Project which unearthed enslaved people's contribution to botanic garden shortlisted for top research award

12 Sep 2023
two women stood in a garden talking

A University of Winchester academic’s work to highlight the contribution to the world of botany by enslaved Africans and indigenous people on a Caribbean island has led to an award nomination.

Dr Christina Welch’s research project 'Unearthing Indigenous and Enslaved African Horticultural Knowledge in St Vincent Botanical Garden (1785-1811)’ has been shortlisted for Research Project of the Year: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences in the 2023 THE (Times Higher Education) Awards.

Thanks to Christina’s work the St Vincent Botanical Garden, the first botanical garden in the western hemisphere, now has a new pop-up exhibition explaining its history. 

It tells the story of how Scottish horticulturist Dr Alexander Anderson, superintendent of the gardens from 1785-1811, used not only the labour but the knowledge of the enslaved peoples to create a globally important plant collection covering 20 acres. 

Shortly after his arrival Anderson realised the neighbouring plots cultivated by the enslaved Africans for their own use were far more productive than those cleared by the white landowners. 

So, Anderson followed the Africans’ lead of retaining shaded areas and the Garden flourished and grew from around 60 plant species in 1785 to more than 1,300 by 1806. 

Christina’s research also shows that many of the plants ‘discovered’ by Anderson were actually brought to him by local people. 

“Anderson also drew on the plant knowledge of local peoples, the people now called the Garifuna and Kalinago, and when travelling used indigenous peoples to help him locate plants, and sometimes medical cures,” said Christina. 

“He talked in his writings about taking enslaved Africans on his travels too, so we know his scientific findings relied heavily on both Indigenous and enslaved African knowledge systems as well as their labour.” 

Originally the Garden had been intended to grow plants for medicinal use for the British Army whose main foe in the West Indies was disease.

However, with his team of enslaved Africans, Anderson created a nursery for the Empire, sending out plants and seeds all over the world. 

Christina’s research was one of 10 projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council under the umbrella title Hidden Histories of Environmental Science. 

The Anderson archives, are held by the Linnean Society, Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum in London – thousands of miles from St Vincent. 

As part of Christina’s project much of this valuable archive has been digitised and can be seen on line. In addition to the text, there are many fine illustrations by John Tyley, an artist of mixed race from Antigua.

In May Christina visited the island to help to set up the display entitled 'Unearthing the Hidden Stories of the St Vincent Botanical Garden'. 

painting of the st vincent botanic garden

Rodica Simmons-Tannis, Deputy Director (Ag.) of the St Vincent and Grenadines National Parks Rivers and Beaches Authority said: “The research work done by Dr Welch has really been enlightening, and it has started some interesting discussions among agencies and our local historic society about accessing information about our history.  

 “We are planning to use the banners for exhibitions, school programs and enhance the visitor interpretation for the Botanic Gardens.”  

In the UK another edition of the exhibition has gone on display in Anderson’s hometown of Dundee and at the museum at High Wycombe, which is home to this country’s largest number of people of St Vincentian descent.  

Christina said: “I’m delighted to have led this project which being interdisciplinary and collaborative in nature, has brought diverse scholars into conversation with each other. It clearly demonstrates the importance of impactful research to the University of Winchester and the wider community.”

Professor Emile Bojesen, Director of Research and Innovation at the University of Winchester, said: “I am delighted that Tina’s research has been shortlisted for this award. It is an important project which has helped to shed new light on the contribution of indigenous and enslaved African knowledge to the history of St Vincent and the history of botany.”

The project has been a collaboration between The University of Winchester, The Linnean Society, The Royal Botanical Garden Kew, The Natural History Museum, the Antonio Carluccio Foundation, the Museum Detox Interpretation Group, and the St Vincent and Grenadines National Parks, Rivers and Beaches Authority. 

THE Award winners will be announced on 7 December at a ceremony to be held in Liverpool as part of THE Campus Live UK&IE.

Pictured top: Dr Christina Welch at the Botanic Garden and (above) a painting of the garden which features in the exhibition.

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