Mary Somerset and Colonial Botany: Reading Between the Ecofeminist Lines
Jennifer Munroe | University of North Carolina, Charlotte
By juxtaposing two figures of early modern horticulture, Sir Hans Sloane and Mary Somerset (First Duchess of Beaufort), this essay questions our current thinking about the involvement women had in what we might call “colonial botany” in seventeenth-century England; both Sloane and Somerset were influential in the production and circulation of knowledge about colonial plants and should, as I contend here be understood as important figures of horticulture and early science, even if they engaged in two arguably different sorts of colonial botany. But this essay also proposes that we must go further than slot women into existing definitions of colonial botanical endeavor. We need to rethink what constitutes “colonial botany” in the first place, such that the work women (and men) did at home with exotics counts as much as an active role in the importation of plants from abroad. This essay therefore aims to reposition Mary Somerset as an active agent of colonial botany, not just a bystander or less significant practitioner. This essay also queries what the implications are of acknowledging women’s role in what was an enterprise that arguably enabled the subordination of plants, women, and native Others. And so, as I reposition Somerset firmly within colonial botanical circles, I conclude this essay by asking what are the ecofeminist implications in doing so.