Jungles of the Mind: the Invention of the 'Tropical Rain Forest'

Philip Stott unravels the emergence of myths about the tropical rain forests.

One of the earliest European accounts of the tropical world is found in the famous letter, dated February 1493, of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) describing his first voyage of 1492-93. This was published in Spanish in Barcelona in April 1493 by Pedro Posa, with a Latin version appearing a little later. His account helped to establish a number of European myths about the tropics that still flourish today.

Columbus offered an image of great fecundity and diversity, yet did not see ‘vegetation’ as such, but rather ‘a great variety of trees stretching up to the stars’. Using a modern colloquialism, we might say he couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Columbus described the islands of the Caribbean as intensely ‘fertile’ and ‘distinguished by various qualities’, the palm trees numerous and far excelling ‘ours in height and beauty, just as all the other trees, herbs, and fruit do’. His focus was on individual plants and organisms, and on their extraordinary variety of forms and functions.

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