University of Oulu

Kananoja, K., & Hokkanen, M. (2022). Potent roots on the move: Calumba and abutua as african, imperial, and global medicines, c. 1700s–1900s. History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals, 63(2), 171–194.

Potent roots on the move : calumba and abutua as African, imperial, and global medicines, c. 1700s–1900s

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Author: Kananoja, Kalle1; Hokkanen, Markku2
Organizations: 1Department of History, Culture, and Communication Studies at the University of Oulu
2Department of History at the University of Oulu
Format: article
Version: published version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 0.5 MB)
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Language: English
Published: University of Wisconsin Press, 2022
Publish Date: 2022-08-24


Calumba (Jateorhiza calumba / J. palmata) and abutua (Cissampelos pareira) are multi-purpose medicinal plants, whose roots have been used in Eastern, Southern, and West-Central Africa for a considerable time. In the early modern era, the Portuguese adapted the roots, which became commercially traded in the Portuguese empire across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. By the early nineteenth century, the roots were recognized also by the British and North American pharmacopoeias, but there was confusion and secrecy surrounding their origins and quality. Engaging with recent historiography about African and imperial plant medicines, we demonstrate that calumba and abutua had long, dynamic, and mobile continuities on the continent—first in Portuguese imperial settings and then in appropriation by British botanists and colonial officials in East Africa. Exploring African agency in the making of knowledge about calumba and abutua is problematic, however. While in the longue durée, calumba and abutua maintained their value and meanings within Africa, in certain moments, these plants became objects of scientific curiosity and heightened commercial interest in the West.

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Series: History of pharmacy and pharmaceuticals
ISSN: 2694-3034
ISSN-E: 2694-3042
ISSN-L: 2694-3034
Volume: 63
Issue: 2
Pages: 171 - 194
DOI: 10.3368/hopp.63.2.171
Type of Publication: A1 Journal article – refereed
Field of Science: 615 History and archaeology
Funding: Research and Open Access publication of this article has been supported by theAcademy of Finland research project,“Mobile Healers, Politics and Developmentin Sub-Saharan Africa”(project. no. 324388).
Academy of Finland Grant Number: 324388
Detailed Information: 324388 (Academy of Finland Funding decision)
Copyright information: © 2022 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. This open access article is distributed under the terms of the CC-BY-NC-ND license ( and is freely available online at: