All that remained to the Linnaeans in their quest for tea was honor and its pursuit. They comforted themselves (falsely) that tea had first entered Europe with "a Swedish man and in a Swedish ship and to a Swedish harbor." In 1768, one student wrote in this patriotic vein from Paris to console Linnaeus: "Now, Sir, you will get a great revenge on that lie that Tea was first introduced in Europe in Trianon, which was once said in the gazettes."When you're an eighteenth-century historian in training, you quickly discover that the field has occupational hazards which few people will warn you about, or even acknowledge. Prime among them is the period's almost unbelievable ability to make history-writing turgid, in all senses of that word. Since the great debates in this area typically revolve around the Enlightenment(s) (how many of them were there? Did they cause the French Revolution? Were they uniformly secularist in orientation?), they provide a built-in stimulus for writing enormous and comprehensive Very Serious Intellectual History books, which appear to get longer every year. The two most important in the last couple of decades total roughly 3000 pages each--one in (a projected) three volumes, one in (a projected) six. Although the last half-century has seen an growing emphasis on local and regional studies, these, far from taming the field's monstrous esprit de systeme, only encourage it. Few comprehensive studies can now afford to ignore Beccaria and the Germans.
From Uppsala, Linnaeus dismissed the claim that tea grew in Dutch and French botanic gardens. Yet this was of little comfort to him as he saw his specimens wilt and die, and his achievements ignored by the learned. Attempting to set the record straight, he cautiously summarized his life's work in 1773: "Tea was first seen away from China in the Uppsala Garden; from this others have learned to take care of it in such a way that within a Century Tea will be common in the fields of Southern Europe."
As late as 1791, Linnaeus' student Andres Sparrman advocated European-grown tea. Employing the fashionable rhetoric of participatory and radical politics, he urged "you Europeans! Citizens!" to "abandon the Chinese tea entirely, or plant it yourself" to help abolish slavery. Europe, through her own forests of tea bushes ... can avoid the humiliating annual tribute to the barely half-civilized Chinese Nation, of so many hundreds of thousands of measures of silver," which are obtained from ignoble commerce. "Europeans drag away Africa's Children in irons, to bring up in America that silver from the depth while abused weaker Natives are forced to wither away."
Yet the Linnaeans never could grow tea. Nor did they popularize their native substitutes for tea--sloe, bog myrtle, and pennyroyal. Even Linnaeus' exotic "Lapp tea" of 1740 was a poor substitute for real tea. Thirty years after that introduction, the aging naturalist still expected that his namesake, a frail flower some two inches high, would be cultivated as the national beverage. As if to honor this quixotic dream, Sweden's classic Linnaean flora, Svensk Botanik (1803), opens by describing Linnaea borealis, recommending it especially for tea. Yet his son's terse note on brewing it may more appropriately memorialize it: "NB, one shouldn't use too many" Linnaea leaves in the water, "for then it is rather repulsive."
- Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (1999)
In that context, Koerner's book is a great relief. Not only is it a scant 193 pages long; it's also unpretentious in a way that only a good local study can be. Koerner treats her subject with gentle levity instead of moral righteousness or high seriousness. She doesn't drown him in historiographical cliches or attempt to fit him into awkward preconceived schemata. We come to the book to learn about Linnaeus, and we come away actually having learned something about him.
The thesis of the book is that Linnaeus’s central concern over the course of his long scientific career was the promotion of Swedish autarky and economic development, which he thought about using the mental categories of German cameralism. Implicit in this is the fact that he was not an Enlightenment man, not a man of the Scientific Revolution, not a "modern" man in the sense in which we use that word today. For all his popularity in amateur scientific circles in Western Europe, he remained a locally-rooted, traditionalistic relic; he dreamed of a Sweden rich in tea plantations and pearl farms, not of liberty, fraternity, and equality. As Koerner puts it, he was in pursuit of a "local modernity" that would never arrive.
To a much greater extent than is usually appreciated, the eighteenth century (I would hypothesize) was full of Linnaeuses; for, in a certain sense, he was also very much a man of his time. The spread of basic scientific knowledge (or knowledge regarded as scientific) provided intellectual resources for an enormous stratum of people whose hobbies and casual interests thereby acquired the aura of a fight for progress. Few of them ever got beyond this, of course. But it's impossible to look at all the local histories and minor experiments produced in the period and not conclude that the age had given lots of people something to keep themselves busy.
If the field is to properly appreciate these kinds of people, it needs to experience an aesthetic shift as much a strictly historiographical one. Today's Enlightenments, even outside of the work of Jonathan Israel, remain mired in triumphalist and pseudo-heroic narratives of intellectual conquest and moral struggle. Linnaeus and his kind, who were almost inevitably bad scientists and produced useful knowledge only by sheer accident, demand a different point of view--one which can properly grasp their failure, ignorance, and self-delusion. Only this, in the end, can cure our turgidity.
(Although, given Robert Darnton's general lack of success in pushing the field in this direction, I'm not holding out much hope.)