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VOYAGES OF IMPROVEMENT: AMBITION AND FAILURE IN PROJECTS OF PLANT TRANSFER AND IMPROVEMENT IN THE LATE EIGHTEENTH–CENTURY BRITISH EMPIRE
In late 1700s, Britain sent two expeditions to transfer breadfruit trees from the Pacific island of Tahiti to the British West Indies, where, it was believed, they would provide food for the plantation slaves. However, as it has become commonplace to note, the slaves largely ignored the breadfruit. Historians have typically explained the voyages as a response to a dire subsistence crisis in the British Caribbean and as part of a wider economically motivated and metropolitan driven effort to exploit the world's natural resources for the benefit of a burgeoning imperial state through projects of agricultural improvement. While this dissertation does not dispute the general sense that, from the metropolitan perspective, plant exchange was guided by the strategic and economic needs of empire, it does, however, argue that the motives, processes and outcomes of plant transfer and improvement broadly were equally shaped by the complexities of local circumstances in the peripheries of empire. This dissertation takes the failure of the breadfruit scheme as a starting point for rethinking the complexities of how improving projects, and plant transfer in particular, were conceived and executed in the peripheries of Britain's empire. It understands the breadfruit voyages as complex and ambitious program of global plant transfer and improvement, comprising a series of exchanges that engaged a diverse group of metropolitan, colonial and native actors. By following the path of Bligh’s ship through all its major stops, from London, to Tahiti, to St. Helena, and finally to the British West Indies, this dissertation reconstructs the complex ways in which people understood, engaged with and reacted to the idea of improvement through the project of plant transfer. As one of the first major exercises in state-sponsored science the breadfruit voyages exemplify a particular historical perspective on the relationship between science, improvement and empire in the late eighteenth century. From the metropole, exchange may have seemed a relatively straightforward act of moving plants from one place to another. However, as this dissertations shows, the success of plant transfer in each periphery was contingent on a range of local variables. The idea of improvement was also imbued with a range of moral and social meanings that linked the economic and material progress that would come from improving agriculture with the development of culture and civilization. This dissertation shows how the various individuals and groups involved in plant transfer in Britain’s peripheries absorbed, modified, and rejected this ideal.
NotesElectronic thesis available to American University authorized users only, per author's request.
Degree grantorAmerican University. Department of History