Nature's Colony: Empire, Nation and Environment in the Singapore Botanic Gardens
Established in 1859, Singapore’s Botanic Gardens has served as a park for Singaporeans and visitors, a scientific institution, and a testing ground for tropical plantation crops. Each function has its own story, while the Gardens also fuel an underlying narrative of the juncture of administrative authority and the natural world.
Created to help exploit natural resources for the British Empire, the Gardens became contested ground in conflicts involving administrators and scientists that reveal shifting understandings of power, science and nature in Singapore and in Britain. This continued after independence, when the Gardens featured in the “greening” of the nation-state, and became Singapore’s first World Heritage Site.
Positioning the Singapore Botanic Gardens alongside the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and gardens in India, Ceylon, Mauritius and the West Indies, this book tells the story of nature’s colony—a place where plants were collected, classified and cultivated to change our understanding of the region and world.
“...gives detail to the shifting function of the Garden, and the competing values projected onto it. There was a shortlived menagerie, which included a chainsmoking orangutan and a tapir that died of tuberculosis after a swim...Eventually, the long, tangled networks of empire shifted and new centres emerged in the global, polycentric web of botanical gardens. Singapore became part of Malaysia, then its own state. Priorities changed and there was no place for the Garden in nationbuilding. With the orchid diplomacy between Singapore and Indonesia in the 1970s, when the ruling families of both nations – the Suhartos and Lees – made amends after a military spat by exchanging fantastic hybrid orchids, the garden was now at the centre of geopolitical manoeuvring. After this, it became a pleasure ground but this time for the public, and a key part of the imaginary of a postcolonial, contemporary garden city.” - Adam Bobbette, Times Literary Supplement
“Tim Barnard has researched a masterpiece on the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ history, greatly enriching our knowledge and reinforcing its inscription as a World Heritage Site of global significance. We get the fascinating back story to the trials and tribulations suffered by the superintendents and directors as the administrative environment changed during more than 150 years of the Gardens’ progress…Barnard has given us a new and very different view of the history of gardens in Singapore and how we should interpret them as part of cultural history in an ever-changing world.” - Nigel P. Taylor, Group Director, Singapore Botanic Gardens
“Nature’s Colony is a fascinating exploration of Singapore’s long-established botanical garden. For visitors since colonial times, the Garden has been a tranquil window into Southeast Asia’s biodiversity. The book conjures up both the changing romantic visions and the scientific imperatives that inspired the Garden’s curators. The book also takes us behind the fringe of leaves into scientific politics and the politics of Singapore society during its many transformations. Genially written and rich in anecdote, this book will enchant both historians and general readers.” - Robert Cribb, Professor of Asian History, School of Culture History and Language, Australian National University
Timothy P. Barnard is associate professor in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. He is the editor of Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore and Contesting Malayness: Malay Identity Across Boundaries, also published by NUS Press.
Publication Year: 2016
304 pages, 229mm x 152mm