Science and Empire in the Iberian Atlantic

Brian Jones and Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra

in Latin American Studies

ISBN: 9780199766581
Published online March 2013 | | DOI:
Science and Empire in the Iberian Atlantic

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  • Regional and Area Studies
  • History of the Americas



Traditionally, narratives of the development of modern science have excluded the history of scientific activity in the Spanish and Portuguese empires. In particular, colonial Latin America has been doubly cursed by traditional assumptions about colonies as peripheral places and historical assertions of Iberian backwardness. Beginning as early as the Enlightenment, and continuing into the 20th century, scholars have defined the rules of scientific modernity by its permutations north of the Pyrenees and, later, in the United States. The Spanish and Portuguese empires and their inhabitants, however, applied scientific thinking to many aspects of life in the Americas. As early explorers and settlers of the New World, they had a famously privileged role in observing and developing theoretical strategies to explain its natural wonders to fellow Europeans, but, more generally, science was the pragmatic motive force of these two globe-encompassing empires. As a result, the social, practical, and political organization of scientific investigation in the Iberian empires rarely resembled the gentlemanly culture and experimental interests of the scholarly academies of France and England whose study had previously guided historians’ assumptions regarding modern science. Within a decade of Columbus’s return from his first voyage, the Spanish monarchy had already established the Casa de Contratación de Indias, partially modeled on the Portuguese Casa da Índia, to organize the wealth of data returning from the Americas. Continuing in the 16th century, the Habsburg monarchs, particularly Philip II, promoted the study at their courts of mathematics, engineering, cartography, and other sciences with practical applications for a growing empire. The Bourbon monarchs of the late 18th century oversaw a resurgence in officially directed scientific activity, particularly in the form of botanical expeditions in the Americas and the Pacific. So far, these centrally organized responses to the 16th-century encounter with the New World and their late Bourbon resurgence have dominated historians’ chronologies. However, scholars increasingly recognize the great diversity of actors, pursuits, and motivations for scientific practices and knowledge-making in colonial Latin America, a diversity that suggests the limitations of this chronology. It is only in the last three decades that this broadly defined range of scientific endeavor has attracted historiographical attention, first in Spanish, and much more recently in English. The bibliography for this topic, particularly as the English-language literature catches up, promises to change swiftly with the current generation of scholarship.

Article.  9623 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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