A Protestant or Catholic Atlantic World? Confessional Divisions and the Writing of Natural History

Nicholas Canny

in Proceedings of the British Academy Volume 181, 2010-2011 Lectures

Published by British Academy

Published in print October 2012 | ISBN: 9780197265277
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754203 | DOI:

Series: Proceedings of the British Academy

A Protestant or Catholic Atlantic World? Confessional Divisions and the Writing of Natural History

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Some competition was associated with all European voyages of discovery, whether considered in an intellectual or a nautical sense, but the character of the competition became confessional as the contest between states over resources to be exploited gave way to disputation between denominations over how souls might best be saved. This happened when, in the late sixteenth century, Protestant publicists began to disparage the colonial endeavours that the Spanish and Portuguese authorities had been engaged upon for more than a century, and when they resolved to start the colonial process all over again, with a view to making the Atlantic World a Protestant rather than a Catholic space. This was to be achieved both by releasing what remained of the Native American population in Central and South America from Spanish tyranny, and by establishing Protestant colonies to evangelise the native populations in extensive areas of America to which the Iberians had no more than titular claims. A comparison between French and English colonial undertakings in the West Indies, and between the literatures associated with these endeavours over the course of the seventeenth century, establishes that these Protestant ambitions proved as elusive in practice as they had been myopic in theory. The conclusion seeks to explain why colonial efforts in which Catholic religious orders were involved proved more capable of linking scientific investigations with missionary concerns than was possible in colonies that were self consciously Protestant.

Keywords: comparative colonisation; confessional competition; ethnographic discourse; religious polemic; benevolent colonisation; Protestant deficits; priest-scientists

Chapter.  14691 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Social and Cultural History

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