Some notes on decolonising Natural History Collections at The University of Coimbra

The University of Coimbra has amassed considerable natural history collections stemming from former colonies in Africa (Angola, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe), but also from Brazil, India, Macao and East-Timor, housed in several organic institutions, such as the Science Museum (integrating the previously independent museum sections by area of knowledge, such as, economic botany, zoology, geology or ethnography), the Herbarium, one of the largest in the Iberian Peninsula, the Botanic Garden that harbours historical living plant collections, but also assembled in more specific contexts, such as medicinal plants and products at the Faculty of Pharmacy and Medical School. All these repositories, distinct in scope, audiences, and public visibility, hold, curate and interpret natural history specimens gathered under distinct historical circumstances, ranging from the more organized expeditions (the late 18th century Philosophical Voyages, or the Angolan botanical missions of the 20th century), to smaller, episodic collections sent by amateur naturalists that were brought into intercontinental networks of biological material exchange, and significantly expanded the amount and geographical range of the collections.

The more recent institutional determination of the University of Coimbra of initiating the discussion on decolonising the scientific collections under its care seems to present itself as a complex process, especially since the public debate on matters of restitution and repatriation polarise opinions and create immediate friction and distrust both among diverse sectors of society and even within academia. However, these reparation initiatives are by no means a corollary of analysing the contexts of production and refocusing our narratives about the natural collections, and one should not be afraid of initiating this commitment and ethical obligation to change in the way we deal with this sensible heritage, regardless of the decisions that may arise from reflecting and acting on such matters. Such discussions must be based on multidisciplinary collaboration, open and conducted with humility and respect in reassessing the bias and power dynamics engrained in the construction of the past. 

These brief notes focus mainly on possible steps towards the discussion about the decolonisation, or decolonisations, of botanical collections and practices at the University of Coimbra. They are not intended to delimit a unidirectional and hierarchical path of activities to be developed and are not a closed script for a decolonial rereading of the collections, which are a constant challenge, always presenting us with open questions and incomplete answers. My views and writings on this subject stem from a position of privilege as an academic working at the UC, which allows me the time, easier access to the collections under analysis and the freedom to appose narratives onto natural and cultural objects long disconnected from their contexts of origin; I am aware of my limitations in identifying additional perspectives and knowledges, which other voices will be able to bring to the open and ongoing debate.

These brief notes focus mainly on possible steps to start the discussion on the decolonisation, or decolonisations, of botanical collections and practices at the University of Coimbra. My view and my writing on this subject start from a position of privilege as an academic working at the UC, which allows me the time, access to the collections under analysis and the apposition of narratives to natural and cultural objects long disaggregated from their original contexts; I am aware of my limitations in recognising additional perspectives and diverse knowledge, which other voices will be able to bring to this open debate.

Though an obvious starting point for this discussion, it is never enough to stress that the first step towards recontextualising collections and allow for new perspectives and critiques is to acknowledge colonial histories, that is, recognize the colonial origins and circumstances in which natural history collections were produced and accumulated, and the violence and nefarious legacies resulting from these practices that remain to the present day and that are not restricted to the objects in cabinets and museum galleries but are felt by present-day local peoples and their natural resources. 

Glass slide of Welwitschia mirabilis Hook f. in Angola, photo by Luís Carrisso, 1927 (Archive of Botany of the Life Sciences Department of the University of Coimbra)Glass slide of Welwitschia mirabilis Hook f. in Angola, photo by Luís Carrisso, 1927 (Archive of Botany of the Life Sciences Department of the University of Coimbra)

Up until recently, and still entrenched in a more mainstream view, the natural sciences positioned themselves as being “outside” of the colonial project and demarcated their actions as a somewhat more benign scientific endeavour, led mostly by scientific curiosity about the natural world, and the need to catalogue it as a path towards its preservation. On the contrary, not only was access to the biological heritage and local knowledge of colonised territories made possible and facilitated by benefiting of the same power structures that explored resources and oppressed populations, but the natural sciences were an integral part of the colonial project. We must not forget that the processes of disempowerment and social exclusionary othering of peoples and communities in colonies and empires was extended to natural ecosystems and species in the everyday and scientific discourse. We can still find it in the popular idea of “jungle”, that does not refer to any existing natural ecosystem, but is a construct to convey nature of an untamed nature, chaotic, dangerous, and thus in need of an organising framework that could make it palatable for colonisers and productive to its maximum potential. These natural landscapes were also equated with disease, another setback for the progress and exploitation of these territories, and so again ripe for transformation. European expectations on these “distant” territories demanded novelty and working towards taming these wild spaces justified colonial actions. Cataloguing and describing plant species, outlining their distributions, ecosystem boundaries and climate conditions was also a way of describing the suitability of the territory to be occupied by profitable, commercially valuable species, bringing order to the landscape. Consequently, the legacies of this framework remain and are visible in the destruction and degradation of primary forests, either for land use conversion or resource exploitation (e.g.: timber) but also in the introduction and spread of pathogens and exotic species. As an example, from the 1860s, the Botanic Garden of the UC established strong relations with São Tomé and Príncipe plantation owners, exchanging information and saplings of agricultural or useful plants from trials conducted at the glasshouse, in Coimbra. That was the case with the genus Cinchona, several species of trees and shrubs native to the Andean tropical forests, from which bark quinine is extracted, and the only known effective treatment for malaria at the time of the European scramble to Africa. By the 1880s, some sizable plantations were already established in Santomean high altitude forests, and through their progressive abandonment, these Cinchona species have become naturalized, posing a threat to endemic species and the island fragile ecosystems.

Flasks with samples of coffee beans (UC Science Museum)Flasks with samples of coffee beans (UC Science Museum)

The University of Coimbra, as the main centre of botanical knowledge production in Portugal up until the 20th century, has also played a role of varying importance in all major expeditions of cartographical and territorial expansion and possession of African territories, some of which were carried out in response to the Brussels Geographic Conference of 1876, and later to the principle of effective occupation of territories stemming from the Berlin Conference, in 1885. Instructions on the collection of botanical materials and other correspondence was exchanged between Júlio Henriques, director of the Botanic Garden, and the likes of Serpa Pinto, Capelo & Ivens, who crossed central Africa from Angola to Mozambique, or Henrique de Carvalho, who formalised the agreements with the Kingdom of Muatianvia that would give Portugal control over the Lunda, in Angola, where diamond mining would later flourish and create immense wealth to colonial powers. Many of the plant specimens collected during these expeditions are held at the Herbarium of the UC. In the 1920s, sponsored by Diamang, whose archives are also partially held at the UC, Luís Carrisso, another professor of the institution, would carry out botanical missions in Angola and produce hundreds of photographs of people, landscapes, and plants, also housed at the Department of Life Sciences of the UC. 

In reassessing the imperial and colonial contexts of the botanical collections, a critical step is to recognise and understand the ways in which local and indigenous knowledge and biocultural heritages were often disregarded, omitted, and appropriated. This participation in the processes of scientific knowledge production is mostly invisible but traces of its importance can be found in diaries, letters, photographs and accompanying notes of specimens, that record the contributions of indigenous knowledge systems, and the role of local people as scientific mediators and facilitators in interpreting the natural world in their territories. Fragments of this knowledge and work can be found in letters held at the Archive of Botany of the UC. On January 23, 1888, Francisco Quintas, the official plant collector in São Tomé, wrote: 

“The orchid I still could not get it this time. As they could not tell me in which month it was blooming, I gave some paper to a local black man so that when the occasion arose, he could pick it. The man, instead of doing this, told me a few days ago that he had looked for me to take me to the place, and that he had not found me. He gave me the following information: that blooming takes place in the month of October, and the flower anticipates the leaf”. The biological and ecological information relayed by the local assistant, is enough to identify the orchid as Nervilia bicarinata (Blume) Schltr., known in São Tomé as Aminsó, a species that produces a single leaf which appears after flowering is over, and with a tradition of medicinal and spiritual uses on the island. Several dried specimens of this plant are included in the UC Herbarium with the labels recording Quintas as the sole collector, a piece of data that can be problematized by the above letter, that also attributes collecting functions to the local assistant, if not on this specimen, certainly in other instances in the field.

Photographic postcard of ukwêtê-nglandji / bordão-de-macaco (Costus giganteus Welw. ex Ridl.), sent from São Tomé and Príncipe to Júlio Henriques, unknown date (Archive of Botany of the Life Sciences Department of the University of Coimbra)Photographic postcard of ukwêtê-nglandji / bordão-de-macaco (Costus giganteus Welw. ex Ridl.), sent from São Tomé and Príncipe to Júlio Henriques, unknown date (Archive of Botany of the Life Sciences Department of the University of Coimbra)

As a side note, decolonising Linnean binomial nomenclature is also an ongoing topic of discussion (Guedes et al, 2023; Smith & Figueiredo, 2021), as since the 18th century, many naming practices have attached offensive terms to the scientific denomination of organisms. An especially debatable practice is the attribution of eponyms, celebrating a person in the creation of a novel taxon. As we know, people’s perception on who and when should be paid homage and from whose perspective, is not consensual and changes often. For instance, in 1963, in the Bulletin of Sociedade Broteriana, printed by University Press, a French botanist published a new species name for a succulent plant endemic to southern Angola, which he decided to dedicate to António de Oliveira Salazar – Kalanchoe salazarii Raym.-Hamet praising his “political genius” that “has raised a new sun on the destiny of Portugal” (Raymond-Hamet, 1963). Today, that fawning gesture reiterates in a rare Angolan plant the imposition on the country and the former colonies of the salazarist Estado Novo, a dictatorial regime that lasted over forty years. 

An area where considerable progress has been made in the last two decades is biodiversity collections data dissemination, committing efforts towards the widespread digital distribution of natural history objects and associated data, in open access. This process involves digitising, databasing and providing online access to natural history collections of colonial origin, in what can be viewed as natural history data repatriation. At the University, the Herbarium (COI) has been making available their African collections in an online catalogue ( In a less common initiative, the collaborative transcription project “Plant Letters” has made freely available the information contained in 19th and 20th century correspondence among botanists and other actors connected to the UC ( This valuable data, retrieved with the help of citizens, allows us to track plant materials circulation; to determine historical plant locations in parts of sub-Saharan Africa; to better understand the scientific processes of plant discovery, taxonomy, and botany, including the participation of local assistants and indigenous knowledge; and to collect information that gives context to biological specimens and museum objects. 

These actions may serve as a first step to another crucial task: diversifying collection narratives, not only by expanding the accounts presented in natural history collections to include other knowledge systems and perspectives, but also by associating to object metadata details about indigenous ecological knowledge, local traditional uses of fauna, flora and funga, and the cultural significance of relevant species, among others. This information can then be transferred to the museum context and enrich curatorial programs, generative of new ideas and more inclusive outreach initiatives (Das & Lowe, 2018).

Carrying out these activities in collaboration settings, promoting skill-sharing and capacity building initiatives that enhance the growth of biodiversity research in the ex-colonies and among indigenous communities, may allow for a wider participation and care in the shared safeguard, management, and interpretation of natural history collections; bearing in mind the environmental legacies of resources overexploitation and extractivism carried out during the colonial period, and from which many collection objects arose, a crucial area of cooperation and reparation must be the support of conservation actions targeting species and ecosystems restoration in the ex-colonies. In this domain, we have nurtured collaborations with São Tomé and Príncipe in establishing a fully equipped, renovated herbarium, with trained human resources (, and we have worked together with the University Lúrio, in northern Mozambique, in establishing a university botanical garden, with a focus on local species. We have fostered and participate in scholarship programs for advanced training in biodiversity and conservation of citizens from African Portuguese-speaking countries, East-Timor, and Brazil, now attending doctoral programs at the UC.

All the previous steps must be grounded on a crucial tenet: building collaborative efforts to engage with indigenous people, their descendants and/or representatives associated with the regions from which the collections originated, be it states, ethnolinguistic groups and communities, non-governmental organizations, religious denominations, among others. This dialogue allows for the integration of their visions, concerns, and aspirations regarding the collections, ensuring that new perspectives are included and respected, within well-defined ethical guidelines. These cooperative actions in shared stewardship of the collections can involve indigenous experts, knowledge holders, and scholars in research, interpretation, and curation processes (Smithsonian, 2022).

Herbarium sheet of Aminsó, the species Nervilia bicarinataHerbarium sheet of Aminsó, the species Nervilia bicarinataThrough education and public engagement, a parallel set of activities should foster public awareness and understanding of the need to decolonise natural history collections, by the development of educational programs, exhibits, and public events that challenge colonial narratives and promote a more inclusive understanding of nature and culture. Botanic gardens, as open green spaces with a seemingly more informal character than museums, host living collections and infrastructures for the display and experimentation of plants with a direct link to colonial science, agriculture and forestry, and can be privileged places to host debates and educational activities on decolonisation, since the recontextualization of narratives can be anchored in a visible dimension of time, expressed in the accumulation of biomass in living historical trees.

In summary, decolonising natural history collections, acknowledging, and addressing the historical and ongoing impacts of colonisation on these collections and their associated knowledge systems, define their shared stewardship, or deciding on restitution and repatriation processes, must be an inclusive and enduring process, anchored in continuous learning and sharing, allowing for improvements, and responding to the changing expectations of the actors involved. The examples of collaboration activities and projects given above between people and institutions of the UC with people and institutions of Angola, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe, are promising gestures towards decolonising botanical collections but are by no means an integrated approach to this mission, which will require the University of Coimbra to make a long-term commitment and real investment in changing its approach to collections.


Das, S. & Lowe, M. (2018). Nature Read in Black and White: decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections. Journal of Natural Science Collections, 6, 4‐14.

Guedes, P., Alves-Martins, F., Arribas, J. M., Chatterjee, S., Santos, A. M., Lewin, A., … Ladle, R. J. (2023). Eponyms have no place in 21st-century biological nomenclature. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1-4.

Raymond-Hamet (1963) Sur quatre Kalanchoe – dont trois nouveaux – de l’Angola et sur un Kalanchoe du Mozambique. Boletim da Sociedade Broteriana, 37, 5-33.

Smith, G. F., & Figueiredo, E. (2022). “Rhodes-” must fall: Some of the consequences of colonialism for botany and plant nomenclature. TAXON, 71(1), 1-5.

Smithsonian (2022) Shared Stewardship and Ethical Returns Policy.


An earlier version of this text was presented on June 22, 2023, at the International Colloquium - Sustainable Management of World Heritage Assets, as part of the celebrations of the 10th Anniversary of the Inscription of the University of Coimbra - Alta e Sofia on the UNESCO World Heritage List (

by António Carmo Gouveia
A ler | 1 August 2023 | Natural History Collections, University of Coimbra