Botanical Exploration and Racial Capitalism in the United States Tropical Empire

Authors: Gail Hollander*, Florida International University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2020
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Majestic Ballroom, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper is part of an ongoing, NSF-funded study of the United States Department of Agriculture's roles in establishing tropical Florida as suitable for white settlement and in facilitating the US's imperial goals through tropical plant exploration and experimentation. It explores the relations among US tropical botanical science, white settlement, and white supremacy. The paper is informed by and seeks to contribute to postcolonial studies, black geographies, and historical urban political ecology. Specifically, it expands debates on the US as both settler colony and imperial power by highlighting the importance of tropical agricultural and botanical science to American empire. The empirical focus is the region of tropical Florida from the 1890s through the 1930s. Using primarily archival materials from six repositories, I anchor South Florida’s urban origins in imperial botanical networks and tropical horticulture. The case highlights the interlinkages of three events, the incorporation of the City of Miami in 1896 and the U.S. acquisition of Spain’s tropical territories and the USDA’s establishment in Miami of the country’s first tropical Experiment Station and Plant Introduction Garden in 1898. David Fairchild, the USDA’s scientist in charge, declared South Florida to be “a white man’s” tropics suited for settlement by white, land-owning horticulturalists. Fairchild held the position for 25 years, joining forces with real estate promotors and politicians to establish Miami as a tropical “agriburb” where white families could raise tropical cash crops in their backyards. White settlements were realized through a series of displacements of black labor, knowledge, and occupancy.

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