11 November, 2013Issue 23.3History

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Victoria Regia

Priyasha Mukhopadhyay

FlowerTatiana Holway
The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created
Oxford University Press, 2013
328 pages
ISBN 9780195373899

At that time, five Victorias, in various stages of budding and blooming, adorned the tank. Thirteen leaves floated on the surface. Composed atop of one, with her hands folded lightly over her full ruffled skirt, her slippered feet just visible beneath frilled pantaloons, her face wreathed in delicate curls, Annie fixed her gaze in the middle distance, while the artist sketched the scene from this and that angle, the better to capture every feature of the tableau. The view settled on, giving a perspective as though from above, was more ideal than real, and much more effective, too. By showing the entire tank with spectators dispersed around the perimeter, the picture made the scale of the “Queen of Aquatics” apparent in an entirely new way, and with the focus on the English child in the center, buoyed upon a leaf of the most gorgeous flower to be found anywhere in the world, the exotic grandeur of Victoria regia was brought home.

“More ideal than real,” much work went into the creation of this unlikely image of the little girl poised perfectly on a lily pad. For one, her father, Joseph Paxton—a man who grew from a 22-year-old head gardener to the Duke of Devonshire to a horticultural household name in England—had to make sure that the leaves didn’t give way under his daughter’s weight (a cleverly concealed stool to support her did the trick). The water lilies, indigenous to a humid, tropical climate, refused to bloom in the gloominess of the English summer. This frozen, fairytale-like moment is actually the culmination of a complex and tangled story of a German explorer’s repeatedly futile attempts (over a period of 12 years) to bring before the new Queen Victoria the flower, of magnificent proportions, that was to bear her name: Victoria regia.


The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created is that story. The primary narrative is comprised of the travels of Robert Schomburgk, a German surveyor and amateur botanical enthusiast employed by the Royal Geographical Society to conduct an exploratory visit to British Guiana. It is here that he accidentally stumbles upon a species of water lily that could grow up to eight feet in diameter and at the astronomical rate of up to one inch per hour. It is this flower that he then struggles to preserve, and later, transport in the form of seeds back to England for cultivation. The greatest strength of this book is the way in which the history of a single flower and its varied journeys through scientific, literary and commercial circles, becomes a focus with which to look more closely at the interactions of Victorian culture, science and imperialism.

Of course, the first and most obvious narrative that the water lily fits into is one of scientific discovery, and Schomburgk’s expedition provides the frame of reference for this. While the imperialistic impulses behind exploration have long been accounted for (and these are corroborated by Holway’s references to other accounts written by travellers to British Guiana, of most note, Walter Raleigh’s 1595 The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana), this study allows us to track the changing language that this exploration drew on. Moving from stories of wonder, usually about gold, Amazons and monstrous natives (Schombergk seems to have been mildly disappointed by his failure to stumble across these), the 19th century presents us with a much more precise and scientific language of surveying, measuring and categorising. As much critical scholarship has demonstrated since the late 1970s, cartographic and surveying exercises, such as those of Alexander von Humboldt and Schomburgk, were both a part of, and contributed to, a larger project of imperial and colonial rule: they made legible and graspable vast tracts of otherwise hostile territory. While the colonial administration was single-mindedly geared towards the collection of data for an often uncertain purpose, such projects were fuelled by the ardent belief that someday the reams of information stored in files would prove to be of use.

The story of Victoria regia highlights further the huge number people and institutions involved in this process of gathering such information. Holway’s book demands a second read to be completely lucid, if only because of the staggering numbers of new actors who are introduced to play their various parts in the discovery, classification, transportation and cultivation of the water lily. Even a drunken Dickens makes an appearance as the brief editor of a newspaper that Paxton attempts to start (and, after demanding double the salary of the editor of the Times, stumbles out before the first issue of the paper is printed). These networks of knowledge demonstrate how complex the dissemination and circulation of information really is—wires are crossed, Schomburgk’s discovery is contested by others, amateur botanical enthusiasts and scientists squabble over the species of the flower, and petty academic rivalries break out over who has the right to publish news of the floral find. At the heart of these interactions are two central organisations, the Royal Geographical Society and the Botanical Society of London, the members of which are constantly in conflict throughout much of this study. The Royal Geographic Society funded Schomburgk’s expedition and, since the collection of plant and flower samples for sale in England was not the primary business of the trip, looked upon the surveyor’s botanical enthusiasm with more than mild disapproval—a primary point of discordance between the two organisations. But as Flower of Empire progresses, it reveals itself as an attempt to track the pervasive influence of botany on all spheres of Victorian life. Born out of a colonial culture of knowledge, while also shaping the forms this culture took, the newly established Botanical Society is a comprehensive example of the ways in which new forms of professional disciplinary knowledge were created in the 19th century.

Holway’s study gives us several examples of this. The first, connected with the explosion of Victorian print culture, comes to us in the form of the unending lists of botany-related publications she refers to, ranging from serious academic journals to casual magazines for amateur gardeners. The magazine and newspaper became the vehicles that ensured paintings and photographs of Victoria regia reached households across England, contributing to the frenzy that surrounded the flower, particularly in the years leading up to its successful cultivation.

The second, which takes up much space in this history, is the development of the public garden. Holway starts off her book by discussing the reasons for why she calls the Victorian era “The Age of Flowers”: flowers were the commonest children’s names; pedagogical works often took names such as The Moral of Flowers; and, by the 1850s, the circulation of a weekly magazine, the Gardener’s Chronicle, was close to double that of The Economist. Importantly, gardening was seen as part of a project of reclaiming the disenfranchised working classes, as a form of “self-improvement” and “healthy recreation”. Public parks, such as the one in Liverpool that finds its way into the book, sent a strong public message to those trying to write off much of England as sordid and industrial. More complex, however, is the relation between a space like the Kew Gardens and the private gardens of the Duke of Devonshire in Chatsworth, both of which played a central role in devising methods by which to cultivate the water lily. With this collaboration came the merging of aristocratic privilege and a public amenity, of an attempt to bring together horticultural knowledge and practice with keen amateur interest. At the start of Holway’s story in 1837, the Kew Gardens were in clear disarray. Formerly dubbed “Imperial Kew”, the gardens are once again a clear example of systematic colonial “collecting”, indicative of attempts to educate the British public by bringing the exotic and foreign home and making them safe and familiar in the process. Newly infused with the Duke’s finances and energies, the Kew Gardens was restored to its glory as a showcase of the Empire’s oddest and finest.

This showcasing of the Empire’s oddest and finest instantly recalls the Great Exhibition housed in Crystal Palace, which too finds a place in the finale of the tale of Victoria regia. Paxton, who was closely involved in devising different glasshouses and conservatories to make sure that the optimum conditions for the flower’s growth could be artificially created, heard of the competition organised to obtain a suitable design for the proposed Crystal Palace. It dawned on him that a series of glasshouses—reproductions of the one he had originally designed to house the water lily, and that he called “The Great Stove”—would perhaps be best for the structure. And so, the transparent shelter of Victoria regia became embroiled in one of the most spectacular displays of British imperial prowess. If the flower, when it was discovered, was read in its magnificence as a sign of the extent of Victoria’s world domination, that magnificence was multiplied and intensified at this display of imperial might.

Flower of Empire thus brings together the chaotic story of a flower’s 12-year journey from the Amazonian rainforest to England and, in the process, gives the reader a brief though complex hint of the Victorian culture that sustained this. Written in the style of a popular history, the book’s chronological narration of facts is both its strength and weakness, sometimes overburdening the reader with trivial information that displaces the larger story of the water lily. However, it is nevertheless an interesting and refreshingly interdisciplinary addition to the growing corpus of scholarship on the interactions between imperialism and Victorian culture.

Priyasha Mukhopadhyay is reading for a DPhil in English at Wolfson College, Oxford.