Collecting Plants

Date: 1770
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


The Bourbon monarchs of the eighteenth century Spanish Enlightenment, especially Carlos III (1716-1788), used a network of professional naturalists and interested amateurs to collect natural history specimens from throughout its Atlantic and Pacific empires and send these items back to institutions in Spain for research and development. The crown's emphasis on gathering useful information that could benefit the empire goes back to the sixteenth century Relaciones Geograficas (see the Navigation and Cartography topic) and was even based on the same bureaucratic network as those surveys. Unlike the Relaciones, which simply collected geographic and demographic information, the Bourbons also gathered samples of plants, animals, and minerals to be studied in Madrid's new Royal Botanical Garden and Royal Natural History Museum.

In the eighteenth century, the costs and challenges of transporting specimens across the ocean, especially live plants and animals, were significant. For example, this English source shows some of the many new technologies invented to facilitate the international shipment of plants, an activity that was increasingly important to all of Europe's major empires. Plants had to be given sunlight, fresh water, and cargo space, all of which were hard to come by on a ship, and they took up valuable space that could have been used for a more obviously useful product, like sugar or silver. Yet the Spanish crown was willing, even eager, to make this investment because natural specimens, especially plants, had the potential to be useful and make the empire economically stronger. The Spanish already had a long tradition of focusing on useful science, and New World plants like dyes, fibers, food, and medicine would be directly beneficial to its people.

Indeed, this kind of bioprospecting was integral to the idea of development (fomento) that was crucial to economic theory in late eighteenth century Spain. Developing new resources would be a foundation for building new national industries and lessening reliance on foreign (extra-imperial) imports. The Bourbon collections, then, were far more than just the pursuit of curiosities for a casual museum-going population in the capital; collecting was to be a new basis for imperial wealth.

Reference: De Vos, Paula S. "Natural History and the Pursuit of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Spain." In Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 40, no. 2 (2007), pp. 209-239.

CITATION: Diagrams on how to pack seeds and plants. In: Ellis, John. Directions for bringing over seeds and plants from the East-Indies and other distant countries in a state of vegetation. London: Printed and sold by L. Davis, printer to the Royal Society, 1770. Accession no. 9939. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.