Maria Sibylla Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705)

Pomelos, pomegranates, plantains, and the sociopolitical importance of a seedpod. When Maria Sibylla Merian first set foot in Suriname, her senses were overcome with surprising tastes, sights, and smells. A dissected soursop and a hovering Owlet Moth; shining pepper plants and pineapple fibers which stung her German-born tongue. In her two years of exploration before contracting a malaria-like illness, Merian expounded upon the sweetness of watermelon, just as she dutifully detailed the long-misunderstood process of butterfly metamorphosis. The result was a compilation of sixty elaborate engravings, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705) — a fascinating catalog of New World plants, animals, and insects. Nestled within these pages, we find a fragmentary understanding of indigenous knowledge, the morsels of information which were shared with Merian by members of the enslaved population. Yet of the many species and processes which Metamorphosis revealed, most potent of all is an account of a singular, seemingly innocuous species of seedpod.

As a young girl growing up in Frankfurt, Merian would often travel to the countryside to search for caterpillar larvae. She raised silkworms at thirteen years old, and gave thorough attention to every subtle shift in the physiology of her specimens. When she moved to Nuremberg with her husband in 1670, she was hired to teach illustration to wealthy, unmarried women, thereby securing herself access to some of the finest gardens in Germany, elaborate oases for the insects she studied. In 1690, now the mother of two young daughters, Merian divorced. And by 1699, after a decade of supporting herself through art, she was given permission from the city of Amsterdam to undertake research in Suriname with her youngest daughter, Dorothea. Lacking the financial backing from commercial enterprise that was typical for other Dutch naturalists, the pair stayed fiscally afloat through the sale of roughly 255 of their own paintings. Rumors abound that this voyage was partially paid for by the director of the Dutch West India Company, but there is no acknowledgement of sponsorship in Merian’s writing, and she was quite open with her criticism of colonial merchants. To her, their myopic obsession with sugar was self-destructive, disappointing. There were so many other potentially world-altering plants available for export, and it was her job to illuminate their existence.

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Maria Sibylla Merian’s illustration of the peacock flower (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) and a moth — shown as larva, pupa, and in adult form — that is likely the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta).

Merian’s work would not have been possible without the knowledge of enslaved peoples, both of African and Amerindian descent. Through her interactions, Merian documented indigenous plant names, as well as their traditional medicinal uses. Perhaps it was because she was a woman that she was made privy to the use of peacock flower (or red bird of paradise) seeds as a natural abortifacient. It was rare for a female to travel without a man, even rarer for her to do so for the purpose of work. Perhaps the duo of her and Dorothea appeared trustworthy enough, or perhaps they were so meddlesome that the information was begrudgingly surrendered. Regardless, Merian understood the painful depth and breadth of the abortifacient’s importance while writing Metamorphosis:

The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds to abort their children, so that they will not become slaves like themselves. The black slaves from Guinea and Angola have demanded to be well treated, threatening to refuse to have children. In fact, they sometimes take their own lives because they are treated so badly, and because they believe they will be born again, free and living in their own land. They told me this themselves.

Merian returned to Amsterdam in 1701, opening a shop to sell her specimens and engravings. In 1705, Metamorphosis was published. Her engravings served as one of the first natural histories of Suriname, while her depictions of butterflies helped dispel the myth that insects were spontaneously generated out of mud and standing water. As Metamorphosis was shepherded through several editions and translations following Merian’s death in 1717, her work gained a larger audience. In spite of this, the medicinal use of the peacock flower was seemingly ignored. Instead, the plant became increasingly popular as an eye-catching, uncomplicated, ornamental shrub. First exported to Europe in the late seventeenth century, Caesalpinia pulcherrima took up residence in leading botanical gardens such as the Jardin du Roi in Paris and the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, yet was excluded entirely from the official pharmacopeias of London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Other New World medicines were tested and embraced — cinchona for malaria, guaiacum for syphilis. Although there was no specific law forbidding the study of abortifacients at this time, physicians and scholars proved ignorant or chose strategic omission. In this way, the plant that was originally leveraged as a life-altering act of self-ownership by the enslaved peoples of Suriname — a physical refusal to feed the cycle of slavery — was shipped across the Atlantic, and shorn of its history.

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