One of the great joys of colonialism (I imagine for the colonist more than the colonized) was the vast freedom to name things after yourself. Step off the boat in your crisp, newly starched khaki clothes and pith helmet, pick the nearest flower (or shoot the nearest animal), and say, “I now proclaim this species (which has been known to the indigenous people of this region for many thousands of years) as newly discovered, by me, and therefore name it Newflowerii johnsmithus.” See a body of water or a mountain range? Name it after your preferred sovereign (maybe they’ll knight you for it).
This went on quite a lot, as you can imagine. But sometimes it backfired, and your name ended up attached (in perpetuity) to something a little less flattering.
Thomas Stanford Bingley Raffles was an Englishman with an unfortunate name, born in 1781. At 14, he began working for the British East India Company in what is now Malaysia, and spent the rest of his life in Southeast Asia. He traded, warred and explored his way around the region in the name of the British Empire, ‘discovering’ new species of plants and animals, and in 1819 he founded Singapore – a British trading post owned by the East India Company. Raffles adopted the title “Agent to the Most Nobel the Governor-General with the States of Rhio, Lingin, and Johor”, which was probably a bit hellish prior to the invention of copy-paste. In 1824 he returned to England, founded the London Zoo, and then died in 1826 at the age of 44 – the price exacted by a lifetime spent in the tropics. But his legacy lives on through his name.
Approximately every second building in Singapore is named after Raffles: the Raffles Hotel, Raffles Hospital, Raffles College, and on it goes. Even Singapore Air’s business class is named ‘Raffles Class’. I did not see any whorehouses named after Raffles last time I was in Singapore, but given that approximately every other second building in the city is a brothel, I’m sure some overlap exists.
But the apogee of Raffles-mania is surely the Rafflesia, a genus of plant that I’m sure he wouldn’t want his name attached to. Rafflesia are found throughout Southeast Asia, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and new species are increasingly being found in the Philippines. The Rafflesia are not conventionally attractive flowers. They are dark, and heavy – if Carvaggio had painted flowers, he would’ve painted Rafflesia. These are not your grandmother’s watercolour petunias.
But they’re not without a certain stark allure. Partially it’s the size, the Rafflesia arnoldii (named after not one, but two white Englishmen) has the largest single flower of any plant in the world – up to 3 feet across, and weighing 24 pounds. If it were so inclined, the flower could eat a family of chihuahuas, with room to spare.
The Rafflesia, though, is not a flower you’re likely to keep in your sunroom, even if you think it would go with your decor (and in which case, please send me a picture of your sunroom, because that’s a place worth seeing). First, the Rafflesia are parasitic. They grow on vines of the genus Tetrastigma, and use an absorptive organ called the haustorium to penetrate the outer walls of the vine and hijack the flow of nutrients. It’s like stealing cable from your neighbour. The vine survives, but it has to work harder to feed itself because the flower is siphoning off some of the nutrients. Rafflesia has no true roots, or stems, or leaves, and cannot photosynthesize; it is completely dependent on the vines. So that’s the first reason they wouldn’t do well in your sunroom.
The second reason becomes immediately obvious before you even lay eyes on the flower – it smells like rotting flesh. This delightful aroma has given it the colloquial name of “corpse flower” (although this name is contested by another large flower, the Amorphophallus titanum, which also smells like a dead animal), or “meat flower”. The pungent, sickly-sweet smell of rot is produced for an obvious reason – because it’s attractive.
Each Rafflesia plant has only one flower, which means that each plant contains only boy parts or girl parts – to reproduce, the pollen from the male plants needs to find a way to reach the female plants. Not a problem if you can walk or fly, but you’re a plant, so that’s not really an option. Birds and bees and the other beautiful pollinators of the forest tend to stay away from you (because you smell), but that’s okay. Not all pollinators are so discerning. The smell of decay is the preferred perfume of flies and beetles, and they’ll swarm to you in the hundreds, carrying your pollen to other plants. In the natural world every kink is satisfied – it’s like German porn.
The Rafflesia is a clever piece of naming, and I have to wonder if the scientists who first described it were practicing a little bit of their own private activism. A flower that acts as a parasite on native vines, and reeks of death and decay? If that’s not a metaphor for colonialism, I don’t know what is.
Beaman et al. 1988. Pollination of Rafflesia (Rafflesiaceae). Amer. J. Bot. 75: 1148-1162.
Davis et al. 2007. Floral gigantism in Rafflesiaceae. Science