The Root of Empire: Botany, British Imperialism, & Early American Encounters with Ginseng, 1738-1784

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Recent historical scholarship has emphasized the link between the emergence of botanical science and British imperial expansion. However, this research has generally neglected the contribution that plants from the colder climates of Britain’s American colonies made to the country’s imperial interests. A key moment in this unfolding relationship between botany and imperialism was the discovery of ginseng, a flowering plant whose root was renowned for its medicinal properties, in Pennsylvania in 1738. Drawing on the transatlantic correspondence of eighteenth-century botanists, this article reveals how ginseng was turned from a botanical oddity to a plant that would shape the trajectory of British imperialism. The discovery of ginseng set off a frenzy to gather the plant and offered imperial Britain something it could find nowhere else: a good that Chinese traders, who long occupied a privileged position in global trade, would pay for with silver. Over time, the trade in ginseng would grow and help stem the outflow of silver currency to Chinese markets, strengthening Britain’s position economically and contributing to the remaking of the capitalist world system along British lines.

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