Ella den Elzen

Fragments from a conversation with my grandfather, who grew up in rural Manchester Parish, Jamaica, are overlaid on top of family photographs, imperial documents and images of seeds and botany. His words ‘to borrow some when you’re ready’, meaning to take fruit from someone else’s tree when you needed it, challenges the imposed notions of property and land as a resource that were imposed by British colonial rule. In the countryside, moving through and across space, to harvest one’s own garden and from the garden of others is part of everyday life.

While the embodied knowledges of enslaved Africans about different plant species determined their success in growing in the colonies, many plants were claimed to be “discovered” by British navigators and colonists, thus erasing the knowledge of the African botanists and their descendants.Additionally, many of tropical fruits became a primary source of trade income for the British Empire during the 1800s, generating enormous sums of revenue for the commonwealth. Their cultivation was an extension of the plantationocene, where plants are disciplined, and the discipline of human labour is required to produce them1. Central to the exploitation of these fruits was the collection of their seeds and taxonomy of their plants. Seeds of these so-called “unknown” plant species were propagated within colonial botanical gardens, before being sent to Kew Gardens in England to be included in the Royal Botanical Garden’s collection. One such garden, Bath Botanical Gardens, established in the late 16th century, validated a European knowledge of plant species that been grown and used by Africans and members of the African diaspora for centuries before their renaming by Europeans. Ackee’s latin name, for example, is Blighia sapida, after William Bligh, a colonial navy officer. It is believed however, to have originated originally from Ghana or elsewhere in West Africa. In this way, diasporic journeys can be traced and retraced by the ways in which plants have travelled from Africa to the Americas.

Over the course of our conversation my grandfather recited to me the growing season of many plants including sorrel, renta, yam, mangoes, plum, breadfruit, ackee. He knew the length of the country and its highest peak by memory (in his words, Jamaica is 144 miles long, the widest part being 52 miles, and the Blue Mountain reaches 7402 feet high). In his Brampton (Canada) garden he tried to grow sorrel, but it didn’t work. He also can’t grow ackee, so he now just buys it canned. He thinks ackee might be originally from Sierra Leone. He told me he noticed the Dunn’s River cans also say canned in Sierra Leone. Someone once told him that it originated from the Philippines, he said, but he isn’t sure. In Jamaica though, he usually just buys the fruit from someone on the side of the road. He asked me if I knew how to make codfish and ackee, to which I replied no, my mother never taught me. ii He couldn’t write the recipe down for me or for that of curry goat. I can try to explain it, he said, but it’s difficult. Next time you want to make it, call me, he said, we can go step-by-step together, over the phone. This made me realize to re-map our geographies are to share stories and to cook together.
Themes: Premonitions of Bodies, Interrogated Materialities

Methods: Fragments, Collage, Archive, Intimate


[1] Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing in conversation with Greg Mittman, “Reflections on the Plantationocene” Edge Effects (June 18, 2019), 6-8.

[i] For another piece on embodied knowledge and ancestors, see: ULI KWINA (translation: you are/it is elsewhere) by kyle malanda

[ii] For a piece on recipes, food and memory, see: A SOLUTION IS FOUND IN SALT AND SPICE by Fozia Ismail

Ella den Elzen is an architectural designer and researcher. Working predominantly in modes of architectural representation such as drawing and model making, she explores the role of architecture in relation to justice. Her research examines topics around spaces of incarceration, migration, and settler-colonial infrastructures.

︎ @internet.ella