Calcutta Botanic Garden
: Knowledge Formation and the Expectations of Botany in a Colonial Context, 1833-1914

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Calcutta Botanic Garden was founded in 1786 to acclimatise economic plants, but it quickly became the main institutional base for scientific botany in colonial India.However, it had to make a new start in 1833 after the Garden superintendent, Nathaniel Wallich, distributed its herbarium to botanists in Europe.
The thesis shows how the revival of the scientific project to investigate and catalogue the south Asian flora was the main priority for Wallich’s successors, but depended on successful negotiation with the government. The central theme of the thesis is the tension between scientists, intent on their research, and sponsors, who need to demonstrate practical outcomes. It breaks new ground by focussing on how these issues were debated and resolved within a particular colonial scientific institution.

It argues that the Garden was able to attract the resources it needed for its scientific work by responding appropriately to government pressures: although its achievements in economic botany were limited, it successfully highlighted them, regularly citing the introduction of tea and cinchona; it reinforced its case by managing its site in ways that reassured the government.

The thesis also adds to our understanding of centre-periphery relationships. It argues that the Garden’s role as an important nodal point in the global botanic network was key to achieving its objectives. It shows how the Garden was strengthened by its mutually supportive relationship with Kew Gardens, based on the close bonds that botanists formed with each other.

The thesis concludes by showing how, despite the Garden’s achievements, the
government gradually lost faith in the ability of botany to contribute to economic
progress in India; in the twentieth century it increasingly turned to more specialist disciplines and institutions. The thesis therefore suggests that further studies of scientific institutions would enhance our understanding of how science continued to support and validate imperial rule.
Date of Award2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJon Wilson (Supervisor) & Jahnavi Phalkey (Supervisor)

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