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On Science, History, and Exploration

Book Review: Science and Empire in the Atlantic World

science and empire in the atlantic world

JAMES DELBOURGO and NICHOLAS DEW (eds.), Science and Empire in the Atlantic World. New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. xiv + 365. ISBN 978-0-415-96127-1. £18.99 (paperback).

Maybe I shouldn’t read too much into titles, but Science and Empire in the Atlantic World caught my attention. At first glance, it seemed a strange choice of words since “science and empire” has become a common, almost clichéd, phrase in the history of science and science technology studies (STS). The phrase took hold in the 1970s when Marxist scholarship revealed the exploitative functions of imperial science and gained inspiration from other critiques such as Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978.

By the 1980s, books and articles containing “science” and “empire” blossomed in the scholarly press. Yet the phrase has since witnessed a slow decline, as scholars have grown uneasy with portrayals of colonial science as a hegemonic expression of European power. Replacement terms tend to emphasize the reciprocal relationships in the production of science. Most notable among these is “Atlantic World,” a term that now races like a forest fire through history of science titles, probably due to Bernard Bailyn’s influential Seminar in the History of the Atlantic World which he instituted at Harvard in 1995. Why, then, marry “Science and Empire” with “Atlantic World” together in one title?

Bernard Bailyn

Bernard Bailyn

The answer comes from the function of “empire” within this edited collection. All twelve essays here challenge empire, or more precisely, an imperial top-down model of science in describing the Atlantic World. The “Empire” of the title, in other words, does not represent a historic process to be revealed, but a historiographic concept to be critiqued, a goal that Dew and Delbourgo accomplish with devastating efficiency. By focusing on famous “heroic narratives of discovery” (5) Delbourgo and Dew argue, studies of imperial science have missed the day-to-day activities which shaped the study of nature in the Atlantic World. In other words, historians of science (including me) have grown too comfortable thinking of Atlantic science through the image of a sextant-wielding Baron von Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

As Science and Empire demonstrates, knowledge of the Atlantic World depended upon the labors of far lesser-known figures: sailors, surgeon-barbers, Creole collectors, and diasporic Africans among others. Most essays go beyond describing the actions of these invisible networks, connecting them with better known ones.

Alison Sandman, for example, explains how pilots competed with learned cosmographers to control cartographic knowledge in early modern Spain. Júnia Ferreira Furtado’s essay, focused on Brazil, shows how Dutch surgeon-barbers “broke the monopoly of erudite knowledge enjoyed by doctors,” (Furtado, 132) giving tropical medicine a pronounced, empirical tilt. Even well known figures are not what they appear. Joyce Chaplin revisits Benjamin Franklin, poster-child of elite science, to show how he relied upon the reports of sailors and sea captains in describing the Atlantic “Gulph Stream.”

Franklin Map of Gulf Stream, 1769

Franklin Map of Gulf Stream, 1769

Taken together, the essays portray Atlantic science differently than the influential center-periphery model of science described by Bruno Latour in Science in Action (1987). Within Latour’s model, knowledge of the world starts and ends in the metropole where men of science provide the questions and instruments needed to understand nature at the edges of empire. While Latour’s system works well in describing many aspects of state-sponsored expeditions, it fails to explain other types of knowledge networks.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour

For one thing, Atlantic networks were unstable. As Neil Safier explains in tracing the work of French naturalist Joseph de Jussieu, acquiring and transmitting information was a precarious business. “The successful circulation of information from one point in the Atlantic to another was often dependent on circumstances that could just as easily go wrong as right” (Safier, 219). The networks developed by Spanish botanical expeditions, as described by Daniela Bleichmar, were of sturdier stuff. Yet Bleichmar points out other weaknesses in the Latourian model, specifically how “periphery” is a term ill-suited to describe botanical science in the Americas: “Circulation [of information] did not resemble the flight of a boomerang, always returning to the center, but rather a more reciprocal paddle game. Every letter or shipment from one side provoked a reply from the other.” (Bleichmar, 239). While European “centers” were important – no one disputes the asymmetries in power between mother country and colonies – they were dependent upon colonial peoples’ cooperation. This was not merely a question of finding Indians and Africans to collect things. As Susan Scott Parrish and Ralph Bauer point out in essays on diasporic Africans and Native American magic, respectively, Europeans adapted indigenous knowledge systems to make sense of an occult, magical nature. If London, Paris, and Madrid operated as hubs of scientific calculation, they were centers shaped by the world wheeling around them.

With such a strong theme linking all the essays, Science and Empire does not really need section headings. I found the four offered — “Networks of Circulation,” “Writing an American Book of Nature,” “Itineraries of Collection,” and “Contested Powers” – too vague to be useful. There are fruitful subordinate themes that track across essays, such as the tension between theory and empiricism (Sandman, Bauer, Furtado, Barrera-Osorio) and environmental history and technology (Golinski, Dew, Delbourgo, and Regourd). Still this is a minor quip. Dew and Delbourgo have managed to square the circle of edited collections: bringing together a diverse set of essays to target an important historiographical issue.

This review will be published in the upcoming issue of the British Journal for the History of Science. My thanks to BJHS for permission to reprint it here.


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