King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

Cultivating cinchona trees

Efforts to break the Latin American stranglehold on the supply of quinine intensified in the 19th century. In 1820 the French chemists Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Caventon successfully isolated and named the alkaloid, but its artificial synthesis would not be achieved until 1944, when the American chemists Robert Woodward and William Doering accomplished it.

Diagrams showing seed sheds, for raising seedlings, with text accompanimentDiagrams showing seed sheds, for raising seedlingsAccess to a large and continuous supply of cinchona bark therefore remained imperative for the European powers. The chief suppliers - Bolivia,  Colombia, Ecuador and Peru - all prohibited the export of cinchona seeds, but in 1861 Charles Ledger, an Australian, obtained a smuggled supply from a Bolivian Aymará  Indian, who was later executed by the Bolivian government for his crime. Ledger sold the smuggled cinchona seeds to the Dutch government, which successfully established cinchona plantations in its Indonesian colonies.

At around the same time the British colonial geographer Clements Markham was commissioned by the British government to lead an expedition to Peru with the same aim - to secure a supply of cinchona seeds - and he too met with success. Britain established extensive cinchona plantations in India and Sri Lanka, and a dose of ‘Indian tonic water’ - water flavoured with quinine - often mixed with gin, became an indispensable feature of Anglo-Indian life.

In 1861 the botanist William Jackson Hooker sent seeds of three species of cinchona to Nathaniel Wilson, curator of the Botanic Garden, Bath, Jamaica, so that he could investigate the viability of large-scale plantations of the crop there. By 1875 more than 300 acres of cinchona trees were under cultivation on government plantations in Jamaica.

Despite official encouragement and advice, exemplified by the pamphlet on display, the growing of cinchona on Jamaica never became a commercial success, being unable to compete with the Asian plantations.

The author of this pamphlet, Daniel Morris (1844-1933) played an important part in the development of horticulture in the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1879, after spending two years at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Ceylon - now Sri  Lanka - he was appointed director of the Botanic Department in Jamaica. He later became assistant director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and finished his career as scientific adviser in tropical agriculture to the Colonial Office.

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