Colonialism and the Plant Hunters

By Michael North

This post is the fifth in a series exploring the National Library of Medicine’s rich and varied collection of “herbals,” which are books devoted to the description of medicinal plants (and sometimes other natural substances) with instructions on how to use them to treat illness. The Library’s herbals are some of the most beautifully illustrated books in the collection, and they are full of remedies that have not yet been tested by modern science.

By the mid-1500s, many physicians had figured out that Dioscorides had not in fact described all plants in the world in his influential De Materia Medica, written at the height of the Roman Empire’s reach in the second century C.E. Once explorers like Vasco da Gama had found the way to India around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa in 1498 and Christopher Columbus had “discovered” the Americas for the Europeans in 1492, a whole new world of plants was opened up. In the East, explorers and imperialists hoped to find the original sources of valuable spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and camphor in Asia. In the West, colonial powers hoped to discover the next important plant commodity previously unknown to Europe; who would find the next chocolate, tobacco, potato, or maize to enrich his or her empire? What new medicinal products might be found in the jungles of South America or the Spice Islands?

A title page in Latin with an illustration of a from the clouds using a compass to draw a circle.

Latin translation of Garcia da Orta’s Coloquios dos Simples Printed by Christopher Plantin, Antwerp, 1567

One of the first of these plant hunting physicians was Garcia da Orta (circa 1490–1570), a physician who sailed to the Portuguese colony of Goa in 1534. Born in Portugal, he trained at the medical schools in Spain’s Salamanca and Alcalá de Henares before heading to Lisbon to lecture at the university there. Always interested in botany, when Orta got to India, he sought out the many exotic plants known in Europe only for their commercial products, such as ground spices. He spoke to local physicians, shamans, yogis, and merchants, gathering as much information as he could. In 1563 he published his Coloquios dos Simples, e Drogas he Cousas Mediçinais da India (Dialogue on Simples, Drugs, and Medicines of India) in Goa—the third book printed in India on any topic. The work consisted of a dialogue between Orta, a pragmatic physician, and a fictitious Dr. Ruano, who quoted the theories found in writers like Dioscorides and Matthioli, creating a comprehensive look at many plants and their uses from both practical and theoretical standpoints. Included were discussions and descriptions of many plants, ranging from cannabis and ginger to coconut and aloe. He showed that camphor came from the sap of a tree and that it was naturally white, and that cloves and nutmegs were not from the same plant. Orta’s original book is very rare and was little known in Europe until Charles l’Elcuse (also known as Clusius) published a Latin translation of the work via the famous press of Christophe Plantin in Antwerp in 1567. The work subsequently came out in Italian, French and German translations over the next fifty years, spreading the word about many of Europe’s most sought-after plant discoveries.

An engraving of a long stem with round berries clustered along it.

Black Pepper, from Latin translation of Garcia da Orta’s Coloquios dos Simples printed by Christopher Plantin, 1567

Another important early plant hunter was Spaniard Nicolás Monardes (ca. 1493-1588), who wrote some of the earliest accounts of plants found in Spanish colonies in Latin America. Unlike Orta, however, Monardes never left Europe, but had his home base in his native Sevilla, which was Spain’s major port city for Latin American colonization. In 1565 he published Dos Libros (Two Books) in Sevilla, and later followed up in 1571 with Segunda Parte del Libro de Las Cosas Que Se Traen de Nuestras Indias Occidentales (Second Part of the Book of Things That Come from Our West Indies), these were later all published together in 1574 as Historia Medicinal. Monardes includes some of the earliest descriptions of the tobacco and coca plants, including one of the first illustrations of the former. Although his works on these plants tend not to be very accurate, in large part because he believed nearly any tale a voyager brought to him, they became a standard reference work in Europe on plants of the West Indies for several decades to come. This effect was increased by a number of important and popular translations of the works into Latin, Italian, and even English by John Frampton as Joyfull Newes out of the New-Found Worlde. These works by Orta and Monardes had an enormous impact on plant hunting for many decades and were often written about and published together.

One of the most important medicinal plants discovered in the following century by Spanish Jesuit missionaries was the cinchona, of the order Rubiaceae, which grows in the Western Andes mountains of Peru. Given to a Jesuit suffering from malaria in the 1620s by local natives, it purportedly saved his life, and in 1630 Jesuits gave it to the Countess of Chinchon, the wife of the Spanish Viceroy in Lima, also supposedly saving her life during a bout of malaria (and creating its name). Jesuit missionaries soon brought it back to Spain and Italy, where malaria was endemic, distributed it and promoted it widely. It soon gained names like “Jesuit’s bark” and “Jesuit’s Powder” (many Protestants preferring to call it “Peruvian Bark” to avoid giving credit to the Jesuits for its discovery). NLM has copies of many of the earliest and most important reports in favor of and against the use of cinchona, which became one of the main ingredients in quinine (named after the Inca word for the plant, quina-quina) and even tonic water.

Bontanical illustration of a branch with large oval leaves and stems with clusters of small pink flowers.

Cinchona officinalis, from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, ca. 1885

This article is the fifth in a series about NLM’s large and varied collection of herbals dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. To learn more about them, please feel free to contact the Library at hmdref@nlm.nih.gov.

Michael J. North in the incunaMichael J. North is Head of Reference and Reader Services in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress, and formerly Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine. He recently left the NLM after 15 years of service, and we wish him all the best in his new position.