Caribbean Ethnobotany before Roumain : Eugène Nau’s Nineteenth-century Contribution to an Understanding of the “Indian Flora of Haiti”
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In 1942, following his return to Haiti after several years of political exile, Jacques Roumain (1907–1944), then Director of the newly-created Haitian Bureau of Ethnology, published a scientific essay on the “Pre-Colombian Ethnobotany of the Greater Antilles”.1Though this text represents a deviation from the political activism – as a founding member of the Haitian Communist Party – and the literary masterpiece, Gouverneurs de la rosée (Masters of the Dew), for which he is known to us today, this scientific publication provides an important insight into the way in which indigeneity and territorial belonging could be understood in the Caribbean context. In his study of pre-Colombian ethnobotany, Roumain attempted to catalog the plant life of the Caribbean according to the role that each plant species had played in the lives of the Taíno, one of the Amerindian peoples who had once thrived in the Caribbean prior to the arrival of Columbus. The plants he described ranged from those that had mythological importance to those that had household uses. Roumain, however, was not the first Caribbean person to publish a scientific work which, as his critics claimed, strained the disciplinary boundaries of botany and ethnographic writing on the Taíno. There is precedent in nineteenth-century Caribbean scholarship for writing concerning the Amerindian inhabitants of Haiti and their use of plants.