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  • Science and Empire in the Atlantic World
  • Heather R. Peterson
James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew, Science and Empire in the Atlantic World (New York: Routledge, 2008). $32.95.

Over the last decade, scholars of the history of science have completely reimagined knowledge production in the Americas and the relationship between [End Page 323] center and periphery. Science and Empire in the Atlantic World encapsulates many of these new insights and discoveries, with contributions from most of the prominent scholars working in this field.

While Dew and Delbourgo admit that one can hardly isolate the Atlantic World from European pursuits in Asia and Africa, they argue that the Atlantic constitutes a “logical unit of analysis” because of its specific history and the interaction between Amerindians, Africans, and Europeans. As they point out, the Atlantic was distinct from other colonial areas for three reasons: the mortality of the Amerindian population; European settlement; and, finally, slavery and the economies created by the slave trade. It was also an arena where dynastic tensions played out in geographical conquests, both literal and figurative.

The chapters revolve around three central questions—center/periphery, networks of knowledge, and conflicting epistemologies—offering diverse points of view. Nicholas Dew, Daniela Bleichmar, and Júnia Ferreira Furtado complicate the classic center/periphery model, emphasizing a lack of central control and Creole (by which they mean European offspring born in the New World) participation and interests. As Bleichmar points out, “If Madrid was, for all involved, clearly the center, the viceroyalties were not the periphery: they were the empire” (241; orig. emphasis). Likewise, James Delbourgo contends that even as late as 1772 Franklin would have embraced identification with the “grand esprit, proper de la Nation Angloise,” and Antonio Barrera’s actors saw themselves as extensions of their patria.

In a fascinating chapter on Sir Walter Scott, occult philosophy, and local knowledge, Ralph Bauer reminds us that “discovery” in the early modern imagination meant quite literally to dis-cover or unveil secrets. Taking on one of Joyce Chaplin’s arguments, Bauer argues that during the sixteenth century Europeans tended to accept native knowledge and arts, not because they were in a relatively weak position vis-à-vis the Indians (as Chaplin contends) but because European knowledge was itself full of magic and secret sympathies. Barrera, on the other hand, argues that sixteenth-century Spanish investigators were motivated primarily by “practical and utilitarian principles that pushed aside concerns about causes and principles (Aristotle) and hidden relations (Hermeticism and magic)” (179). However, one suspects that these two tendencies would have overlapped considerably.

The collection resulted from several conferences and a two-day workshop sponsored by UCLA, and this discursive flow is reflected in many of the pieces. For instance, Allison Sandman’s work demonstrates the divide taking place in Spanish mapmaking as the theoretical knowledge of cosmographers was made public, while the experiential knowledge of pilots remained secret. This circle is later closed in Joyce Chaplin’s chapter on Franklin and the Gulf Stream. Franklin, Chaplin argues, played a crucial role in bringing into scientific circles the craft knowledge of seamen about the currents that regulated navigation along the coast of North America, with the publication of a chart showing the current in 1768. Yet, here again, while seaman’s knowledge was made public, the seamen themselves fell into obscurity.

The work highlights the hazards and difficulties involved in overseas exploration. In Nicholas Dew’s chapter regarding the experiments conducted in Cayanne as part of the Paris Academy’s attempts at fixing a universal pendulum, he notes that rather than take Jean Richer Guiana’s measurements at face value, as Newton would later do, and conclude that the earth was nonspherical, the society questioned the accuracy of the data. Dew suggests that these networks—“like the state’s imperial networks on which they relied—were fragile and apt to escape from metropolitan control” (66). Neil Safier’s contribution demonstrates [End Page 324] the perils of knowledge production in situ. Tracing the three-and-a-half-decade travels of Joseph Jussieu, Safier details the obstacles impeding the production and dissemination of knowledge in the periphery, as Jussieu is beset by economic hardship (loss of...


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pp. 323-325
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