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.