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  • Christianity, Coca, and Commerce in the Peruvian Mercury
  • Margaret R. Ewalt (bio)

La Coca . . . se deduce con toda claridad y evidencia, ser uno de los auxilios más oportunos que la benéfica Providencia ha concedido a los mortales.

[Coca . . . thus we deduce with all clarity and evidence that it is one of the most opportune reliefs that benevolent Providence has conceded to us mortals.]

Mercurio Peruano, 1794 1


Recent cultural studies scholarship has shown growing interest in Enlightenment-era periodicals and academic salons.2 Much research has focused on British or French journals and societies of the early eighteenth-century. Less attention has been paid, however, to Spanish periodicals, especially to publications originating in Spanish America.3 Particularly during the second half of the eighteenth century, a literary salon culture flourished in both Spain and her colonies, stimulated by meetings of academic and economic societies (tertulias) and their publications. Historians have focused on the free exchange of ideas in periodicals and other new media to argue for the liberating powers of this new Enlightenment "space."4 In Spanish America broadsides and gazettes helped to foster increasingly regional senses of community, but they also promoted reciprocal exchanges between the Viceroyalties and transatlantic crossings of American and European knowledge.

An educated, thriving bourgeois society made the Viceroyalty of Peru an exceptionally fertile site of enlightened progress and reform. Far from seeking intellectual or political autonomy, the loyalties of Lima's elite lettered class [End Page 187] "came to be characterized by solidarity against the popular sectors and loyalty towards Spain" during the first Bourbon reign (1700–1808).5 In 1791 a university professor, a librarian, a mining consultant, a lawyer, and the police lieutenant of Lima founded the Royal Society of Lovers of Lima (Sociedad Académica de Amantes del País) and published the first edition of the Mercurio Peruano, or Peruvian Mercury.6 Although it enjoyed a large number of subscribers, the editors encountered financial difficulties that led them to cease publication four years later. Nevertheless, by the early nineteenth century the Peruvian Mercury would be hailed by Alexander von Humboldt as Peru's premiere periodical and translated into German, French, and English.7 A recent scholar has classified the majority of the journal's nearly six hundred articles as "enlightened, Christian reform journalism."8 In fact, the Peruvian Mercury includes a wide assortment of articles promoting Enlightenment science and social reform, with topics ranging from geographical surveys, travel reports, missionary relations, indigenous artifacts, mineralogy advances, natural history (especially useful plants), and commercial trade to charitable hospitals and orphanages, improvements to marriage and burial customs, childbirth and wet nurse precautions, and the cultural norms of buen gusto (good taste).

The highly selective academic society that published the Peruvian Mercury and also sponsored the tertulias, thereby creating both virtual and real public spaces in the Peruvian capital, began with ten participants in 1791. Its ranks, which never exceeded thirty-five members throughout its existence, consisted of white, male governmental functionaries, university professors, and intellectual priests; the Royal Society of Lovers of Lima consistently excluded women, blacks and Amerindians from its enlightened dialogues.9 Although the Peruvian Mercury had more contributors than its European counterparts based in Madrid, London, or Paris, its authors and editors consistently framed their social reforms and science in service to God and their Catholic monarch, thereby maintaining evangelical purposes alongside modern experimental methods.

While some panegyric natural history descriptions borrowed from the Peruvian Mercury would be recast with independence-era rhetoric after 1808, the prefatory statements to its first issue in 1791 clarify this periodical's original purpose. The Lovers of Lima, far from endorsing separatist sympathies, dispatched their "Mercury" to deliver articles that respected royal authority and religion while promoting Eurocentric cultural understanding. As one of the founders of the academic society and its periodical, Jacinto Calero y Moreira, explained: "the primary goal of the Mercury is to remedy the lack of news about the Peruvian Kingdom, so favored by nature and its benign climate and by the opulence of its earth. . . . "10 Many articles tied prosperity to the cultivation of science and education and proposed programs [End Page 188] benefiting public health and...


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