Indigenous Plant Collectors and the Making of European Natural History in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand

Indigenous Plant Collectors and the Making of European Natural History in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand

Dr. Megan Kuster (UCD)

This case study focuses on Indigenous knowledge brokers, natural history collecting, and the environment in nineteenth-century New Zealand. Foregrounding the ways in which imperialism is embedded within the traditions of rationalism and scientific knowledge, and through a critical discussion of the concept of ‘discovery’, it considers the correspondence, journals, and scientific papers of botanists in colonial New Zealand. It aims to recover the stories of Indigenous and non-European peoples who were at the centre of nineteenth-century natural history networks (in particular, Māori contributions to natural history collection), and to address larger issues relating to cultural contact, naming, and representation.

Key research questions include: to what extent did Indigenous knowledge brokers participate in the co-creation of nineteenth-century natural history projects? How did questions of race and class inform relations between European plant collectors and Indigenous knowledge brokers? What role did orality and print culture play in mediating the interpersonal, racial, and socio-political conflicts that erupted through the pursuit of economic botany? What do the invocations of literature by nineteenth-century natural historians reveal about their ideological conception of the difference between self and other, foreign and autochthonous, human and non-human (animal/ plant/ oceanic/ environmental/ technological others)? To what extent did Indigenous knowledge inform the making of metropolitan and colonial botanical gardens and natural history museums?

This case study aims to contribute to the decolonisation of the colonial botanic garden and natural history museum, and proposes that one way of dealing with the difficulty of nineteenth-century cross-cultural knowledge exchange is to examine the various environmental sites at which the development of natural history was deeply integrated with ongoing social agendas. Crucial to this case study, then, is a matter-oriented approach engaged with questions about the interwoven relations among dynamic communicating entities and complex vital networks within a bounded system—biome, ecoregion, ecosystem, or biosphere.


Megan Kuster is an ERC Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin. She completed her PhD in English at Trinity College Dublin. Her thesis explored the relations between settler culture identity and the ethics of belonging and place in the fiction of Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen. Prior to coming to UCD, Dr. Kuster was a Postdoctoral Researcher at Trinity College Dublin working within the Trinity Access Programmes. Her research interests are in Romantic and Victorian literature; Critical Indigenous Studies; the relations between empire, literature, and science; labour and popular education at commodity frontiers; and postcolonial ecocriticism. Dr. Kuster’s current project focuses on Indigenous knowledge brokers and the professionalisation of natural history during the nineteenth century, and looks at the ways in which nineteenth-century natural historians in colonial New Zealand contended with Indigenous knowledge systems.

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