A gardener's 'Paradise': Henrietta Marchant Liston's Caribbean travel diary: An essay by Dr Louis Kirk McAuley

Louis Kirk McAuley

Louis Kirk McAuley is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Washington State University, and the author of 'Print technology in Scotland and America' (Bucknell University Press, 2013). Supported by a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholarship at the National Library of Scotland, his current book project advances our understanding of the historical legacy of contemporary ecological crises through investigation of the interfaces of nature and culture in texts by Scottish authors residing at the so-called margins of the British Empire: the West Indies, Africa, and the South Pacific.

Baptised on 17 March 1752 at St Paul's Church in Falmouth, Antigua, Henrietta Liston 'was the daughter of plantation owner Nathaniel Marchant and his first wife Sarah Nanton'. According to Louise V North, she 'grew up in comfortable circumstances, was well educated, and seems to have traveled to Great Britain and France' [See note 1]. And on 27 February 1796 — after a rather lengthy and complicated long-distance courtship — she married a Scottish diplomat, Robert Liston at St Andrew's Episcopal Church in Glasgow. Less than one month later, the newlyweds traveled to America, where they would not only meet notable U.S. icons, George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon, but also (in subsequent years) proceed to explore the eastern seaboard from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Charleston, South Carolina. It was at this point that Henrietta would prove to be a careful, yet biased observer of human affairs through the journals she kept of their travels, including a trip to the West Indies in 1801. Although this particular journal, through its denial of the harsher realities of plantation life, clearly suggests that Liston had a sheltered childhood in Antigua, it also contains some rather interesting observations about the non-human world, for (in addition to being a diarist and travel writer) she evidently was an avid gardener, whose 'American garden' was supplied with seeds and botanical specimens from the Caribbean and North America. At the very least, she clearly had an eye for plants.

Indeed, Liston's journal paints plantation life as a picturesque scene of botanical wonderment. Again, because she was born in Antigua, I suppose one can excuse Liston’s romantic views. This was first and foremost a homecoming journey — a carriage ride down memory lane, as it were, in which she revisited Antiguan plantations familiar to her in her youth, as well as paid a visit to her mother's 'little cottage'. However, her attribution of 'cheerfulness' to 'Crop time', or the sugarcane harvest — a period in which some slaves labored exceedingly long hours in the boiling houses and sugar mills — reveals her privileged divorce from (or perhaps unwillingness to confront) the horrifying realities of the Sugar Revolution. For example, in the following passage — 'Cherry Hill, 4th January 1801' — she relies on the aesthetics of the picturesque to describe a sugar plantation:

'After a succession of dinners for more than ten days, we set all out yesterday in our little Summer Wagon (which we had brought with us from America as a present to my brother & sister) for this little retreat. Our route lay ten miles across the Island a very tolerable road, & through several very pretty Plantations. It being Crop time a general cheerfulness seems to prevail in both whites and blacks — the very animals look fatter & happier. — The situations of the Sugar Works, & often of the dwelling Houses on the Plantations are extremely pretty. The Negro Huts placed frequently on the declivity of a hill, & always interspersed with fruit trees & little patches of vegetables, form the most picturesque objects, indeed, nothing can be more inviting than the Scenery of Clumps & Groves of Palms, Coconut, Plantains, Oranges, Limes, Sour Grapes (the favorite fruit of the Negroes), even the Manchineel Tree, which though poisonous is extremely beautiful & bears fruit which pleases by its fragrance … every thing that in England is preserved in Conservatories here … are rather the ornaments of the Towns & Gardens.' [See note 2]

Or consider the following passage:

'After this pleasant interlude we pursued our way to the Speakers Estate at the side of a small meandering stream, the Edges of which were thickly planted with orange Trees, loaded with fruit & many with flowers … Negro-Houses were on a declivity of a small Hill intermixed with Trees, the green foliage & yellow fruit — with the gentle stream of smoke issuing from the Chimneys of the Negro Huts – gave a Softening to one of the most picturesque objects imaginable …' [See note 3]

It seems apropos that Liston brought with her to Antigua a carriage to facilitate her tour of the island since the perspective that she offers of plantation life is so very safely removed from the abject realities of slave labor. In 'An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies' (1784), Rev James Ramsay observes that, 'in crop time … some pretendedly industrious planters, men of much bustle, and no method, will, especially in moon-light, keep their people till ten o’clock at night, carrying wowra, the decayed leaves of the cane, to boil off the cane juice', and that 'a considerable number of slaves is kept to attend in turn the mill and boiling house all night':

'They sleep over their work; the sugar is ill tempered, burnt in the boiler … while the mill every now-and-then grinds off an hand, or an arm, of those drowsy worn down creatures that feed it.' [See note 4]

It is impossible to say whether Liston was aware of these horrors; like Fanny Barlow, the female protagonist in Edward Kimber’s transatlantic novel, The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson (1754), she might have been kept a stranger to the 'discipline' of the plantation system, or purposely sheltered from such harsh realities by a doting mother. At least, in the aforementioned passages she chooses not to recognize the distresses of slavery, but instead prefers to situate the 'Negro-Houses' in a picturesque scene of tropical splendor.

However, despite this cultural insensitivity, it may be worth noting that her attention in these passages is drawn not solely to those valuable non-native citrus fruits that figure in many early modern European idealizations of the Caribbean, including Richard Ligon's True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657) and Daniel Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' (1719), but, rather, two indigenous American species of plants — namely, the sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera) and the manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella). The gnarled sour grape, or sea grape, has since become an important element of Afro-Caribbean identity vis-à-vis Saint Lucian poet, Derek Walcott's 1976 collection, 'Sea grapes', which addresses questions of hybrid identity and diaspora, among other subjects. And so, in hindsight, it may come as a surprise to see Liston — who seems otherwise blind to the horrors of plantation life — take this important historical symbol of hybridized Afro-Caribbean culture into account. [See note 5] But even more intriguing is the attention she gives to the manchineel tree, which is supposed to be pleasant in appearance and fragrance, but highly poisonous. This fact is supported by Griffith Hughes, rector of St Lucy's Parish in Barbados, who observes in his Natural History of Barbados (1750) that the 'Juice of this Tree is confessedly poisonous', and may cause an 'Eruption of painful corrosive Blisters' if it comes into contact with one's skin. He writes:

'If some of this crude milky Juice falls upon even a Horse, the Hair from the Part affected, soon falls off, and the Skin rises up in Blisters, which will require a long time to heal.

'One Instance of its Malignancy happened about Two Years ago in Speights-Town: A certain Slave, conceiving herself injuriously treated, poured into her Master's Chocolate about a Spoonful of this Juice: Immediately after he had swallowed it, he felt a violent Burning in his Throat and Stomach; and, suspecting he was poisoined, he strove, and with good Success, to vomit; and, having taken after this seasonable Discharge, a regular Emetic, his Stomach was, in great measure, suddenly cleansed of the Poison, tho' it cost him a long time to perfect the Cure …

'It hath been observed, that Fish, as the Barracuda, and others, which eat these Apples, dropped casually into the Sea, are often found dead in the Wash of the Water; and, if taken, whilst alive, and eaten, often prove poisonous; and even the large white Crab, that burrows in the Sand, is not, if near these Trees, to be made use of for Food.' [See note 6]

Unlike Hughes, Liston notes the toxicity of this tree, but only in passing. What she seems most preoccupied with remembering is the tree's aesthetically pleasing appearance and sweet fragrance. This emphasis that she places upon the manchineel's ornamental value suggests, I would argue, important ways for us to think about Liston's diary (and other examples of British 'empire writing' too). [See note 7] Concealed beneath the rosy veneer of her picturesque descriptions is a highly toxic reality, including perhaps the 'ancient war between obsession and responsibility' that Derek Walcott refers to in his poem, 'Sea grapes'. [See note 8] And yet, unlike pieces of propaganda that were carefully composed to solicit British investment in the sugar trade, this travel journal was never intended for publication, but instead, as North suggests, it was meant to serve as merely an aide-mémoire. [See note 9] Her focus on the picturesque arrangement of things, thus, appears to be mainly an unselfconscious side effect of her privileged upbringing on Antigua — not a rhetorical maneuver, per se. That is, she truly does regard the Caribbean as a gardener's paradise.

Aside from visiting old family haunts, perhaps the real highlight of Liston's travels in the West Indies would have been the visit she paid to the St Vincent Botanic Garden, which was established by the Governor of the Windward Islands, General Robert Melville in 1765 for 'the cultivation and improvement of many plants now growing wild and the import of others from similar climates [that] would be of great utility to the public and vastly improve the resources of the island.' [See note 10] Utility is the key term here, as the Botanic Garden's greatest claim to fame may be its serving as the primary site for the cultivation of the breadfruit seeds that were introduced to the Caribbean by the infamous Captain William Bligh in 1793; evidently, 'all of the breadfruit trees in St Vincent are derived from suckers of these original introductions'. [See note 11] The curator responsible for this considerable botanical achievement (and for numerous other introductions to the island, including plum rose and star fruit) was a Scotsman and University of Edinburgh graduate named Dr Alexander Anderson, who took over the general management of the St Vincent Botanic Gardens in 1783. D J Mabberley claims, that 'Anderson was the first in a long line of Scottish colonial experts concerned with the relationship between deforestation (resumed in St Vincent during the French revolution), climate change, and extinction'. [See note 12] Notably, according to Richard Grove, the 'principal piece of environmental legislation with which Anderson was connected was the King's Hill Forest Act of 1791', which 'constituted one of the very earliest attempts at forest legislation in the English-speaking world based on climactic theory'. [See note 13]

Interestingly, it is Anderson whom Liston describes as a 'very kind' and 'good looking Scotchman'. [See note 14] And it was also the tour of Anderson’s 'collection' that prompted Liston to enthusiastically claim, that 'to an ardent lover of Plants, the West Indies is a Paradise — what in a Hot House in England may be a beautiful shrub is here a Superb flowering Tree'. [See note 15] There are definitely echoes of Thomas Jefferson's 'Notes on the State of Virginia' (1785) here, in that such a claim might have been marshalled to reject Georges-Louis Leclerc, de Buffon's dubious claims about American degeneracy. [See note 16] That said, Liston's attention to the non-human world, and to climate and plant growth suggests someone who is clearly not alienated from nature. It would seem that she intended her use of the picturesque as an apt reminder that what she is describing here is a very carefully planned environment. Indeed, drawing on Grove's work, Beth Mills suggests that, 'the garden provided not only an opportunity for botanical study and experimentation, but in a metaphorical sense, a way for Europeans to gain control within a confined space of an unfamiliar physical environment.' [See note 17] However, the garden did more than just 'organize the unfamiliar', as Mills claims; it played a significant role in the naturalisation of non-native species. Howard notes, for example, that, in his Catalogue of Plants in His Majesty's Garden on the Island of St Vincent, Anderson lists 'at least 348 different kinds of plants', a large percentage of which were introduced to the island. Thus, to say that the Garden organised the unfamiliar neglects to account for the familiar Old World origins of many of the plants growing there, including the following medicinal plants: bergamot orange, Italian senna, aloe vera, and China root; and edibles: cinnamon, East India mango, rhubarb, coriander, sesame, and dates. Would these plants not have been familiar to Anderson's visitors? Similarly, Alexander Beatson's 'Flora Sta Helenica' catalogs all the known plants on that island, including many non-native species. [See note 18]

But perhaps the most curious thing about Liston's recollection of this episode is that she refers to Dr Anderson's Botanic Garden as both a 'wilderness' and a 'collection':

'… his garden is a Wilderness of beautiful Trees & Shrubs situated on a cluster of Knolls watered by little rills that descend them & entirely surrounding his small habitation. — The day cleared up but the rain rendered the great inequality of the ground fatiguing. Still however we were led on from one beautiful object to another, His collection was from every warm quarter of the globe … & has the breadfruit in great abundance & perfection. He is the only person who, as yet, obliges his Negroes to eat it.' [See note 19]

It is notable that she takes into account Anderson's efforts to make breadfruit a staple crop, or a substitute for the plantain in the diets of St Vincent's African slave population. But, most importantly, Liston's confusing discourse begs the question: is it possible for a garden or a collection to be a wilderness? Clearly the term wilderness here does not mean barren or desolate, as was the case throughout much of the 18th century. [See note 20] Instead, I would argue, she uses the term to simply naturalize Anderson's experimentations. Or, rather, perhaps she simply intended to portray St Vincent (or the West Indies more broadly) as a sort of naturally occurring greenhouse, and an ideal site of botanical experimentation, though 'unnaturally' might be more fitting. At least, the predominant image of the West Indies that one receives from Liston's reflections is precisely that of a greenhouse without doors or a glass enclosure. As such, her journals would, thus, appear to signify the complete removal of these islands from 'out of that state that nature hath provided', to use John Locke's influential terminology. [See note 21] Her application of the term wilderness to such an artificial environment perhaps represents a new habit of thinking — one that presciently alludes to the fact that what we now call a wilderness is really, as environmental historian William Cronon suggests, a 'complex cultural construction'. [See note 22] Or, rather, perhaps another way of thinking about her application of the term would be to take into account the biology of invasions.

Grove notes, for example, that botanical gardens often acted as stimuli to a 'whole set of metaphorical and botanical agendas', in which case it would be easy to read Anderson's efforts to incorporate so many exotic and useful plants into the St Vincent Botanic Gardens as the botanical equivalent of the cultural work of the British Empire. [See note 23] Indeed, Liston's use of the term 'wilderness' to describe a botanical garden curiously invites us to consider those cases in which non-native species have become so thoroughly established in their new environments as to be frequently mistaken for indigenous species. [See note 24] And yet, as noted earlier, Liston's preoccupation with the manchineel tree may be of particular significance, since, I argue, its appearance in the diary offers us a way to think about the nature of empire writing, including her own West Indian travel diary. In other words, much as the manchineel's ornamental value tends to outweigh its toxicity, Liston's diary paints a romantic picture of the West Indies. And it is this image — the Caribbean as gardener's 'paradise' — that persistently obscures the poisonous realities of chattel slavery and the plantation economy upon which the British Empire was built.


Note 1

Louise V North, 'Introduction', 'The travel diaries of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796–1800' (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014), xiii – xvii.

Note 2

See the 1801 Caribbean travel diary of Henrietta Marchant Liston, Special Collections, National Library of Scotland, 13–14.

Note 3

Liston, Caribbean, 18.

Note 4

Rev James Ramsay, 'An essay on the treatment and conversion of African alaves in the British sugar colonies' (London: James Phillips, 1794).

Note 5

See Derek Walcott, 'Sea grapes' (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1976).

Note 6

Griffith Hughes, 'The natural history of Barbados' (London: Printed for the Author, 1750), 123 – 124.

Note 7

I use the term empire writing to refer to texts that not only reflect the global expansion of the British Empire, but also (more importantly) to those that actually made this historical development possible.

Note 8

Walcott, 'Sea grapes', 3.

Note 9

North, 'Introduction', xi.

Note 10

Quoted in Edward Smith, 'The life of Sir Joseph Banks' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 120. For an early history of the St Vincent Botanic Gardens, see Rev Lansdown Guilding, 'An account of the Botanic Gardens in the Island of St Vincent, from its establishment to the present time' (Glasgow: Richard Griffin & Company, 1825).

Note 11

See BGCI Botanic Gardens Conservation International. See also D J Mabberley, 'Anderson, Alexander (1748?-1811)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004), accessed 24 Nov 2015.

Note 12

D J Mabberley, 'Anderson, Alexander (1748?-1811)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004), accessed 19 October 2016. See also Alexander Anderson's 'The St Vincent botanic garden', edited by R A Howard and E S Howard (Cambridge, MA, 1983).

Note 13

Richard Grove, 'Green imperialism: Colonial expansion, tropical island Edens, and the origins of environmentalism' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 293; and Richard Grove, 'The island and history of environmentalism: Nature and society in historical context', edited by Mikaláš Teich, Roy Porter, and Bo Gustaffson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 160.

Note 14

Liston, Caribbean, 38.

Note 15

Liston, Caribbean, 39.

Note 16

See Lee Alan Dugatkin, 'Mr Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural history in Early America' (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 10-30.

Note 17

Beth Mills, '"The Bad Old Days look better": Enlightened colonial land management practices and land reform in the British Windward Islands', 'Environmental planning in the Caribbean', edited by Jonathan Pugh and Janet Henshell Momsen (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2006), 22. See also Grove, 'Green Imperialism'.

Note 18

Alexander Beatson, 'Flora Sta Helenica' (St Helena: Printed by J Boyd, 1825). See National Library of Scotland Rare Books important acquisitions directory.

Note 19

Liston, Caribbean, 38.

Note 20

See William Cronon, 'The trouble with wilderness; Or, Getting back to the wrong nature', in 'Uncommon ground: Rethinking the human place in nature', edited by William Cronon (New York: W W Norton & Company, 1996), 70-71.

Note 21

John Locke, 'Two treatises of government' (1689) (London: Everyman, 2000), 128.

Note 22

William Cronon, 'The trouble with wilderness; Or, Getting back to the wrong nature', in 'Uncommon ground: Rethinking the human place in nature', edited by William Cronon (New York: W W Norton & Company, 1996), 25.

Note 23

Grove, 'Green imperialism', 281.

Note 24

Ecologist Daniel Simberloff uses the term 'naturalized' to 'describe a population that was introduced long ago and perpetuates itself without human assistance, though not necessarily in pristine "natural" environments.' See Daniel Simberloff, 'Invasive species: What everyone needs to know' (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 311.

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