Aldous Huxley wrote in his Collected Essays that, “Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know.” In Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World, Stanford historian Londa Schiebinger highlights the role that such intentional ignorance played in the dissemination of knowledge (and the lack thereof). Whether this ignorance is of local plants and languages–because of the early scientific tradition of naming species only after revered European naturalists–or whether it is of the abortifacients that women would use to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, this legacy of “culturally induced ignorances” has given shape to the scientific knowledge of today. However, there is far more than just scientific advances that have suffered as a result; the brutal history of colonialism is as much a part of this willful ignorance as anything else. As Schiebinger’s book emphasizes, what has been left out of our history can be just as revealing for a historian as those events that are well known.
“Agnotology,” Schiebinger writes, “refocuses questions about ‘how we know’ to include questions about what we do not know, and why not. Ignorance is often not merely the absence of knowledge but an outcome of cultural and political struggle” (p. 3). This struggle has frequently been the battle over women’s fertility. The male concern over controlling a female’s reproduction has been well documented in studies of monkeys and great apes, but Schiebinger highlights how this same concern in the third chimpanzee (a.k.a. humans) has directly impacted the history of science. Merian’s peacock flower, or Poinciana pulcherrima in the Linnaean terminology, was a notoriously political plant and its controversy (or, rather, the controversy that European male naturalists sought to avoid) helped ensure that the properties of this species would go almost completely unknown.
Poinciana is what is known as an abortifacient, or a plant that induces an abortion when ingested, and was well understood by the first naturalists who encountered it. Maria Sibylla Merian described the plant and how it was used by slave populations in her 1705 study on the insects of Suriname entitled Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. Likewise, English physician Sir Hans Sloane, who worked for the colonial Governor in Jamaica, accused “dissembling” women of the region with seeking the plant in order to “make the physician cause abortion by the medicines he may order for their cure” (p. 110). A later account, by a French doctor named Descourtilz, pointed out the plant’s ability to aid in treating lung ailments and fevers. However, he cautioned against using the plant with pregnant women as it could induce menses, stating that, “ill-intentioned Negresses…use it to destroy the fruits of their guilty loves” (p. 108). Poinciana was cultivated in some of the leading botanical gardens of France and Britain, but it’s abortifacient qualities were dutifully ignored. Schiebinger’s argument, then, is that the “agnotology of abortives among Europeans was not for want of knowledge collected in the colonies; it resulted from protracted struggles over who should control women’s fertility” (p. 239).
This struggle was intimately tied in with race and colonialism. Schiebinger documents how the use of Poinciana was an important means of resistance against the brutal experience of slavery. Sloan had documented in the 18th century how the slaves under English rule were known to “cut their own throats” in order to escape the cruel abuses of their enslavement. Edward Bancroft in his 1769 Essay on the Natural History of Guiana, in South America highlighted the frequency with which slave women induced abortions and how that cut into the profits of their owners. “[T]his unnatural practice is very frequent,” Bancroft wrote, “and of the highest detriment to the planters, whose opulence must otherwise be immense” (p. 128).
Tragically, this practice was not infrequent in the history of European colonialism. After witnessing the brutal treatment by the Spanish against the Taino of Hispaniola that involved fierce attack dogs as well as swords used to disembowel or to hack off arms, legs, noses, and women’s breasts, Italian adventurer Girolamo Benzoni wrote, “Many, giving up hope, went into the woods and hanged themselves from trees, having first killed their children; . . . the women, with the juices of some plants, interrupted their pregnancies, so as not to give birth” (p. 129).
This same solution was adopted by the victims of European colonialism in the Caribbean. This is emphasized in the testimony of one Guadeloupe slave woman when she stated, “I am miserable enough without giving birth to children who may live a life more pitiable than mine” (p. 132). In this way, the use of abortifacients was, according to Schiebinger, “one type of resistance among many” in order to oppose the brutality of European colonialism.
Plants and Empire is a brilliant rendering of how issues of gender, race and power have influenced the dissemination of knowledge in the history of science. What might have been different if, rather than shunning the knowledge that Poinciana pulcherrima offered, European naturalists had brought this information home? If women had been able to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies we might never have had to face the ugly conditions that desperate women turned to prior to the legalization of abortion in the 1970s. However, this brings up a fundamental oversight in Schiebinger’s account. The motivation to ignore the abortifacient properties of Poinciana was a direct result of the influence that religious doctrine had over the physicians and naturalists who encountered the plant. Even if the knowledge of Poinciana had been shared widely, the Christian dogma that prohibited women from having control over their own fertility would not have changed. By not emphasizing the role of religious ideology in this story Schiebinger seems to place blame with the naturalists themselves rather than where the real culprit lay.
Nevertheless, Schiebinger’s account is a multi-tiered assault that exposes the reality contained in Aldous Huxley’s adage. How many of us reflexively think of “Western civilization” as a noble force responsible only for reason and enlightenment? For every singular advancement in science, art and politics there has been a concomitant crime inflicted against indigenous and First Nation peoples, against non-Europeans more generally and against women throughout history. In this sense, agnotology is at the very heart of Western civilization. As Schiebinger points out, what we’ve chosen to be ignorant of may be far more telling about us as a people than what we actually know.