Peripheral vision
in Conquering nature in Spain and its empire, 1750–1850
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This chapter explores the pursuit of the natural sciences on the imperial periphery. Naturalists working on the margins of the Spanish Empire recited a litany of woes. They depicted themselves as beleaguered and isolated scholars, battling valiantly against apathy, inertia and outright hostility. The image of the self-taught scholar arises with some regularity in depictions of Spanish American savants. If Alexander von Humboldt's comments typified the European reaction to meeting a self-taught Spanish American savant, then Francisco Jose de Caldas' response to the same encounter indicates the creole naturalist's desire for guidance, reassurance and recognition. European savants admired their colonial colleagues for their ingenuity and determination, whilst creoles looked to Europe for acceptance, instruction and vindication. The bleak depictions of untutored, marginalised and solitary savants propagated by creoles and sometimes uncritically accepted by their European biographers thus require some degree of moderation, and may have been primarily psychological in nature.

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