Sheridan — Cameroon to St Vincent

In brief, I’m doing institutional ethnobotany, which is how different societies organize social relations like property rights around particular plant species. My case studies are in Tanzania, Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, and St. Vincent.  The St. Vincent leg is about how the meanings of the property rights plant in West Africa (Dracaena) got applied to a Oceanic plant (Cordyline) after the British empire’s botanical explorers brought the Oceanic species to the Caribbean, where it got adopted by sugar plantations as a land marker. After the end of slavery and the shift toward St. Vincent having an independent smallholder peasantry, Cordyline became the sine qua non of property rights in a way that is really strikingly similar to the uses/meanings of Dracaena in West Africa. Part of my St Vincent case study is about the Spiritual Baptist church, which uses Cordyline (the Oceanic species from Tahiti) in their astral travel rituals that go to “Africaland,” where they learn skills and gain social status that they lack in their mundane St Vincentian lives. That is, the story I’m telling is about how an Oceanic species acquired a distinctly African social life in colonial St. Vincent, and what it means today.

My literature search for Dracaena in Africa yielded some references in the African diaspora to the Americas (Sheridan 2008: 505), but fieldwork revealed that sources had misidentified Cordyline fruticosa as Dracaena. This is unsurprising, since it was only in the 1980s that geneticists resolved a longstanding taxonomical dispute about these plants (Ehrlich 1989; Griffiths 1992: 96, 718). Both genera have the botanical affordances of vegetative propagation, terminal inflorescence, and robustness. A red cultivar of Cordyline, ranging from bright pink to purplish maroon depending on light, moisture, and season, is used throughout the Eastern Caribbean on property boundaries, but in St. Vincent this plant is particularly ‘polymarcating’ and privileged. Vincentians plant the “red dragon” on the corners of houses, gardens, and graves for both tenurial and metaphysical security. It prevents evil spirits (“jumbies”) from afflicting the members of a household, makes a spirit “stick” in its grave, and generally signifies peace and protection. Mothers bathe their babies with water and Cordyline leaves to cool a fever and prevent spirits from “playing with the baby.” Several elderly interviewees reported waving stalks of Cordyline like flags at St. Vincent’s independence celebrations in 1979.

The most complex ideological expression of this boundary plant is in the Spiritual Baptist Church. Cordyline guides members on their spiritual journeys to “Africa-land.” In a vision questing ritual called “mourning,” churchgoers seclude themselves for seven to nine days of intense prayer, all the while holding a Cordyline leaf in their right hands, until they begin a spiritual journey. The “red dragon” leads a traveler to Zion Hill, where she climbs up to the boundary of heaven, marked by a Cordyline hedge. There she acquires some skill or knowledge (such as how to do a particular African dance), and then flies back to her body. She carries a bouquet of Cordyline and a lit white candle while recounting her journey to the boundary of heaven, and is then entitled to wear a “leaf of the dragon” in her turban-like headtie at all church functions. The agency of Cordyline as an non-human actant in the Vincentian network of land use, social organization, and ideas makes it a particularly effective guide in a quest for personal power and agency. Cordyline occupies the same three entangled niches (economic, social-political, and ideological) in Vincentian society that Dracaena does in tropical Africa. It is, along with breadfruit and plantain, nearly ubiquitous in the island’s landscape. It literally roots the basic facts of land ownership in the landscape, represents appropriate and orderly social relationships, and stands at the boundary of life and death in both cemeteries and at the edge of heaven.

What are we to make of these parallel multispecies assemblages of boundary plant polymarcation? The most challenging aspect of Cordyline as a Caribbean boundary plant is that it is not indigenous to the area. It is from Southeast Asia, Melanesia, and Polynesia (where it is commonly known as the Ti plant), and was introduced to the New World by European explorers and botanists in the late eighteenth century. It appears in the 1806 catalogue for the St. Vincent Botanic Garden as Dracaena ferrea (Guilding 1825: 41), and over the course of the nineteenth century Cordyline became a popular boundary marker throughout the region on plantations and the “provision grounds” where slaves (and, after 1838, an emergent peasantry) grew food (Brassey 1885: 236; Carney and Rosamo 2009: 132; Kingsley 1871: 377). In 1917, the use of Cordyline was formalized as a legally valid marker in St. Vincent’s Boundary Settlement Act (St. Vincent 1966, vol. III: 2219). This tallies with the oral histories I collected about nineteenth and early twentieth century plantation landscapes, where both perimeters and internal boundaries consisted of Cordyline. The pattern that emerges from this patchy evidence is that Cordyline was a botanical technology for monomarcating imperial property relations which free smallholders adopted as a polymarcating means of producing place, society, and counterhegemonic subjectivity. Did the nineteenth-century Afro-Vincentians interpret the social and metaphysical meanings of red Cordyline in the context of West African green Dracaena? As of 1817, St. Vincent had one of the highest proportions of Africa-born slaves in the region, about 39 percent (Young 1993: 46), so it is possible that they applied African meanings to this Oceanic species (much like they did with pan-tropical trees such as the silk cotton tree, Ceiba pentandra (L.) Gaertn., Sheller 2007). Other than color, the plants appear similar to a layman’s eyes, with blade-like leaves atop long thin stalks, and both are remarkably hardy plants that take root easily from cuttings (the major physiological difference is that Dracaena has roots, whereas Cordyline grows from a rhizome). In any case, Vincentians now consider Cordyline an emphatically African plant, and this demonstrates the spatial creativity of their hybrid creole culture within an exploitative mode of production on the margins of empire. It may also represent a medium of resistance in the “contested space” of the plantation.