Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images
Flos pavonis, the "peacock flower," was (and is) used throughout the Caribbean as an herbal abortificant. Maria Sibylla Merian, one of very few women to undertake a scientific expedition during in the early modern era, made this drawing as part of her journey to study insects in the Dutch colony of Suriname (her primary concern was the caterpillar that lived on this flower's leaves). She noted, though, that a slave woman told her that blacks used the seeds of this flower to induce abortions, a form of slave resistance meant to both deprive owners of an economic resource and to protect their would-be offspring from the horrors of plantation slavery. The peacock flower was thus both a medical and political plant, a brutal tactic of resistance against a brutal institution.
Merian was not the only European naturalist to learn about this plant as an abortificant (the English naturalist Sir Hans Sloane and others knew how Caribbean women used it), yet unlike many other New World medicinal herbs, knowledge about Flos pavonis did not travel back across the Atlantic. While the medicinal properties of plants like cinchona and guaiacum made them valuable commodities that were reproduced in botanical gardens and included in European pharmacopeia, Caribbean abortificants (of which there were about twelve) were not publicized in Europe. The peacock flower was grown in Europe since at least 1666, mostly as an ornamental flower, but was only rarely noted in pharmacopeia as a remedy for fevers or stomach aches.
On the whole, Europeans were ignorant about exotic abortificants (although several European ones were well known by wise women and physicians alike) due to the ongoing struggle over who controlled female fertility. Abortions were censured by society and the medical profession alike, and limiting the knowledge of women about how they could control their own reproduction was a vital part of restricting their reproductive freedom.
There are several examples of how the Columbian Exchange facilitated a two-way transfer of knowledge across the Atlantic, but the peacock flower is an important example of how a piece of scientific knowledge, one both American and female, was not allowed to go east. There are layers of control over many aspects of learning, and what people do not know, and why they do not know it, can be as important as what they do.
Reference: Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
CITATION: "Flos pavonis." In: Merian, Marie Sibylla. Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium. Pierre Gosse, 1726. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0026583.
DIGITAL ID: 13112