How Have Plants Shaped Human Societies?
We still know very little, but a new project called the Plant Humanities Initiative aims to change that
Quinine (Scientific name: Cinchona) is a plant that has influenced the course of human history. Used for centuries by the indigenous people of the Andes as a cure for fevers, Cinchona became known to Jesuits stationed in Peru in the early seventeenth century. The “Jesuit powder” was subsequently introduced to Europe as a medicine against malaria and remained the only effective treatment well into the twentieth century.
Due to its medicinal properties, Cinchona was a key focus of many Spanish botanical expeditions to South America, including those by Hipólito Ruiz López and José Antonio Pavón, and by José Celestino Mutis. Indeed, so desirable was quinine to the botany of empire that the Spanish forbade the export of Cinchona bark from their territories in 1778 upon pain of death. Yet a reliable supply of quinine remained of great economic and military significance to the British and the Dutch, who succeeded in obtaining seeds and seedlings from South America by stealth.
Britain prospected Peruvian bark trees and grew them in India, having first transplanted them to Kew, one of many botanical gardens that served as a center for medical and colonial botany. In fact, the success of British rule in India depended partly on the control of malaria through the establishment of local Cinchona plantations. In Jules Verne’s 1874 fantasy novel The Mysterious Island, the sulfate of quinine that miraculously saves the life of one of the main characters turns out to be a gift from the reclusive Captain Nemo. Yet far from being a pure gift, Cinchona, like so many other botanical discoveries, was both a cure for suffering and an instrument of power.
Some cartoons are global, mostly Australian.