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  • Science and Empire in the Atlantic World
  • Karen Reeds
James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew , eds. Science and Empire in the Atlantic World. New York: Routledge, 2008. xiv + 365 pp. index. illus. tbls. $31.95. ISBN: 978-0-415-96126-4.

In the three centuries after Columbus, imperial aims motivated most of the countless voyages that linked Europeans, Africans, Creoles, and Native Americans. Scientists followed close behind the military and merchants. The thirteen contributors to James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew's volume look past the familiar narratives of heroic scientific discovery and exploration in search of other kinds of connections between science and empire. How did science, medicine, and technology serve—or undermine—the purposes of traders and colonial administrators? [End Page 1351] Who did the research, and who paid for it? What scientific information and ideas emerged from these transactions? Whose knowledge carried the most weight, who was allowed to share it, and how was it transformed as it crossed the Atlantic?

For Renaissance scholars, the most immediately relevant studies are the essays on the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Alison Sandman surveys the Spanish Empire's struggles to keep its monopoly over navigational and cartographic knowledge. Nicholas Dew describes later efforts by the French Academy of Sciences to coordinate physical measurements of the Atlantic world, key observations for Newton's assumption that the fall of a stone "must be the same . . . in Europe and in America" (54). Ralph Bauer considers early English and Spanish reactions to Native American knowledge in light of contemporary European occult philosophy —a theme echoed in the essays by Susan Scott Parish on diasporic African sources of Enlightenment knowledge, James Delbourgo on the symbolism of electrical machines and electric eels, and François Regourd on mesmerism and Vodou on Saint Domingue in the 1780s. Júnia Ferreira Furtado finds the roots of "tropical medicine" in the publications and empirical practice of Dutch naturalists and Luso-Brazilian barber-surgeons as they investigated efficacy of local herbal remedies (notably to prevent scurvy among African slaves). Antonio Barrera Osorio analyzes Spain's systematic collection, testing, control, and dissemination of new American experience in natural history, agriculture, and chart-making.

Even these brief summaries suggest the geographic and disciplinary range of the volume as a whole and the rich interplay of themes between the early modern and Enlightenment examples. When this project was first conceived in 2002, colonial science was still a relatively new subject for historical inquiry. Taking advantage of the considerable body of work generated in the meantime (surveyed in editors' introduction), the contributors challenge the earlier picture of a one-way flow from the colonial periphery to the European metropolitan centers, where trained natural philosophers would winnow the harvest of information and specimens, discard the chaff of indigenous experience, and send the rest through the mill of scientific analysis.

Instead, these essays show that ideas, data, and scientists moved north and south along the Atlantic coasts (and deep into the Latin American continent) and in both directions across the ocean. The festival and fireworks celebrating Mexico City's botanical garden in 1788, described by Daniela Bleichmar, exemplified the ways the American periphery found to create its own research protocols, projects, institutions, networks, and cosmopolitan scientific culture. Its members judged the utility of received knowledge on the basis of firsthand experience and local conditions rather than accepting the imperial viewpoint without question; and they worried about the long-term consequences of colonialism (as Jan Golinski shows, fears that human activity can affect weather and climate were already voiced in colonial debates about the deforestation of North America).

Margaret C. Jacob's afterword warns against ascribing too much autonomy to subaltern peoples —or, for that matter, to the European scientists who ventured [End Page 1352] to see America for themselves (see Neil Safier on Joseph Jussieus's thwarted attempts to send Andean cinchona and cinnamon back to Paris). Nonetheless, the volume's success at finding so many examples of agency on the part of Native Americans, Creoles, slaves, and transplanted Europeans will surely encourage other historians to keep looking for more and thinking about their implications.

Every essay here is thought-provoking, but a collection that covers...


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pp. 1351-1353
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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