Publication Details

Sharrad, P. (1998). Putting down roots: colony as plantation. Span: journal of the South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, (46 April), 72-86.


Most references to the Banyan tree (ficus bengaliensis) cite the huge specimen in the Calcutta Botanical Gardens (e.g. Britannica 137). This mix of botany as a sign of indigenous identity (rootedness) and western science (Linnean taxonomy) with urban civic space (Botanical Garden) constructed during the colonial era takes on other discursive appurtenances. The rootedness of trees also jostles with travel, nature with trade. The great-rooted fig apparently got its English name from being encountered first in Persia as a place where Indian merchants (banias) met to do business. Apart from this diasporic aspect, though, in India, the tree is frequently seen as the home of local spirits and deities, and is often the central shady spot where priests and teachers instruct village youth _ where nature meets culture (Encarta; Century 440)

In Honolulu, there is another banyan in the Zoological Gardens. There is also one amid the weekend craft fairs in a downtown park commemorating restoration of power to the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1843 by a British Admiral anxious to keep this Pacific cross-roads open to trade after, amongst other concerns, a dispute with the French over proselytising rights for Catholic missionaries (Barclay 88, 90).

This paper, then, is about trees, trade, travel, colonial power, the botanical civilising of a landscape, religion, knowledge.