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Ethnobotany, Symbolism, and Property Rights Institutions in Tropical Agrarian Societies

Michael Sheridan, Middlebury College, Project Grant 2014–2015

The Dracaena plant delineates property lines, marks graves, and symbolizes peace throughout tropical Africa, and the botanically similar Cordyline species serves similar functions in both the Caribbean and Oceania. I visited St. Vincent, Cameroon, and Tanzania for ethnographic fieldwork on these plants and expand the project to Melanesia. ‘Boundary plants’ remain meaningful despite social and ecological change because they embed both property rights and social values into landscapes. The resulting book will describe the symbolic, social, and ecological commonalities of these plants in agrarian societies, and explore how these focal points of property, identity, and meaning shape tropical landscapes.

A man shows his boundary of Cordyline: “It give protection from all bad thing!”
A man shows his boundary of Cordyline: “It give protection from all bad thing!”

This is a summary of my trip to St. Vincent, looking at the social history of Cordyline and Dracaena plants in the island’s landscape.  I arrived on March 17, and returned home April 8.  I did a total of 54 interviews, 4 participant observation sessions, and two full days in the St. Vincent national archives. 

The interviews were all on the North Leeward coast of St. Vincent.  I was based in the village of Richmond, which consists of a hotel-school (Richmond Vale Academy and Hiking Center), a beach bar, and some farms.  The rest of the population was forcibly relocated in 1979 after a volcanic eruption.  Richmond is literally the end of the road, and I enjoyed my daily 6-mile round trip walk to work.  The interviews were in the villages of Fitz Hughes, Chateaubelair, Petit Bordel, and Rose Bank.  For all of these interviews I was assisted by Chris Harry, a razor-sharp lady from Petit Bordel who I met entirely by chance on Day 1 of the research.  Most of the interviews were with individual elderly people who could recount what the area’s landscape had been like when they were young and how it had changed, although some of the interviews were focus groups of 3-5 people (as these opportunities presented themselves and interested people stayed to listen and eventually participate).

The participant observation sessions were all in churches, where I could see Cordyline in use.  I was able to interview several church leaders, but it was fascinating to see the plant in action because it is literally at the center of every Spiritual Baptist church.  Church members really made sure that I participated; a Bible was thrust into my hands, one kind old lady coached my singing, and they made sure I got up to dance. 

 My work in the St Vincent National Archives allowed me to survey old newspapers, 19th century maps, and a variety of unpublished reports. 

Cordyline in a Vincentian cemetery (at front left)
Cordyline in a Vincentian cemetery (at front left)

The key findings of this work are:

1)     Landscape:  Cordyline is common all over the island as a boundary mark, and it is known as ‘red dragon.’  Vincentians insist that the plant ‘came from Africa,’ but the British introduced it from Polynesia in the late 18th century.  Most houses have at least two Cordyline plants on the two corners of the property closest to the road.  It also usually marks the four corners of garden plots in the island’s mountain interior, where most families grow plantains, yams, and taro.  How did this Polynesian plant become so popular?  My elderly informants (and archival documents) explained that until the 1980s few Vincentians owned their own land, and most rented or were technically squatters on British-owned plantation estates.  I interviewed people who had rented land from the estates, or whose fathers had worked on the estates.  I learned that the estates used the ‘red dragon’ to mark the boundaries of rental plots, and that as the estates were divided up into private plots after Independence in 1979, Vincentians used Cordyline to establish their new property rights.  Dracaena, also known as ‘green dragon’ or ‘windjammer’ was also used on property lines, typically in between the Cordyline on the corners.

2)     The most important thing about Cordyline in St. Vincent is that it is socially and culturally significant in ways that are strikingly similar to the uses of Dracaena in tropical Africa.  For St. Vincentians, however, Dracaena is a purely pragmatic plant for property lines and windbreaks.  Cordyline, on the other hand, prevents evil spirits from afflicting the members of a household, keeps a spirit in its grave, and generally signifies peace and protection. 

3)     Some of the parallels with African ethnobotany are highly specific (and therefore fascinating).  For example, in both St. Vincent and Cameroon people report using the same plants that appear on landscape boundaries to prepare special bath water that will protect a baby from harm (thus Cordyline in St. Vincent and Dracaena in Cameroon).   Rural Cameroonians and Tanzanians wave fronds of Dracaena when a politician comes to visit; in St. Vincent I interviewed several men who waved Cordyline at the island’s Independence Day celebrations in 1979.

4)     Cordyline serves as a boundary marker elsewhere in the Caribbean, but in St. Vincent it is much more than a feature of economic botany and boundary symbolism.  I knew from my reading that in St. Vincent the Spiritual Baptist church uses Cordyline as its key symbol, so this year’s research was all about going deeper in what it means and does.  I attended church services and interviewed church members about their ‘spiritual journeys.’  The most important ritual in this church is called ‘mourning.’ 

A Spiritual Baptist “Mother” holds the “red dragon”
A Spiritual Baptist “Mother” holds the “red dragon”

Members go into a special room within the church, which is bare except for a thin mattress and a cup of water.  There they kneel with a leaf of Cordyline in their right hands, pumping their arms up and down vigorously while they pray for a vision.  Usually this lasts seven to nine days.  Eventually the ‘red dragon’ appears to them as a leaf floating in the air in front of their faces.  It speaks to them, telling them to follow the leaf to ‘Africa-land.’  The spiritual traveler zooms over land and ocean until they arrive at Zion Hill.  There they climb the hill, still following the leaf, until the reach the boundary of heaven – which is (of course) marked by a Cordyline hedge.  There their journey ends, because (as they say) “the red dragon means STOP!”  They meet people at the boundary who usually give the travelers knowledge or skills, such as words in a language they did not speak before, the ability to do an African dance, or even how to make bread.  They fly back into the church, guided by the Cordyline next to the building’s central pole, and are welcomed back into the land of the living in a special service (which I attended). 

The traveler carries a bouquet of Cordyline around a lit white candle while she recounts her journey.  After demonstrating that she has been to the boundary of heaven, the traveler is entitled to wear a ‘leaf of the dragon’ in her turban-like ‘headtie’ at all church functions.  In brief, the same plant marks boundaries in both the material world (of a racially stratified post-slavery colonial society of peasants) and the spiritual world (of a return to Africa in order to gain power and status).  

Overall, then, Cordyline occupies the same three social niches (economic, social-political, and ideological) in Vincentian society that Dracaena does in tropical Africa.  It is, along with breadfruit and plantain, nearly ubiquitous in the island’s landscape.  It literally roots the basic facts of land ownership in the landscape, represents appropriate and orderly social relationships, and stands at the boundary of life and death in both cemeteries and at the edge of heaven. 

I am tremendously grateful to Dumbarton Oaks for making this research possible!