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The Botanic Garden – In Preparation for its 250th Anniversary

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It is good to know that preparations are underway for the restoration of the Botanic Garden as part of the celebration of its 250th anniversary in 2015.

It is equally pleasing to hear the Director of the National Parks, Rivers and Beaches Authority call for some reflection on what a garden should be and include. Let us hope that this progresses smoothly and that when we celebrate the momentous occasion in 2015 we have a garden about which we can continue to be proud.{{more}} Should it be merely a plant museum geared to uplifting the tourism product; should it continue some of its original functions – the importation, propagation and dissemination of species of plants? Have some of its original functions been taken over by other institutions/departments?

What else should it include today? The comments of the Director and others on this should be of interest. Although I have made reference to its role re: the tourism product, I am strongly against having products simply for attracting tourists and earning the tourist dollar. I believe that these things should be, first of all, for the benefit and satisfaction of Vincentians. Once Vincentians recognise the importance of something to them, they will protect and upkeep it, and visitors will benefit from this, not only those we dub tourists but all visitors.

The question of restoration rather than simply a preparation for the 250th anniversary is important, especially when we look at the history of the Garden. While we celebrate the fact that we have the oldest institution of its kind in the Western hemisphere, we have often avoided speaking about the long period of neglect which started after the resignation of George Caley in 1819, the fact that the Garden was maintained by a caretaker up to 1849 and that no attention was paid to it after that until 1890. After 1819, plants were removed to Trinidad which had recently started a Botanic Garden.

In his Six Months in the West Indies, published in 1825, H.N Coleridge, after a visit to St.Vincent wrote the following: “The botanical garden is much fallen off from the state in which it once was, but there are still some very fine specimens of the valuable exotics of the East, such as nutmegs, cinnamon and cloves…It is a great pity that any establishment of this sort should be allowed to decay; for trees and fruits and flowers are humanizing things, soothing the passions, calling forth only the peaceful energies of the intellect and attaching mankind to the soil on which they have both grown together.”

Dr. A Nicholls, in his “Diary of a Trip Through St.Vincent and the Grenadines” from May 8 to June 1891, stated following a ride to the Botanic Garden; “It is the site of the old garden that was so celebrated last century…but, not the early part of this century… the garden was abandoned, and those plants that could be removed were transferred to Trinidad. A few of the older trees, some of much interest and economic value, were left…The hurricane of 1831, however, destroyed a good many. When Mr. Powell took over the place in May 1890, it was an unsightly jungle of about 8 acres situated in a valley just below Government House, which always goes by the name of “The Garden” in the island.”

The Garden came about because of calls from the Royal Society and through the collaboration of Governor Melville and Dr George Young, a Medical Officer in St.Vincent. It was for “the cultivation and improvement of many plants now growing wild and the importation of others from similar climates.” The other purpose related to indigenous medicines. Correspondence from Melville to Young stated: “And I should think for this purpose physical practitioners of the country, natives of experience and even old Caribs and slaves who have dealt in cures might be worth taking notice of, and if at any time you should think that a secret may be got at or even an improvement for a small expense, I shall readily pay for it.”

Following the advocacy of Governor Melville, 20 acres of woodland were given for that purpose and Dr. Young was appointed Superintendent. The work in the development of the Garden owed a lot to Young and to Alexander Anderson who had succeeded him. In 1828, following problems being faced by the Garden and the removal of some of the plants to Trinidad, 3 acres of the land set aside for the Garden were provided for the establishment of a new Government House. When the Garden was reinvigorated in 1890, it fitted in with efforts to deal with a crumbling sugar industry and the call for the establishment of a peasantry and for the lease and sale of Crown lands. Powell, in fact, played a significant role in agricultural experimentation, in the control of the sugar borer and the fertilization of arrowroot and the selection of varieties of arrowroot.

When Nicholls visited the Garden, it was only a year after Powell had started his resurrection work. He noted then that “Powell has converted the jungle into a pretty little botanic garden and he deserves immense credit for his work…” The house for the Curator was then being built. Powell also did tremendous work in distributing plants to the celebrated Kew Gardens in England and to Dominica. The Botanic Garden has a rich history, and its restoration and 250th anniversary must be given as much support as is possible.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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