The Colonial Enlightenment (1750-1820)

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.

Further Reading:

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

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): 59-79.

Deans-Smith, Susan. "Nature and Scientific Knowledge in the Spanish Empire: Introduction." Colonial Latin American Review. 15: 1 (June 2006): 29-38.

Figueiroa, Silvia and Clarete da Silva. "Enlightened Mineralogists: Mining Knowledge in Colonial Brazil, 1750-1825." Osiris, 2nd Series. 15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise (2000): 174-189.

Glick, Thomas F. "Science and Independence in Latin America." Hispanic American Historical Review. 71 (1991): 307-334.

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.

Saldana, Juan Jose. "Science and Public Happiness During the Latin American Enlightenment." In Science in Latin America: a History. Ed. Juan Jose Saldana, trans. Bernabe Madrigal. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006, p. 51-93.

Brazilian Mining

Date: 1812
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images

 

These illustrations by an early nineteenth century traveler show some of the modern technologies introduced into Brazil's gold and diamond mining industry. The diagrams include water-powered machines and a tumbler meant for sorting precious minerals from cascalhos (pebbles). Along with plantation agriculture, mining generated tremendous wealth for the Portuguese empire from the late seventeenth century to the mid eighteenth century, especially in Minas Gerais. In fact, between 1700 and 1770, Brazil produced more than half of the quantity of the gold mined in the entire world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries combined. By the closing decades of the eighteenth century, however, the mines had seemed to run dry.

In this same period, Portugal was undergoing its own distinctive version of the Enlightenment, one that drew heavily on the ideas of more modern European nations in order to stay on par with them, yet only co-opted those elements that fit into traditional aspects of the Portuguese culture of empire. Portugal's Enlightenment emphasized modernizing both agriculture and mining in Brazil by introducing new methods and technologies learned from England, France, and Germany. Brazilian mineralogists thus traveled to Portugal to learn modern practices, and were sent from thence to Germany to attend lectures at Freiberg and other known centers of mineralogical excellence.

It is interesting, however, that while Portugal actively disseminated Enlightenment notions in Brazil, these ideas did not give rise to independence movements as in Spain's American colonies.  Brazilians continued to consider their interests to be the same as Portugal's, and useful arts like mining and agriculture were not meant to benefit the Brazilian people on the whole.

Enlightenment science had, at best, mixed success in Brazil. Portuguese trained modernizers did manage to introduce the Royal Iron Works and some machines like those seen here, but no mining academy would exist until 1876, much later than such institutions developed in Spanish America. The lack of enthusiasm for Enlightenment reforms among elite Brazilians had much to do with the prevalence of slavery; elites felt no need to introduce novel technology when slaves could be made to do the work instead. In Brazil, the Enlightenment was used to reify the social status of the elite, a far cry from the principles espoused by Enlightenment thinkers like Rousseau or Francisco Caldas.

Reference: Figueiroa, Silvia and Clarete da Silva. "Enlightened Mineralogists: Mining Knowledge in Colonial Brazil, 1750-1825." In Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise (2000), pp. 174-189.


CITATION: Machinery Used in Brazil. In: Mawe, John. Travels in the interior of Brazil, particularly in the gold and diamond districts of that country. London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Paternoster-Row, 1812. Accession no. 05673. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

DIGITAL ID: 13086

 

Francisco Jose de Caldas

Date: 1800
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images

 

Francisco Jose de Caldas (1768-1816) was a self-taught polymath who managed to establish himself in Nueva Granada's burgeoning scientific community, one that he did much to legitimize internationally. He was a patriot naturalist, one who studied all aspects of local nature in order to vindicate Spanish American science in general and contribute to international learning on the whole.

His earliest achievement was the independent discovery of the hypsometric principle: water boils at lower temperatures at higher altitudes. In a published treatise, Caldas demonstrated that altitude could be ascertained accurately by measuring the temperature at which water boiled. Just as this discovery can be understood as deriving from extensive contact with Andean nature, so too was his work on plant distribution made possible by the great variation of flora at various heights in Nueva Granada. This work on plant geography was very similar to that of Alexander von Humboldt; indeed, the two worked together closely during that naturalist's trip to South America.

In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Caldas began working for Jose Celestino Mutis, leader of Spain's Royal Botanical Expedition. Caldas was sent to collect and catalog several varieties of Peruvian cinchona and, in 1805, Mutis made him the head of Bogota's new astronomical observatory. While making cosmic and meteorological observations from his one-man observatory, Caldas also began publishing the scientific journal Seminario del Nuevo Reino de Granada in 1808. He explicitly sought the readership and support of "men of letters and good patriots," and many leading intellectuals contributed to this newspaper. The Seminario reflected the breadth of Caldas' own interests as well as his insistence that science be applied to creating public happiness, and thus included works on roads, exact sciences, geography, agriculture, navigation, statistics, soil, and history. Knowledge by locals, for locals.

Caldas' patriotic science would, however, cause his death. During the wars of independence, Royalist forces under General Pablo Morillo captured Popayan, where Caldas had taken refuge before Bogota had fallen. After ineffectual beseeching to be given a year to complete his magnum opus on botany, Caldas was executed by a firing squad.

Reference: Appel, John Wilton. "Francisco Jose de Caldas: A Scientist at Work in Nueva Granada." In Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 84, part 5, 1994.

Saldana, Juan Jose. "Science and Public Happiness during the Latin American Enlightenment." In Science in Latin America: A History. Edited by Juan Jose Saldana. Trans. Bernabe Madrigal. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.


CITATION: "Francisco Caldas y Tenoro (1771-1816)." 19th Century. The Granger Collection, New York. 0058921.

DIGITAL ID: 13090

 

 

Jose Antonio Alzate y Ramirez

Date: 1768
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images

 

Jose Antonio Alzate (1737-1799) was New Spain's leading scientist in the eighteenth century and manifested many of the characteristics associated with the Spanish American Enlightenment. He dabbled in chemistry, meteorology, and astronomy (he was one of several scientists worldwide to study the transit of Venus in 1769) yet also devoted much of his work to applied sciences, like mining and even silkworm breeding. Furthermore, he worked to build science on indigenous knowledge, not contradict it.

Not only was Alzate an active experimenter and observer of nature, but he worked to popularize science among Mexican intellectuals in the hopes that local institutions and practices would be improved and modernized for the good of all Mexicans. He published two journals, one of which, Diario Literario de Mexico, was the first journal in all of Latin America to make modern science available to the reading public. In the Diario's eight volumes, Alzate and the journal's other contributors treated such diverse topics as the economic advantages of improving agriculture, the geography of New Spain, earthquakes, medicine, and theology (the Spanish American Enlightenment remained closely tied with religion in many respects--indeed, Alzate himself was a priest).

Above all, Alzate was an exclusively Mexican kind of empiricist, fusing the select elements of European science with indigenous knowledge to create a pragmatic and useful new science. Herbal medicine provides the best example of this trend. Alzate promoted local knowledge of medicinal plants that could be proven by empirical testing, not the Linnaean system of taxonomy that grouped plants with widely differing medicinal value into similar orders because of mere visible characteristics. His reluctance to accept Linnaeus sparked a fierce debate between Alzate's followers and the leaders of Mexico's new botanical garden (see the Scientific Expeditions topic for more on this institution). It also contributed to the entrenchment of Mexican science, an approach that promoted indigenous knowledge both within and opposed to Europe's scientific systems.

This mixture of local and European knowledge contributed to Mexico's ideals of independence by reifying the idea that--in politics as in science--indigenous tradition and modernity could be compounded. Alzate's creole science also did much to discredit diffusionist notions among historians of science that claimed Latin American science was merely a poor reflection of that of Spain. Instead, learned Mexicans were using all of the resources at their disposal--indigenous, creole, and European--to develop the most useful science for their newly-emerging motherland.

Reference: 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), p. 155-173.

Saldana, Juan Jose. "Science and Public Happiness during the Latin American Enlightenment." In Science in Latin America: A History. Edited by Juan Jose Saldana. Trans. Bernabe Madrigal. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.


CITATION: Jose Antonio Alzate. Lithograph by S. Hernandez. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. V0000142.

DIGITAL ID: 13089

 

Jose Celestino Mutis

Date: 1784
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images

 

Royally sponsored projects were not the only Hispanic scientific expeditions in Latin America during the colonial period. Both the Catholic Church and American viceroyalties had the money and autonomy to authorize expeditions for their own objectives, goals that were sometimes quite different than those promoted by the Bourbon monarchs of the late eighteenth century. As in the other New World kingdoms, leaders in Nueva Granada (present-day northern South America) were employing specialists and technicians, especially individuals skilled in the useful arts, to meet local challenges. Viceroys hired peninsular and creole engineers, agricultural experts, and botanists to strengthen local infrastructure and find new sources of wealth from minerals and plants.

Jose Celestino Mutis (1732-1808), who first arrived as the viceroy's physician in 1760, was deeply involved with almost all of Nueva Granada's viceregal scientific projects. By displaying remarkable erudition and maintaining close ties to Nueva Granada's viceroys, Mutis became an influential, even dominant figure in local science. His most renowned endeavor was acting as head of the Expedicion Botanico, a project initiated by the viceroy and archbishop in 1781. The goal was to collect, illustrate, preserve, and classify as many local plants as possible. Madrid's Royal Botanical Garden officially incorporated Mutis and his team into a larger imperial project, but the viceroy insisted on maintaining significant autonomy, including the right to keep all botanical slides and manuscripts in local institutions. Such viceregal measures reflect the Enlightenment notion of using applied science to local ends.

Mutis was one of the very few scientists from colonial Latin America to be recognized by Europeans during his lifetime and to be remembered by historians of science today. He was a scientific celebrity in South America, and European scientists like Balmis and Humboldt sought him out during their own American scientific expeditions. His death in 1808, which corresponded with the first political revolts in Spanish America, is often used to mark the end of the era of Enlightenment colonial science .

Reference: Lafuente, Antonio and Leoncio Lopez-Ocon. "Scientific Traditions and Enlightenment Expeditions in Eighteenth-century Hispanic America." In Science in Latin America: A History. Edited by Juan Jose Saldana, translated by Bernabe Madrigal. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006, pp. 123-150.


CITATION: Jose Celestino Mutis. Oil painting by R. Cristobal, 1930. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. V001805.

DIGITAL ID: 13091

 

Mercurio Volante

Date: 1772
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images

Mercurio Volante (Flying Mercury) was the first medical journal produced in the Americas and only the second journal on the sciences published in Mexico. The Mexican mathematician and physician Jose Ignacio Bartolache (1739-1790) initiated this journal to promulgate the useful art of medicine as well as create a forum where scientific Mexicans could publish articles and criticisms on many aspects of Enlightenment science. Topics discussed during this journal's short run (17 October 1772 until 10 February 1773) include the necessity of accurate instruments, Newtonian physics, the usefulness of medical anatomy, the chemistry of indigenous alcoholic drinks, and psychological hysteria.

Despite this journal's brief lifespan, it is representative of a larger and very important trend in Latin America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The first scientific journal in Latin America, Jose Antonio Alzate's Diario Literaria (1772-1773), began a trend that spread throughout the Spanish speaking Americas. Over the next thirty years, journals like La Gaceta de Guatemala, Mercurio Peruano, and Francisco Jose de Caldas' Seminario del Nuevo Reino de Granada acted as media through which creole intellectuals could debate modern science and suggest ways that it could be employed to benefit local society. For example, Mercurio Peruano published articles on public health, an Argentine journal proposed new uses of chemistry in agriculture, and Alzate suggested new mining techniques. The consistent trend is that these journals made Enlightenment science pragmatic and useful to local society. The fact that Mercurio Volante and all other Spanish American scientific journals were written in Spanish (as opposed to Latin, the traditional language of science) reflects that they were meant to be read by the entire educated public.

Many of their pragmatic reforms, however, went against contemporary Spanish policies, thus aggravating the escalating tensions between creole intellectuals and the Spanish empire. These journals helped to create a type of scientific nationalism which, combined with the growing sense of the cultural uniqueness of New World societies, contributed to the precipitation of political independence.

Reference: Saldana, Juan Jose. "Science and Public Happiness during the Latin American Enlightenment." In Science in Latin America: A History. Edited by Juan Jose Saldana. Trans. Bernabe Madrigal. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.
 

CITATION: Front page of 1st edition of Mercurio Volante, being the first medical newspaper in the New World. From Mercurio Volante. 17 October 1772. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0002686.

DIGITAL ID: 13088

 

Royal Botanical Gardens, Madrid

Date: 1781
Owner: Hakan Svensson
Source Type: Images

 

This is the gateway of the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid. It is one of several scientific institutions created by the Bourbon monarchs, especially Carlos III, for promoting and furthering scientific development throughout Spain's empire. Although this Enlightenment-minded king did do much to legitimize science for its own sake, foundations for gathering knowledge had already been laid to a large degree by the Hapsburg kings of the seventeenth century.

The Royal Botanical Garden received a steady supply of new plants and other potentially useful curiosities from throughout Spain's American and Asian possessions, but the majority of these items were collected and exported by educated amateurs responding to royal orders, not professionals from the Bourbons' scientific expeditions. In fact, the crown supported independent innovation and activity in natural history because the collection and cultivation of new materials, especially plants, promised to benefit the empire by generating a renewable source of revenue. A middling bureaucrat in Louisiana, for example, could send samples of a local herbal remedy for diarrhea to Madrid, where the plant would be tested, classified, and--if useful--reproduced in the botanical gardens and sold to the world. Not only would selling this new cure make the crown wealthier, but it would also show the world that Spain was scientifically modern while benefiting humanity in general, a goal that was self-validating but also justified the existence of Spain's empire.

Spain's Atlantic (and, indeed, world) scientific network is well illustrated by the case of the tabasco pepper, a plant that was valued both for its beautiful flower and its medicinal properties and was thus sent to the Royal Botanical Garden for reproduction. Spanish experts found that not only did the pepper cure stomach aches, but it had a potent flavor that could be used to decrease Europe's reliance on the Asian spice markets and bolster Spain's export economy. Although historians rarely count Madrid among the world's major centers of science during the eighteenth century, it was in fact a nexus that collected and researched natural history specimens from massive and little known parts of the world.

Reference: De Vos, Paula S. "Research, Development, and Empire: State Support of Science in the Later Spanish Empire." In Colonial Latin American Review, vol. 15, no. 1 (June 2006).


CITATION: Puerta Real of the Royal Botanical Garden of Madrid (1774-1781; 1785-1789). At the Paseo del Prado. Projected by Francisco Sabatini (1722-1797) and built in 1781. Photograph by Hakan Svensson, 3 January 2007. Public domain.

DIGITAL ID: 13092

 

Saccharum Officinarum

Date: 1742
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images

 

This variety of sugarcane, a natural hybrid of Saccharum officinarum and S. barberi was the only type of sugar grown in the New World until the late eighteenth century Enlightenment, and was therefore just called "Creole" cane. (The fact that this cane was actually a hybrid and not pure S. officinarum was not discovered until the 1930s, thus the author of this source can be forgiven his error in classification). The increased demand for sugar in the international economy and the emphasis of the Bourbon reformers on creating more revenue led American planters to seek out better varieties of the plant and, in 1780, a French explorer discovered pure S. officinarum growing in Tahiti. This variety, known as "noble" cane, was brought to Jamaica in 1791 and spread from there to the Caribbean and Brazil. The new "noble" cane gave a huge boost to the sugar industry: Alexander von Humboldt noted how it yielded up to 20 percent more sugar than Creole cane and each plant was about twice the size.

As often occurs, technology adapted to and facilitated new agricultural practices. Whereas Creole cane had a softer stalk that could be milled with wooden rollers, the harder stems of pure S. officinarum broke traditional mills and new iron sugar presses had to be created. Just like Enlightenment reforms in mining and the other useful arts, science was used to make agriculture better and, as sugar was the most profitable crop in the Americas, it received much attention from modernizers.

The introduction of "noble" cane was indicative of how closely knit international economies and biota had become by the late eighteenth century. That a Tahitian plant could revolutionize an American product in order to enrich European empires gives us some sense of the worldwide relationships. The downside, however, was that growing only pure S. officinarum precluded biological diversity, and thus the entire sugar crop was subject to ruin by one disease, pest, or blight. The huge crop failures due to the mosaic sugar disease in the early twentieth century Caribbean was a direct result of such biological homogenization (see the Agriculture and Science topic for more on this blight).

Reference: McCook, Stuart. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.


CITATION: [left] Fueille de Canne. [right] Partie d'une Canne. In: Labat, Jean Baptiste. Nouveau voyage aux isles de l'Amerique...tome troisieme. Paris: Chez Guillaume Cavelier Pere, Librarie, au Lys d'or, 1742. Accession no. 35892. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

DIGITAL ID: 13087

 

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