Cinchona Plant

Date: 1791
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This scientific illustration shows the various parts (leaves, stem, seed pods, etc.) of the cinchona plant, a species native to South America. As early as 1638, Europeans noted that the bark of this plant could cure and prevent malaria, a disease that was prevalent throughout the world, though especially common and deadly in the tropics. The bark was (and is) most commonly used to make quinine, an effective drug against malaria and the essential ingredient in tonic water to the present day.

The cinchona plant is representative of the American flora and it was widely coveted in Europe for medicinal and, consequently, economic purposes. Spain's eighteenth century Bourbon monarchs sought to cultivate it for export to the rest of Europe as a source of revenue, as well as a much needed medicine, which would exemplify both Spain's modernity and its Enlightened benevolence. Nevertheless, the Spanish Monarchy and then the independent republics of northern South America would keep cinchona production a closely guarded monopoly well into the 1800s. It was not until 1865 that someone finally managed to smuggle cinchona seeds out of the continent and cultivate them in the Dutch Pacific (an episode proving that the Columbian exchange of biota was and is an ongoing process). Once this theft made quinine widely available, it became a crucial factor that enabled Europeans to colonize the hitherto deadly interiors of Africa and Southeast Asia. It is an interesting coincidence that an American plant made available by European conquest of the New World made possible later European conquests of other continents.

CITATION: Bordiga, Benedetto. La Kina Kina. 1791. Accession no. 98-75. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.