- The Andean Wonder Drug: Cinchona Bark and Imperial Science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630–1800 by Matthew James Crawford
expertise, knowledge production, malaria, quinine
Much has been written about the discovery and adoption of the bark of the cinchona tree, known as quina, for the treatment of malaria. Most of these studies take a traditional narrative approach beginning with Europeans’ first encounter with the product in the Andes in the early seventeenth century and tracing its development to its present day status as a global prophylactic. Matthew Crawford’s study covers a more [End Page 471] limited time period, primarily the eighteenth century, and he focuses not on the medicinal product per se, but rather he uses debates that surrounded the botanical characteristics and medicinal qualities of quina to throw light on the relationship between science and empire. In this approach, he employs the concept of an “epistemic culture” and characterizes the Spanish crown’s approach to the acquisition and legitimization of knowledge as hierarchical and empirical.
The book is divided into two chronological sections that reflect important differences in the approach taken by the Spanish crown to the production of quina. Contrary to popular belief, the Spanish crown was slow to become actively involved in its commercialization. In the book’s first section, which covers the mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries, Crawford shows how indigenous medical expertise and knowledge of cinchona underpinned the reputation of the southern Ecuadorian region of the Loja for producing the best quality quina. Crawford situates its production within the region’s local economy and shows how knowledge of the product was disseminated by local merchants and producers. Demand for the product expanded in part due to increased European contact with the malarial coasts of Africa that came with the expansion of the slave trade. It was the transformation of the product into a commodity that Crawford argues stimulated the Spanish crown to become actively involved in the production of cinchona. In 1751, the crown established a royal reserve at Loja aimed at producing quina for the Royal Pharmacy in Madrid.
The book’s second section reveals the increasing efforts by Spain to assert its authority over scientific practice. Although the crown emphasized empirical testing, it was also willing to entertain evidence from alternative sources. Hence, conflicts emerged between pharmacists in Spain who chemically analyzed the materials and were in a unique position to compare samples coming from different parts of the empire and thereby identify the best quality quina, and producers on the ground in Loja who asserted their superior knowledge of the product based on personal experience. Faced with declining sources of quina and conflicting views, the Spanish crown expanded its pool of experts, particularly of botanists, with the aim of bolstering the authority of the Royal Pharmacy. Yet, it soon became clear that the production and trade of quina faced practical obstacles, including sources of labor and the interests of local traders, as well as divergences in the views of experts, both in Spain and the Andean region, not only over the nature of the product but also over the support of free trade versus increasing royal control that was consistent with the Bourbon reforms. This section analyzes in detail the interactions and correspondence between scientists in Madrid and the Andes, showing that it was not a simple conflict between the imperial center and colonial periphery, but that there were also differences within communities of experts in both places. Thus the study concludes that the relationship between science and empire was not a simple one, but instead messy, revealing the limited authority of the Spanish crown to acquire and validate knowledge in the face of preexisting forms of knowledge production and the contradiction between authority and empiricism that characterized its epistemic culture. [End Page 472] Crawford prefers to see the relationship of science and empire as one of “coproduction.”
This volume differs in approach from standard accounts of the history of cinchona and...