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Reviewed by:
  • Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire ed. by Felix Driver and Luciana Martins
  • Londa Schiebinger
Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire. Edited by Felix Driver and Luciana Martins. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

This volume explores European representations of the tropics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The focus is—again!—on British travelers and naturalists. The prominent German, Alexander von Humboldt, is given his due, and the text is sprinkled with a few French, Spanish, and Portuguese sources. Nowhere do we get a comparative view of Chinese, Arabic, or African visions of the tropics. Nowhere, as David Cosgrove points out in his conclusion, do we hear from the inhabitants of the tropics themselves.

This oversight is problematic. Humboldt, for example, is lauded for “famously” mapping the pattern of average annual temperatures across the Western hemisphere. Though techniques of representation may have been European, insights into the relationships between altitudes and temperatures, and how these influenced the biogeography of plants were not. Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra has shown how Spanish Creole interests in horticulture and profit in their own lands (in eighteenth-century New Granada) contributed to Humboldt’s understanding of the role altitude played in temperature distributions. And Francisco José de Caldas, Humboldt’s guide and informant, gleaned much of his knowledge of these things from the original Incan inhabitants of the area. (Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, “How Derivative was Humboldt? Microcosmic Nature Narratives in Early Modern Spanish America and the (Other) Origins of Humboldt’s Ecological Sensibilities,” Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics, ed. Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005)). This volume would be strengthened by taking into account new colonial and imperial histories that document the mixing and intermingling of knowledges globally. See among others, Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Roy MacLeod, ed., Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise, special issue of Osiris 15 (2000); Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004).

Bearing these caveats in mind, this volume provides fascinating accounts of European notions of the Torrid Zone (as it was often styled), the area of the earth’s surface bounded by two parallels of latitude stretching from 24º27’ north and south of the equator. As Cosgrove points out, European notions of the worlds subsisting between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn were originally celestial rather than terrestrial—that is to say, they were first defined deductively by Ptolemy, the second-century cosmographer, and not through first-hand experience of them. Cosgrove also notes that for Europeans the tropics were interestingly “maritime” in the sense that the southern hemisphere is dominated by the sea and that reaching its land masses required lengthy voyages on the part of Europeans. Interestingly, the ocean voyage itself—the devastating storms, threatening scurvy, and poor food—colored travelers’ perceptions of the tropics even before they set foot on these exotic shores.

The editors helpfully distinguish Europeans’ “views” from their “visions” of tropical areas. “Views” are defined as produced by enlightened reason along with suitably imperial ways of translating landscapes into recognizable codes so that the variety of the natural difference across the globe could be understood in the metropole. These codes included uniform methods of mapping, sketching, and portraying color—and required detached objectivity to make them reliable. European “visions” of the tropics, by contrast, recognized the imaginative augmentations brought by the observer to his or her (mostly his) work. Humboldt’s “sensibility” is held up as a prime example of how the eye of the observer actively enlarged sensual experience: Subjectivity was celebrated, not suppressed. Volume authors point out that many European visions and views were formed—not on the spot—but through the astronomical, climatic, and moral geographies of classical and biblical antiquity that continued to mold European ideas and images of these lands and their people well into the nineteenth century.

Authored primarily by geographers, historians, and literary critics, this volume contains many delightful details and insights. Among them are Michael Dettelbach’s accounts of Humboldt’s self-experiments with...

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