When imperial explorer James Cook returned from his first voyage to Australia, the scandal writers mercilessly satirised the amorous exploits of his botanist, Joseph Banks, whose trousers were reportedly stolen while he was inside the tent of Queen Oberea of Tahiti. But Enlightenment botany was fraught with sexual symbolism. And in Sweden and Britain, both imperial powers, Banks and Carl Linneaus ruled over their own small scientific empires, promoting botanical exploration to justify exploiting territories, peoples and natural resources. Regarding native peoples with disdain, these two scientific emperors portrayed the Arctic North and the Pacific Ocean as uncorrupted Edens, free from the shackles of Western sexual mores. Patricia Fara reveals how, barely concealed under Banks' and Linneaus' camouflage of noble Enlightenment, were the altogether more seedy drives to conquer, subdue and deflower - in the name of the British imperial State.
Fara, of the history and philosophy of science department at Cambridge, presents a book in search of a thesis. Despite the intriguing title, it spends little time drawing parallels among British imperialism, botany and eroticism (or, as Fara calls them, "the three Ss: Sex, Science and the State"). The main focus is, instead, on two 18th-century botanists: Carl Linnaeus, a Swede who developed the modern system for classifying organisms, and Joseph Banks, who popularized Linnaeus's system and brought science into the political arena in Britain as head of the Royal Society. Instead of relating a coherent history of these two men who never met, the book bounces between the two like a pinball, going forward and backward in time, repeatedly revisiting Banks's satyric/scientific trip to Tahiti and Australia with James Cook. Instead of analysis of the history being presented, we are treated to long-winded portraits of the key figures and of Tahitian orgies. In the end, the reader comes away with an incoherent image of the British Empire at the end of the 18th century. Fara (Newton: The Making of Genius) would have done better to spend time placing her stories in a historical context that might have showed how sex, botany and empire were connected. 15 illus.
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Icon Group International, Incorporated
November 03, 2004
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