On Diplomacy and the Botanical Gift: France and Mysore in 1788
September 1788 was a busy time for the Jardin du Roi. Several months previously, an ambassadorial deputation had arrived in Paris from Seringapatam in India. After paying tribute to their host, and once they had sampled some of Paris’s many delights, the three ambassadors requested on behalf of their ruler, Tipu Sultan, that the French furnish them with a particular catalogue of gifts. The desiderata ranged from Sèvres porcelains to French armaments but also included requests for crates containing exemplars of France’s flora—and a team of gardeners to tend to them. Louis XVI’s ministers leapt to action, drawing on their contacts at the Jardin du Roi to obtain the living specimens, and the personnel, required by their Indian visitors. The ambassadors and a carefully selected French entourage finally set sail from Brest in November 1788. The resulting correspondence, now preserved in the archives of Paris’s Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, depicts the hectic process of responding to the ambassadors’ requests, and details the French envoys’ experiences during their journey from Brest to India’s Coromandel Coast.
The French response to the Sultan’s demands invites us to consider the role played by plants and people within diplomatic relations in the late eighteenth century. This paper examines the motivations behind this botanical exchange, and questions the extent to which the plants’ potential economic value actually mattered to France and Mysore. It also emphasizes the necessity of developing a fuller understanding of the processes through which botanical exchanges took place, for plant transfers depended entirely on recruiting practitioners with a wide range of expertise. The paper not only underlines the significance of information transfer and practical knowledge to the history of colonial botany, but also exposes the types of information that were exchanged, and how these were mediated by different social groups. This is a paper about a journey from France to India, and it is about the making of knowledge—both social and botanical—in the heyday of colonial botany.
Sarah Easterby-Smith is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews. Her research is broadly concerned with the interaction between science, commerce, and cultures of amateurship in the eighteenth century. She is currently completing her first monograph, which is a social and cultural history of botany in late eighteenth-century France and Britain.