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  • Assembling the Tropics: Science and Medicine in Portugal's Empire, 1450–1700 by Hugh Cagle
  • Suman Seth
Assembling the Tropics: Science and Medicine in Portugal's Empire, 1450–1700. By Hugh Cagle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xix + 364 pp.

In 1787, the English physician, Benjamin Moseley, who had practiced and served as surgeon-general in Jamaica, published A Treatise on Tropical Diseases and on the Climate of the West Indies. The book was perhaps the first English-language work to include the term "tropical diseases" in its title and scholars have, in general, identified the end of the eighteenth century as the period in which the idea of the tropics as a distinct disease environment began to emerge. In this monograph, the author argues that the scholarship is mistaken on this point—that such a conception emerged roughly a century earlier—and that the reason for the error is that we have been looking in the wrong place. Had more of the literature focused on the Portuguese empire than those, say, of the British or French, it would have seen, already in the seventeenth century, arguments for the similarity of diseases between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and their differences from the afflictions of more temperate zones.

To this bold intervention into the history of medicine, the author adds an important corrective to the history of science. The period covered by Assembling the Tropics is one often described in terms of "the" (or at least "a") "Scientific Revolution." In analyzing the works of those studying the natural world at this time, scholars have often tried to identify the novel epistemologies and ontologies that supposedly characterized a newly empiricist age. As Cagle elegantly demonstrates, however, empiricism came in many forms and was encouraged by many logics. For example, that of Garcia de Orta, physician and author of Coloquios dos simples, e drogas e cousas medicinais da India (published in Goa in 1563) was shaped by his involvement in trade in eastern India. Thus, his "work of accumulating, comparing, and identifying Asian nature spoke first and foremost to the intertwined commercial and epidemiological concerns of disadvantaged traders" (p. 309). Instead of trying to read the Coloquios alongside the classics of the European scientific revolution, then, we are directed to see Orta's text as part of "the bustle, possibility and uncertainty of life in mid-sixteenth century Goa—a world rich with commercial and curative possibility, but also riven with economic and epidemiological uncertainty" (p. 65).

The book is divided into three unequal sections, defined geographically and in rough chronological order. The first, made up of a single chapter, looks at Portuguese exploration on the coast of [End Page 164] western Africa from the mid-fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries. In this period, Portuguese travelers and traders grappled with the seeming refutation of once-authoritative classical knowledge. Aristotle and others had posited the existence of a lifeless, parched and arid region—the torrid zone—between the tropics. Instead, the Portuguese found a rich and verdant land, one whose very fecundity set up a medical conundrum. Where life seemed so abundant, why did death, particularly from debilitating fevers, seem equally plentiful? The same apparent paradox was to be found in Goa, the principle location of the second section. The main protagonist in the three chapters of this chapters is Orta, with Cagle seeking to steer a third route between two, largely antagonistic, ways of understanding his contributions. Where some scholars have tried to fit Orta into the mould of a "Renaissance humanist" or else a "Portuguese progenitor of a scientific revolution" (p. 64) and others have portrayed him as an intermediary between European and Indian worlds, with his Coloquios serving as a means of transmitting Indian medical knowledge, Cagle insists on understanding de Orta on his own terms and in his own place. Certainly one comes to see the Coloquios as an amalgam, with a fraught religious and social politics shaping engagements with Hindu and Muslim medicine and the curative practices of women from multiple backgrounds. Yet, at the same time, Cagle's aim is almost intimate: "to encounter Goa as Orta did, to peer over...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8050
Print ISSN
1045-6007
Pages
pp. 164-166
Launched on MUSE
2021-03-25
Open Access
No
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