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Experiencing Nature

The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution

By Antonio Barrera-Osorio

Publication Year: 2006

“A very significant contribution. . . . This book tells a story that is usually left out of the master narrative of the history of exploration. . . . Moreover, it tells a story based on real expeditions and experiences, and it quotes liberally and effectively from engaging reports and sixteenth-century treatises, so it should appeal to general readers as well.” -Carla Rahn Phillips, Union Pacific Professor in Comparative Early Modern History, University of Minnesota As Spain colonized the Americas during the sixteenth century, Spanish soldiers, bureaucrats, merchants, adventurers, physicians, ship pilots, and friars explored the natural world, gathered data, drew maps, and sent home specimens of America's vast resources of animals, plants, and minerals. This amassing of empirical knowledge about Spain's American possessions had two far-reaching effects. It overturned the medieval understanding of nature derived from Classical texts and helped initiate the modern scientific revolution. And it allowed Spain to commodify and control the natural resources upon which it built its American empire. In this book, Antonio Barrera-Osorio investigates how Spain's need for accurate information about its American colonies gave rise to empirical scientific practices and their institutionalization, which, he asserts, was Spain's chief contribution to the early scientific revolution. He also conclusively links empiricism to empire-building as he focuses on five areas of Spanish activity in America: the search for commodities in, and the ecological transformation of, the New World; the institutionalization of navigational and information-gathering practices at the Spanish Casa de la Contratación (House of Trade); the development of instruments and technologies for exploiting the natural resources of the Americas; the use of reports and questionnaires for gathering information; and the writing of natural histories about the Americas.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-xi

This book grew out of my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California at Davis under the direction of Paula Findlen, who has become a good friend over the years. I thank her for her trust, fine teachings, sharp criticisms, mentorship, and friendship. Pamela Smith became closely involved with the project, always asking questions that forced ...

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pp. 1-12

In 1592 King Philip II of Spain received a sample of a tree with aromatic properties from Puerto Rico.1 The governor of Puerto Rico had sent the sample, suggesting that physicians study those properties to determine the tree’s economic value. Philip II ordered his physician, Doctor Mercado, to conduct tests and report back to the president ...

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One: Searching the Land for Commodities

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pp. 13-28

In 1530 a new kind of balsam made its way to Spain from the New World. The crown ordered the merchants interested in exploiting balsam to send samples of it to physicians and hospitals. They, in turn, would send reports to merchants and royal officials: ...

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Two: A Chamber of Knowledge: The Casa de la Contrataci

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pp. 29-55

... Although the office of the chief pilot was established by Ferdinand the Catholic and not by Charles V, Hakluyt’s description captures the teaching and training activities of the “Contractation house at Sivil.” The office of the chief pilot, however, was established not only to train pilots but also to make charts. The cosmographers of the Casa were hired ...

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Three: Communities of Experts: Artisans and Innovation in the New World

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pp. 56-80

In 1519 European ships arrived on Mexican shores. A man from Mictlancuauhtla who saw the ships went, of his own accord, to Motecuhzoma’s palace and told him the following: ...

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Four: Circuits of Information: Reports from the New World

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pp. 81-100

The Spanish encounter with the New World not only fostered the development of empirical and collaborative practices to exploit, study, transform, and explore the New World but also shaped the methods used by the central state to control distant resources and lands. In particular, the crown demanded reports about the New World and came up with new ...

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Five: Books of Nature: Scholars, Natural History, and the New World

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pp. 101-127

On March 12, 1579, bad weather hindered the Spanish fleet from leaving for the New World from the port of Sanl

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Conclusions: the politics of knowledge

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pp. 128-134

Spain’s encounter with the New World launched Europe into the first imperial age of the modern world. By the sixteenth century, ships, charts, guns, Genesis, and the New Testament had intertwined in a Christian ideology of domination. Yet technology and God were not enough to establish an empire: an empire was and is, above all, ...

Appendix 1

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pp. 135-139

Appendix 2

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pp. 140-146

Appendix 3

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pp. 147-150


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pp. 151-187


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pp. 189-204


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pp. 205-211

E-ISBN-13: 9780292795945
E-ISBN-10: 0292795947
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292709812
Print-ISBN-10: 0292709811

Page Count: 223
Illustrations: 10 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 69198944
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Experiencing Nature

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Subject Headings

  • Science -- United States -- History -- To 1830.
  • Spain -- History.
  • Spain -- Colonies -- America.
  • Science -- Spain -- History -- To 1830.
  • Latin America -- History -- To 1830.
  • Science -- Latin America -- History -- To 1830.
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