The Spanish American Enlightenment and Scientific Expeditions (1520-1950)

Most discussions of the scientific aspects of the Enlightenment (the eighteenth century movement emphasizing reason) are dominated by figures like Newton, Lavoisier, and Linnaeus, world-changing scientists who worked from centers like London, Paris, and Stockholm. Less often heard, though, are names like Caldas, Alzate, and Camara, men who actualized the experimental and philosophical aspects of the Enlightenment throughout the Iberian Atlantic. Although these men and others made impressive advancements in natural history, it cannot be said that they had a comparable impact on world knowledge as some of their European contemporaries. This was not, however, their intention. Latin American scientists in the second half of the eighteenth century employed Enlightenment rationality for decidedly and intentionally local ends. Whereas Newton and others changed how humanity understands the universe, Latin American scientists studied and employed the useful arts to improve life in their homeland.


The Spanish empire itself, especially under modernizing Bourbon monarchs like Carlos III, did a great deal to encourage scientific innovation. To be sure, the crown actively suppressed the more volatile thought generated by the Enlightenment, like the writings of Rousseau, which might encourage nascent independence movements in the New World colonies. Yet Carlos III promoted rational learning, especially in fields like botany and mining that would generate new sources of revenue. Thus Madrid became home to institutions like the Royal Pharmacy and Chemistry Lab, the Royal Natural History Museum, and the Royal Botanical Gardens (seen in the sources) that collected and studied plants, minerals, artifacts, and animals from throughout Mexico and South America (De Vos 2006).


As with almost all attempts to export science from a metropole to its colonies, the transfer of Spanish science (itself a modified variant on the larger European Enlightenment) to Latin America was not straightforward. Although Spain attempted to use the new scientific practices fomented by the Enlightenment in order to reinvigorate its American empire, creoles living in Latin America co-opted these novel practices for specifically local goals. According to Antonio Lafuente, each colony accepted, rejected, transformed, or assimilated different aspects of Spanish science in different ways (Lafuente 2000).


Whereas the Enlightenment in Europe often revolved around advances in theories and methods in such fields as mathematics and philosophy, the Latin American Enlightenment was geared towards the practical. As historian Juan Jose Saldana argued, the creole elite preferred the useful arts, sciences such as mining, metallurgy, engineering, pharmacology, architecture, and agriculture that could directly benefit the people of the colonies. More abstract science and pure experimentation were considered inferior to studies that would make Latin America healthier, richer, and, perhaps, help to free it from European rule (Saldana 2006). For example, herbal pharmacologists in Mexico City, who blended empirical testing with indigenous learning, rejected Linnaean taxonomy because it based its classifications on physical traits, not a plant's useful properties (see the source on Alzate).


To achieve their pragmatic goals, several Spanish American colonies (Brazil lagged several decades behind) created schools specializing in the useful arts and many journals were published to disseminate applicable knowledge. A short list of some of the elite educational centers founded during the late eighteenth century would include Mexican schools for mining and the arts, the Peruvian chemical laboratory, the Argentine school of geometry, the Guatemalan botanical garden, and Nueva Granada's Academy of Mathematics. The specialists trained at these institutions would exchange ideas in the growing numbers of scientific journals and newspapers, like the Mexican journal Mercurio Volante included in the sources (Saldana 2006).


One of the most significant aspects of Latin America's scientific Enlightenment, however, had little to do with the world of science. The emphasis on using knowledge for local benefits helped to solidify burgeoning ideas that Spanish American colonies had become socially and culturally distinct from Spain and should become politically independent as well. Spanish American intellectuals sought to fuse science with politics for the good of the nation, thus encouraging the idea that what was good for Nueva Granada or Mexico was not necessarily what was good for the Spanish empire. By 1800, practitioners of the useful arts allied with political reformers to institutionalize enlightened science while reformers looked to scientists for the means to carry out their novel ideas. Unfortunately, when the wars of independence finally did occur (1808-1820), they wreaked such havoc on Latin America that few of the institutions or scientists that had promoted science for local benefit survived the mayhem. Following independence, most Latin American countries lacked the stability, economy, and centers of learning to achieve the aspirations of the Enlightenment.


Questions for further exploration:


1. Botany was perhaps the science most revolutionized by the Enlightenment. Compare the novel approaches to botany (in theory and/or application) in Europe and the Spanish empire (especially the Caribbean, Nueva Granada, and Mexico). To what extent, then, could botany be considered an Atlantic science in the late eighteenth century?


2. What made the Luso-Atlantic Enlightenment different from that of the Spanish Atlantic? Consider both Brazil and Portugal in your response.


3. Look at any one of the important Latin American scientists of the Enlightenment (the sources include some information on Caldas, Alzate, and Mutis, but there are several others in both Spanish America and Brazil). Some things to consider in your analysis include: What was this scientist's geographic scope (e.g. local, Atlantic, Spanish empire, world)? Was he/she a practitioner of the useful arts, pure science, or both? How was he/she influenced by European science, and can he/she be considered to have any influence on Europe? Did he/she seem to favor political independence?


4. The focus on the useful arts is a recurrent theme throughout the history of Latin American science. Did this trend originate from the Enlightenment science or can its roots be traced back even further?


5. Despite the differences between its forms in Europe, North America, and Latin America, the Enlightenment has been given a central place in the revolutions of each region (the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and Latin American independence). Compare and contrast how the Enlightenment--especially its scientific aspects--contributed to the revolutions in British America or France with those of Latin America.

Alejandro Malaspina

Date: 1789
Owner: Fortenat Press, Madrid
Source Type: Images


Alejandro Malaspina, an Italian-born Spanish naval officer, led a scientific expedition to the Americas and beyond from 1789-1794. The exact goals of the expedition were only loosely defined; the scientists on the team were all naturalists with a broad range of interests and the expectation was that they would study, collect, and catalogue whatever captured their curiosity or promised to provide knowledge beneficial to Spain. Thus plants, animals, and minerals were illustrated and collected and they made hydrographic charts of the many coasts they explored. Their journey, in two specially equipped corvettes, took them from Patagonia to Mexico, through the Andes, from California to Alaska (in search of the ever-elusive Northwest Passage), and to Australia and the Philippines.

Although curiosity, the search for new source of wealth, and the creation of new terrestrial and oceanic charts had been the conventional goals of scientific expedition since the sixteenth century, Malaspina and his naturalists brought a self-consciously enlightened approach to their work. Furthermore, they were encouraged to study the political attitudes of their American colonists, many of whom had embraced the tenets of the Enlightenment and been inspired to ideas of independence by the recent revolution in British North America. Although- like many other expeditions- Malaspina's did ethnographic studies of indigenous peoples, the fact that they also studied Creoles hints at how Spain and her colonists had begun to drift apart culturally. It is interesting that the Enlightenment could simultaneously inspire political dissent as well as the urge to study that dissent objectively. Upon returning to Spain and perhaps as a result of his interaction with Creole intellectuals, Malaspina himself was arrested on suspicion of political intrigue and imprisoned for life without trial.

CITATION: In Novo y Colson, Pedro de. Viaje politico-cientifico alrededor del mundo por las corbetas Descubierta y Atrevida al mando de los Capitanes de Navio D. Alejandro Malaspina y D. Jose de Bustamante y Guerra, desde 1789 a 1794. Madrid: Imprenta de Fortenat, 1885.



American Nature

Date: 1557
Owner: University of New Mexico Press
Source Type: Images


Francisco Javier de Balmis

Date: 1803
Owner: Wikimedia
Source Type: Images

This statue depicts Dr. Francisco Javier de Balmis, the leader of a three year expedition to Latin America and the Philippines in order to provide the smallpox vaccine free of charge to as many people as possible and to organize vaccination centers within the colonies. The mission was ordered by Charles IV of Spain and was the first official program of sanitary vaccination in Latin America, predating the efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation by almost 100 years.

Balmis left from Spain in 1803 with a crew of medical technicians and twenty-three male orphans who acted as living receptacles for the disease. Each would carry smallpox in a controlled pustule on their arm for ten days before transferring it to another boy. Balmis and his team traveled first to Puerto Rico and Venezuela, where they split into two parties: Balmis led one group into Central America, Mexico, and the Philippines and his chief assistant, Dr. Jose Salvany Lleopart, continued throughout South America.

Salvany's team alone inoculated about 70,000 people against the virus, all free of charge, and disseminated literature about how to perform inoculations as well as the living serum needed for vaccinations. Salvany traveled through territory in the present-day countries of Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia (where he met Mutis), Chile, and Bolivia, where he died in 1810 at the age of thirty-four. Balmis led twenty-five Mexican orphans who bore the disease throughout Mexico, and even managed to bring these children with him to the Philippines, where he established more vaccination clinics.

This altruistic expedition throughout the Spanish Empire reflected the Enlightened ideals of the crown, and Balmis and Salvany were given a hero's welcome in almost every village and city in which they performed inoculations. It is a rare example of an expedition that sought to give to the American colonies and not merely take things from them.

Reference: Aldrete, J. Antonio. "Smallpox Vaccination in the early 19th century using Live Carriers: The Travels of Francisco Xavier de Balmis." In Southern Medical Journal, vol. 97, no. 4 (Apr., 2004), pp. 375-378.

CITATION: Francisco Javier Balmis, busto situado en la Facultad de Medicina de la Universidad Miguel Hernandez de San Juan de Alicante, Espana.



Inhabitant of Manaus

Date: 1865
Owner: Peabody Museum, Harvard University
Source Type: Images


This photograph was taken by Louis Agassiz, a professor of geology at Harvard University, whose 1865 expedition to Brazil compiled a collection of "scientific" anthropological photographs meant to indicate that racial mixing caused degeneracy. Agassiz was the United States' leading anti-Darwinist, and his project was meant to show how "tropical" peoples, namely Africans and Indians, were biologically inferior to whites, not a Darwinian variant of similar ancestors. The ideas that a tropical climate caused degeneration and that darker races were racially inferior were bound together in the burgeoning field of anthropology. In the nineteenth century, anthropology was inextricably tied to the European imperial project, and the study of "savage" races served to legitimize their subjugation, and photography became the most important new technology in this enterprise.

In this same series, Agassiz photographed this subject and many others without clothing. As Nancy Leys Stepan pointed out, photographing naked "natives" was at once dehumanizing and a form of acceptable pornography in an era of asexual Victorian standards. Although such issues were rarely raised at the time, the assertions based on such photographic "evidence" were even more shocking to modern sensibilities. Agassiz, who collected photographs of fifty individuals, used this minute sample of the Brazilian population to make dramatic claims about the inherent failings of tropical peoples, especially those "hybrid-types" with mixed blood (who were, then as now, a huge portion of the Brazilian population). An Indian crossed with a white, for example, was supposedly lazy, weak, and rude. Racism was endemic to European and U.S. approaches to tropical medicine.

Reference: Stepan, Nancy Leys. Picturing Tropical Nature. Ithaca: Cornell University Pres, 2001.

CITATION: Stepan, Nancy Leys. Picturing Tropical Nature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. pg. 101. Photograph by Walter Hunnewell for Louis Agassiz, 1865. Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.



Machu Pichu

Date: 1911
Owner: Wikimedia
Source Type: Images

In 1911, the U.S. academic and explorer Hiram Bingham III was the first modern foreigner to discover Machu Picchu, a city that had served as the winter retreat of the Incan rulers during the height of their empire. After reporting his findings, he organized the Yale Peruvian Expedition (YPE) that went to Peru in 1912 and began to excavate the ruins, collecting artifacts that they brought back to Yale for preservation and study.

The Bingham expedition was one of the earliest examples of the U.S. asserting its academic hegemony over Latin America. By denigrating the potential contributions of local scholars, U.S. scholars made the entire region of Latin America a "field" in which only they were qualified to conduct research.

Although the findings of the YPE were extraordinarily important to understanding Incan history, debates are now raging over whether the U.S. archaeologists stole objects that were the cultural right of Peru. Many patriotic Peruvians, and others who support indigenista movements, now consider Bingham's and similar expeditions to be a form of modern imperialism, one that exploits the pre-history of Latin America and places its people in a de facto position of inferiority.

There are, however, arguments that can be made on the behalf of such efforts by the U.S. Few Latin American institutions can provide comparable excavation teams nor do most Latin American museums have the technology and trained personnel to fully preserve ancient artifacts.


Lubow, Arthur. "The Posessed." New York Times Magazine 24 June, 2007.

CITATION: Martin St–Amant. Machu Picchu at dawn. December, 2006. 



Oviedo Woodcut

Date: 1547
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images


The naturalist Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1478-1557) made this drawing of an American Indian while exploring Spain's new American territory in the 1520s. Oviedo was perhaps the first European to study America's flora and fauna with the benefits of empiricism, the hands on approach to knowledge formation that was popularized in Iberia by 15th century navigators and cosmologists. He thus tried to describe (with illustrations and words) unknown peoples, plants, and animals in the most accurate way possible: direct observation. According to historian Antonello Gerbi, Spanish observers prior to Oviedo had tried to make sense of American nature and American Indians through classical examples and comparison to European standards. Indians were therefore seen by many as examples of people living in a mythical golden age, where personal property, jealousy, and shame did not exist (Gerbi 1985).

With the help of humanistic training, Oviedo was able to bring observational techniques pioneered by Iberians at sea to bear on terrestrial nature, greatly facilitating the Spanish crown's avaricious appetite for gold and land. Also, naturalists like Oviedo were themselves involved directly in a form of imperial conquest because (re)naming native things was key to reshaping the landscape from a self-referentially American one to that of a European colony in the Americas. The legacy of the earliest scientific expeditions to the New World was the idea that Europeans could conquer and control the New World through knowing, naming, and understanding it.
CITATION: Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez, Gonzalo. In La Historia General de las Indias. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: Taylor 75.



Royal Botanical Expedition

Date: 1764
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


This drawing of Cinchona Peruviana, the plant used to make quinine, was sent to Carolus Linnaeus (the Swedish father of taxonomy) by Jose Celestino Mutis (1732-1808), a Spanish botanist and mathematician who spent most of his professional career in Nueva Granada (modern day Colombia). Mutis, the "Oracle of New Granada," is most famous for conceiving and leading Spain's Royal Botanical Expedition (1783-1816), a project that sought to classify and illustrate every Colombian plant in an effort to identify and reproduce botanical resources.

According to historian Daniela Bleichmar, the Colombians who painted the plants collected by Mutis's team were practicing a distinctly Latin American style of illustration that aimed at clarity and practicality. These painters strayed from European tropes because botanical expertise had come to be counted among the useful arts, those which directly benefited humanity. Mutis' team of illustrators thought that realistic depictions would prove more useful than the European style of naturalistic verisimilitude (Bleichmar 2006). Although the stress was on useful knowledge of plants, the study was performed for academic reasons and the improvement of Spanish botany.

Yet historian Antonio Lafuente found that creoles in New Granada, most notably the scientist Francisco Jose de Caldas, were unhappy with Mutis and the general approach to science that he represented. Following Mutis' death in1808, creole scientists criticized his emphasis on merely classifying and illustrating plants because it did nothing to improve life in New Granada itself. Caldas believed that science should be a subsidiary of the local state so that knowledge and innovations could serve the needs of local society. Creole intellectuals also thought Mutis should have consulted more with indigenous herbalists so that European classification systems and American knowledge could be merged to improve the practice of medicine, a quintessential useful art (Lafuente 2000).

The scientific expeditions launched by Spain's Bourbon kings in the late eighteenth century were driven by the search for new sources of revenue, the broad goal of benefiting humanity in general (and thus legitimizing colonial rule), and the ideals of the Enlightenment. Intentionally or not, projects like the Royal Botanical Expedition promulgated enlightened principles in the New World. Ironically, the Spanish crown hoped to use modern science to strengthen its overseas empire, but the ideas brought to Mexico and South America by men like Mutis actually worked to encourage the independence movement.

Reference: Bleichmar, Daniela. "Painting as Exploration: Visualizing Nature in Eighteenth Century Colonial Science." In Colonial Latin American Review, vol. 15, no. 1 (June 2006), pp. 81-104. 

Lafuente, Antonio. "Enlightenment in an Imperial Context: Local Science in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Hispanic World." In Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise (2000), pp. 155-173.

CITATION: Cinchona Peruviana. Photograph of Watercolour sent by Mutis to Linnaieus. 24 September 1764. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. M0001350.



Source References

Web Sites

Expeditions: 150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America (Smithsonian Institute)

Scientific Commission of the Pacific (undefined)


Aldrete, J. Antonio MD, MS. "Smallpox Vaccination in the Early 19th Centruy Using Live Carriers: The Travels of Francisco Xavier de Balmis." Southern Medical Journal. 97: 4 (April 2004): 375-378.

Balf, Todd. The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darien Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas. New York: Crown, 2003.

Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Belluzzo, Ana Maria de Moraes. O Brasil dos viajantes. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Objetiva, 2000.

Bleichmar, Daniela.  "Painting as Exploration: Visualizing Nature in Eighteenth Century Colonial Science."  Colonial Latin American Review. 15: 1 (June 2006): 81-104.

De Vos, Paula S.  "Research, Development, and Empire: State Support of Science in the Later Spanish Empire."  Colonial Latin American Review. 15: 1 (June 2006): 55-79.

Engstrand. Iris H. W. Spanish Scientists in the New World: The Eighteenth-Century Expeditions. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981.

Fedlman, Lawrence H. Lost Shores, Forgotten Peoples: Spanish Explorations of the South East Maya Lowlands. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

Goodman, Edward J. The Explorers of South America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Herndon, William Lewis. Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon. New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Lafuente, Antonio.  "Enlightenment in an Imperial Context: Local Science in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Hispanic World."  Osiris, 2nd Series. 15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise (2000): 155-173.

Maslow, Jonathan. Footsteps in the Jungle: Adventures in the Scientific Exploration of American Tropics. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.

Miller, Robert Ryal. Daily Life in Colonial Mexico: The Journey of Friar Ilarione Da Bergamo, 1761-1768. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000. 

Miller, Robert Ryal. For Science and National Glory: The Spanish Scientific Expedition to America, 1862-1866. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Pyenson, Lewis. "Functionaries and Seekers in Latin America, Missionary Diffusion of the Exact Science, 1850-1930." Quipu. 2: 3 (1985): 387-420.

Raleigh, Sir Walter and Neil L. Whitehead. The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Salvatore, Ricardo D. "Local versus Imperial Knowledge: Reflections on Hiram Bingham and the Yale Peruvian Expedition." Nepantla: Views from South. 4: 1 (2003): 67-80.

Smith, Anthony. Explorers of the Amazon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Teresi, Dick. The Ancient Roots of Modern Science-- from the Babylonians to the Maya. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.



Films and Videos

Journey to a Thousand Rivers (Turner Home Entertainment, 1993)