- Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500–1850 by Cameron B. Strang
In Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500–1850, Cameron B. Strang chronicles the motley cast of characters who produced the natural history of a region at the edge of empires. Covering a wide range of authors and topics, the book makes a case for the value and interest of information and ideas generated by scientific outsiders who often drew on local vernacular knowledge. Detailed, comprehensive, and heavily footnoted in its coverage of scientific writings and expeditions, Frontiers of Science is at once a history of competing empires and of colorful personalities.
Frontiers of Science focuses on the early nineteenth century, and its narrative turns on the shifting imperial context, as U.S. interests and colonists in the South displaced those of Spain. The book devotes only two chapters to the first two and a half centuries of the story (although these chapters occupy more than one hundred substantial pages). Strang's narrative of early Spanish colonies establishes some of the principal themes of the book: ambivalent encounters with indigenous knowledge, the instrumentalization of natural knowledge for imperial aims, and the creative work of European and creole amateurs in making sense of the region's novel environment. Chapters 3 and 4 turn to scientific ventures during the U.S. expansion into Florida and the Old Southwest, with a focus on astronomical expeditions. Yet even here the narrative stresses the "blurred … boundaries" that persisted between Anglo, Spanish, and French scientific communities, as well as the complicated personal loyalties and ambitions that motivated scientific expeditions carried out under the banner of national interests or the advancement of science (p. 21). The final three chapters turn to ethnography and geology, with an emphasis on the emerging racial theories that increasingly shaped natural knowledge of and from the region. While this topic will be more familiar to most historians of the South, Strang explores some unusual and intriguing angles—for example, ways [End Page 662] that local writers used the discovery of deep time and pre-Darwinian evolutionary ideas to argue for an inevitable rise of white settlement across the region.
Within its narrative of imperial rivalries and scientific debates and initiatives, Frontiers of Science introduces readers to a fascinating assortment of personalities. Besides some relatively famous characters, such as William Bartram and Antoine-Simon Le Page Du Pratz, readers meet a host of lesser-known figures: a Creek Indian named Yaolaychi, whose stories motivated the Spanish mineralogical expeditions of the 1790s; Thomas Power, a Canary Islander of Irish descent who used his scientific credentials to spy on the United States for Spain; and William Byrd Powell, a prolific skull collector and pioneering phrenologist of the 1830s. Through these lives, Strang makes the case that most creation of natural knowledge about the South took place far from established Anglo northeastern scientific circles. Although in places he may press this argument too far, it provides a useful corrective to histories of science that overlook the characters drawn to imperial margins and the influence of their firsthand observations and unorthodox theories.
Appropriate for its subject, Frontiers of Science occupies the borderlands of numerous historical fields: southern history, colonial history, Native American history, Atlantic history, and the histories of several areas of science, including geography, astronomy, geology, and ethnography. Clearly written and well produced, the book can nevertheless become heavy in its wealth of details and references; it may be too much for most undergraduates to take in. However, the book's deep research and compelling arguments deserve attention from historians of the antebellum South and from specialists of many other fields as well.