Conquering nature in Spain and its empire, 1750–1850

Author: Helen Cowie

As the British and French empires expanded, constructing new imperial dimensions through growing commerce and the relationships of industrialisation, the bases of Spanish power were being undermined. Nationalism, revolt, the pursuit of forms of decolonisation (often aided by Spain's rivals) became the prime characteristic of Central and South American politics. This book examines the study of natural history in the Spanish empire in the years 1750-1850, explaining how the Spanish authorities collected specimens for the Real Jardín Botanico and the Real Gabinete de Historia Natural. During this period, Spain made strenuous efforts to survey, inventory and exploit the natural productions of her overseas possessions, orchestrating a series of scientific expeditions and cultivating and displaying American fauna and flora in metropolitan gardens and museums. This book assesses the cultural significance of natural history, emphasising the figurative and utilitarian value with which eighteenth-century Spaniards invested natural objects, from globetrotting elephants to three-legged chickens. Attention is also paid to the ambiguous position of Creole (American-born Spanish) naturalists, who were simultaneously anxious to secure European recognition for their work, to celebrate the natural wealth of their homelands. It considers the role of precision instruments, physical suffering and moral probity in the construction of the naturalist's professional identity. The book assesses how indigenous people, women and Creoles measured up to these demanding criteria. Finally, it discusses how the creation, legitimisation and dissemination of scientific knowledge reflected broader questions of imperial power and national identity.

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