The emergence of modern botany as such became enmeshed with colonial power, in a co-constitutive way: knowledge about specific plants shaped colonial endeavours, as it enabled the implementation of colonial cash-crop plantations. Colonial imperatives in turn shaped how botany was done, namely with a focus on utility and profit for European states.

These imperatives surpassed the study of botany alone, as the second part showed that modern classifications of human life can be understood to have similar economic and colonial underpinnings. The rise of the modern sciences and its epistemological assumptions on who can and cannot produce ‘rational knowledge’, played a crucial role in the exclusionary modern conception of the human. The formulation of the human as ‘rational subject’ is neither universal nor neutral: it emerged as part of a colonial epistemological framework that rests on the creation and enslavement of a ‘less rational’ human category. Linnaeus, the celebrated ‘father of modern botany’ himself, differentiated normative variations within humans, which could form a theoretical basis that naturalized (and as such presumably normalized and legitimized) colonial relations. Relocating an idyllic place such as the botanical garden in its historical and colonial context, therefore, not only unsettles the presumed innocence of the garden, it also touches upon the roots of the way we understand and define ourselves, the people who walk through it.


[*] Copyright explanation for photos from the archive: “You may: download, share, copy, publish and edit, including for commercial purposes. Condition: include the name of the photographer.”

[1] Thomas Heyd, ‘Thinking Through Botanic Gardens’, Environmental Values 15.2 (2006) 199. [2] Carolyn Merchant, Reinventing Eden: The Fate of Nature in Western Culture (New York 2003) 55-56. [3] Lucile Brockway, Science and Colonial Expansion: The Role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens (New York 1979), 14, 59. [4] Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis 2018) 30. [5] Londa L. Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge 2004) 7. [6] Brockway, Science, 49. [7] Zaheer Baber, ‘The Plants of Empire: Botanic Gardens, Colonial Power and Botanical Knowledge’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 46.4 (2016) 668. [8] Brockway, Science, 72-76. [9] Schiebinger, Plants and Empire, 5. [10] Ibidem, 11. [11] Baber, ‘The Plants’, 676. [12] Ibidem, 660. [13] Ibidem, 660-61. [14] Schiebinger, Plants and Empire, 11. [15] Ibidem, 6-7. [16] Ibidem, 7. [17] Baber, ‘The Plants’, 673. [18] Schiebinger, Plants and Empire, 11. [19] Ibidem, 5-11. [20] Picture retrieved from Rumiko Hagiwara, Name Garden, accessed 6 November 2021, [21 ] Laurie Cluitmans, ed., On The Necessity Of Gardening – An ABC Of Art, Botany And Cultivation (Amsterdam 2021) 40. [22] Schiebinger, Plants and Empire, 198-99. [23] Ibidem, 87. [24] Ibidem, 197-98. [25] Ibidem, 20. [26] Ibidem, 203. [27] Ibidem, 203-4. [28] Aníbal Quijano, Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America (Durham 2000); Aníbal Quijano, ‘Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality’, Cultural Studies 21.2-3 (2007) 168-178. [29] Ibidem, 70. [30] Étienne Balibar, ‘La construction du racisme’, Actuel Marx 38.2 (2005) 11-28. [31] Sylvia Wynter, ‘The Ceremony Found: Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn, Its Autonomy of Human Agency and Extraterritoriality of (Self-)Cognition’, in Jason R. Ambroise and Sabine Broeck, eds., Black Knowledges/Black Struggles (Liverpool 2015), 215. [32] Ibidem, 190-92. [33] Sylvia Wynter, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation – An Argument’, in CR: The New Centennial Review 3.3 (2003) 276-278. [34] Wynter, ‘The Ceremony Found’, 227; Wynter, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality’; Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, translated by Alan Sheridan (London 2006). [35] Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, and Dominic Thomas, eds., The Invention of Race: Scientific and Popular Representations (New York 2014) 25. [36] Carl Linnaeus, Systema Naturæ per Regna Tria Naturæ, Secundum Classes, Ordines, Genera, Species, Cum Characteribus, Differentiis, Synonymis, Locis (Holmiae 1758) 20. [37] Bancel, David, and Thomas, eds., The Invention of Race. [38] Sylvia Wynter, ‘1492: A New World View’, in Vera Lawrence and Rex Nettleford, eds., Race, Discourse, and the Origin of the Americas: A New World View (Washington 1995) 35-36. [39] Quijano, Coloniality of Power; Quijano, ‘Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality’. [40] Bancel, David, and Thomas, eds., The Invention of Race. [41] Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes, 83. [42] Wynter, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality’, 263. [43] Ibidem, 264.

About the author

Senne Nout completed a master in philosophy at Radboud University and a gender studies research master at Utrecht University. She is especially interested in the way the historical and philosophical definition of ‘being human’ is anchored in exclusionary mechanisms. Her article is a continuation of her master’s thesis, that examined how ‘thinking-with gardens’ can shed light on processes of in- and exclusion within social and ecological landscapes.

Senne Nout, ‘Modern taxonomies and colonial violence. Tracing the routes and roots of botanical gardens’, Locus – Tijdschrift voor Cultuurwetenschappen 25 (2022).

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