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Garden Imperialism

December 15, 2011Print This Post         


Tollygunge Club, Kolkata

by Eugenia W. Herbert

Researching an earlier book on the culture of late colonialism in the Upper Zambezi Valley of what was then Northern Rhodesia, I read a great many colonial memoirs, letters and reports, and interviewed ex-colonial officials. There were two things that surprised me: one was the importance of Worcestorshire sauce, the other, the importance of gardens. Even in the most unlikely outposts, Brits tried to create lawns and gardens, and above all English gardens with English flowers. When I turned my attention to India, the mystery of Worcestorshire sauce was quickly dispelled: it was an Indian recipe that had been handed over to a Worcester chemist, and then all but forgotten as it ripened in kegs in his basement until it was rediscovered by some adventurous ladies. In Africa, it could make anything palatable, especially if it had been “improved” with a few shots of gin.

Gardens were another matter. If the passion for gardens were true for Africa, I reasoned, surely it would be writ large in India, where the British had a much greater presence for a much longer period of time, not simply a single lifespan as in Africa. And so it was. The penchant of colonials for English gardens, along with clubs, cricket and hunting, reflected an understandable need on the part of the expatriate to replicate “home” as much as possible in an alien environment. However, my original assumption that the phenomenon reflected little more than a longing for the reassuringly familiar proved far too simple; there was a great deal more involved than simple nostalgia and homesickness.


Lal Bagh with garden gnomes, Bangalore

There were a myriad of variations on the theme of British gardens in India. First of all, there were changes over time, from the eighteenth-century nabobs with their “garden houses” modeled on English country estates, to the Victorian civil servants with their bungalows and more middle-class desiderata of flower beds, herbaceous borders, gravel walks and well-trimmed lawns. Place mattered, too. As the British extended their rule, they found that hill stations, from the Himalayas to the Nilgiris to the Western Ghats, offered a heaven-sent respite from the unbearable summer heat of the “burning plains”, as well as a paradise where English flowers bloomed in abundance, and in fact where many grew wild for the picking. Ironically, the rhododendron forests of the mountains, transported across the sea by the ton, would change the British countryside itself. Finally, garden design reflected individual responses to India. These ran the gamut from horror at the sheer untamed luxuriance of Indian flora to an embrace of its sensuality, with all the registers in between. Even colonials most intent on surrounding their bungalows with English gardens as a cordon sanitaire against the outside world acknowledged in the end that, realistically, they must include tropical plantings. Like the mulligatawnies and curries that were not quite Indian and not quite English, colonial gardens, too, often ended up as creoles, their mix of familiar and exotic flowers growing under the shade of mangoes and palms and peepals in lieu of the stately elms and oaks of home.

While the British had little appreciation of Indian gardens generally, they did recognize that the Mughals had rivaled them not only in their passion for gardens but in the sophistication of their design, just as they had rivaled them in their imperial ambitions. Lord Curzon, viceroy at the high noon of empire, ranked the Mughal monuments of Agra among the greatest in the world, and the greatest of these was the Taj Mahal, which he had fallen in love with as a young man on his travels in 1887-88. He made this the centerpiece of his ambitious restoration of Indian antiquities, supervising every last detail. The result is an exquisite architectural gem, set in an English park, the experience of the visitor pre-determined to fit an alien aesthetic but one in keeping with Curzon’s own sensibilities. But one must be cautious about generalizations: his sensibilities were not necessarily shared by of all Britons. Indeed, Curzon was criticized in his own lifetime by those who disagreed with his concept of “restoration.”


Flower Market, Kolkata

What I set out to do in my book, Flora’s Empire: British Gardens in India, therefore, was to follow the twists and turns of the gardens the British created in India from the earliest settlements in Surat in the seventeenth century to Independence in 1947, from domestic to official gardens, from botanical gardens to gardens of memory and archaeological restorations, with a coda looking at their legacy in the post-colonial era. The gardens are as varied as the characters in the story, from viceroys and their wives to unremembered officials (and their wives) in the remote reaches of the mofussil and to professional botanists, soldiers, and retirees. As much as possible I have used their own voices, sprinkling the text liberally with quotations from the literature they have left behind and with illustrations to convey something of the richness of the topic.

For all the variety of responses and changes over time and place, however, I believe one may postulate a theory of “garden imperialism” which was hardly limited to India but was perhaps most conspicuous there. When one power redirects the economy of another to produce tea or opium primarily for the benefit of the rulers, no one disputes the term “imperialism.” But can we justify the term when speaking of the colonization of the world with English gardens? After all, this phenomenon was a composite of many elements, not least of them homesickness, love of nature, the pleasure of seeing things grow, a delight in beauty itself. Nevertheless, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, they contained an ideological message that reflected both individual personalities and cultural values. It may be a leap to argue that they were an integral part of the template of power relations, the ability of the British to govern so many with so few—at the height of the empire no more than 165,000 Europeans ruled 300 million Indians, for example, and the same ratios held elsewhere—but they were one of the most visible manifestations of British presence and British civilization. John Mortimer may have been only half jesting when he commented that the herbaceous border, along with British law, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Lord Byron, was “one of our great contributions to the world.” For the colonials themselves gardens were, more often than not, a means of keeping the “other” world at bay, of creating an oasis of Britishness in an alien if not a potentially hostile land. Conversely, subject peoples aiming for acceptance aped the ways of the British, not least of all their gardens, just as the Raj put princes had earlier adopted Mughal gardens.


Victoria Gardens, Mumbai

“A perennial theme running throughout Britain’s imperial experience,” notes the historian P. J. Marshall, “has been the relationship between the ideas about the ordering of society at home and ideas about the ordering of the empire overseas.” However obvious may seem to be the difficulties of imposing this order on very different societies, “generations of British people have tried to do precisely this.” Gardens are but one instance, and, as the garden historian John Dixon Hunt warns us, “we should not let all that ‘nature’ seduce us from registering their cultural self-construction.” If extensive greenswards and neat flowerbeds and banks of shrubbery were the ideal of civilized living at home, they were all the more so abroad, where the danger of losing one’s compass was so much greater and the need to set an example for subject peoples so urgent. “It was the Cotswold ideal, transplanted to the equator inflated in scale, and without the servant problem.”

Were one to look down from the air on almost any British enclave in India, or indeed anywhere in the world during the imperial heyday, there would have been no mistaking its identity. First of all, one would have been struck by contrasts: on whatever high ground might be available, spacious lawns and gardens surrounding ample bungalows, whether of officials or planters; clubs with their manicured golf courses, polo grounds, and tennis courts; on lower ground, tucked out of sight at some distance and packed closely together, the huts and bazaars of the indigenous population. One would also see Government House, with its “borders, beds and shrubberies and lawns and avenues.” Botanical gardens and public parks extended these attractions to the public at large. And, with the advent of the automobile age, tree-lined thoroughfares interspersed with quintessentially English roundabouts, bedecked with flowers and greenery, in the city center. The irony of the whole scenario, to be sure, was that from start to finish it was totally dependent on virtually an army of “natives” to make it run.

This was the footprint of empire in India at its peak. It had evolved from an earlier period of informal empire conspicuous in the layout of the presidency cities and their offshoots. Europeans were fewer, but they aspired both to grand city houses in the Palladian manner and garden houses on the model of country estates in eighteenth-century Britain, with their fine prospects and artfully positioned copses, streams and lakes. An aerial view would have underscored the contrast between high-density urban habitations and low-density suburban or rural, albeit without the full complement of clubs, playing fields and other amenities so typical of later colonial life.


Nishat Bagh, Srinagar, Kashmir

The question remains: Why are gardens so much a part of English identity, why are the English such “plantaholics”? Some four-fifths of households in Britain have their own garden or access to one, by far the highest proportion of any European country. “Is there something peculiarly English in their response to nature?” wonders a prominent garden historian, answering in the affirmative. It is worth remembering, however, that the English garden did not really come into its own until the eighteenth century. Although garden historians make much of earlier styles—Tudor, Jacobean, Queen Anne—these were largely beholden to continental designs and even to continental designers, with just a little tweaking here and there to suit national tastes. What came to distinguish the jardin anglais were the great expanses of verdant parkland with their neatly unnatural simulacrum of the “natural” in which flowers and flowering bushes played a minor part. Only toward the end of the century did flowers stage a comeback, leading to the full-fledged Victorian and Edwardian gardens with their various configurations of beds and shrubs, all set in capacious and neatly trimmed lawns. “Green lawns and flower-beds with superb trees which obscure the view, that is what the English like, and what one finds everywhere here,” remarked the Duchesse de Dino with some wonderment on a visit to England early in the nineteenth century. It was a green and pleasant land with a vengeance, so much so that when Flora Annie Steel remarked to Walter Pater on the loveliness of the green fields around Oxford in the spring (which would have struck her with particular force after her many years in India), he replied, “Don’t you think they are almost offensively green?”

A number of commentators have argued that the eighteenth-century English park encoded an ideology of liberty in contrast to the autocratic constraints of, say, the French formal garden. Paradoxically it also coincided with the most expansive phase of empire-building and was financed to some degree from imperial revenues. The multiple incarnations of the nineteenth-century garden, on the other hand, are an ideological jumble; they encode a confusing welter of ideas, from free trade (the flood of exotic plants and exotic styles), to the ascendancy of the middle classes (every villa set in its own garden), to the wanton historicism of the age with one revival after another. In the free-for-all of expanding democracy, garden professionals fought as fiercely over contending styles as any politician on the hustings. Perhaps the underlying message is simply that gardens matter, just as politics matters.

Although at home notions of what constituted an “English garden” were both ever-changing and hotly contested, at a distance they tended to resolve themselves into more generic forms: the park-like settings of the eighteenth century yielding to variations on the classic Victorian in the period of high colonialism. There is little evidence that the “eclectic bandwagon” of styles vying for acceptance in nineteenth-century England had much resonance in India. There was always the time lag, for one thing; for another, most colonials were too impermanent in their postings to sink time and money into a fashionable garden; for a third, they had enough to do simply to get the flowers of home to grow in an uncongenial clime without worrying about the latest fad in topiary or balustrades or weeping willows. The British gardens that characterized high-colonial India and survived the end of empire, however precariously, tended therefore to be variations of the basic Victorian pattern of lawns, defined flowerbeds with as many English flowers as they could coax to grow, gravel paths and ranks and ranks of potted plants. Shrubs and trees of necessity were indigenous rather than imported from home.

As far as I know, only the Mughals matched the British in the intensity of their love of gardens and certainty in their own models (although the British—some British—have had a sense of humor about their horticultural addictions that seems quite lacking in the Mughals). One is hard put to explain why two such different peoples should share this obsession: in the one case, restless invaders from the uplands of Central Asia, in the other, merchant adventurers morphing into civil servants from a small boreal island. Of course there were differences. The British came to see gardens not only as aesthetically pleasing but also as a means of moral improvement for all classes at home and all peoples under the Union Jack, an idea that would have seemed quite strange to their Mughal forebears. Moreover, except for the secluded zenana garden Mughal gardens were essentially male domains, although a few highborn women such as Nur Jahan, the wife of Emperor Jahangir, oversaw the design of several. The Victorian rulers of India, it has been remarked, personified a masculine ideal, the public school ethos on a world stage. They lived, worked and played in a largely male environment, married late, and often experienced long periods of separation from wives and children. Gardens, however, were a largely female contribution to imperial life—one might even say that gardens were to empire as women were to men, softening and taming the excessive masculinity of the endeavor.


Taj Mahal, Agra

The history of British colonial gardens in India shares with imperialism itself the lack of a clear theoretical basis, and even clear aims. While not really created in a fit of absentmindedness any more than was the empire, they happened piecemeal, reflecting changing views at home, changing circumstances abroad and individual taste. As an historian of empire has observed, “what was distinctly English about the enterprise was not peoples’ motives for going where they did but what they did when they got there.” And what they did almost from the first moment was to lay out gardens. Calcutta itself mirrors this, with its evolution from garden houses to bungalows, and the constant redoing of the gardens of Government House and Barrackpore, but always with the imprint of individual tenants. The acquisition of the Himalayas and Nilgiris opened up gardening possibilities undreamt of in the plains, making exile both more familiar and more acceptable. The long reach of Kew catalyzed the founding and expansion of botanical gardens with their impact on both England and its outposts, but here, too, policies and pracrtices varied with individuals. Without Curzon’s autocratic intervention, Indian’s antiquities would not be landscaped as they are today. The capital city of New Delhi is at one and the same time an abstract vision of Empire, a very finite translation of English ideas about garden cities circa 1910, and the work of individuals such as Sir Edwin Lutyens and William Robertson Mustoe—even at several times removed, the influence of Gertrude Jekyll. Sometimes the forces at play were more impersonal. The insatiable demand for tea in the United Kingdom simultaneously stimulated the ruthless industrialization of opium production and the spread of a plantation economy from the Western Ghats to Assam and Ceylon. Had it not been for the Uprising of 1857, neither Lucknown or Cawnpore would have been etched on the British memory through their memorial gardens.

There is a historical contingency about particular gardens but less so about the need to have gardens. Conversely there seems to be a horticultural response to just about every British historical contingency. By the nineteenth century if not earlier, gardens and gardening seemed bred in the English bone. “Our England is a garden,” wrote Rudyard Kipling. But the English were equally a nation of empire builders with Kipling in the forefront. The two parts of their character seem as intertwined as a wild rose.


About the Author:

Eugenia Herbert is Professor Emeritus of History at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of books on American, European and African History, including Twilight on the Zambezi: Late Colonialism in Central Africa. She is the author of Flora’s Empire: British Gardens in India.

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