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Experiencing Nature

Experiencing Nature
The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution

The never-before-told story of how Spain helped initiate the modern scientific era by collecting empirical data in order to commodify and control the natural resources of its American empire.

March 2006
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223 pages | 6 x 9 | 10 b&w illus. |

As Spain colonized the Americas during the sixteenth century, Spanish soldiers, bureaucrats, merchants, adventurers, physicians, ship pilots, and friars explored the natural world, gathered data, drew maps, and sent home specimens of America's vast resources of animals, plants, and minerals. This amassing of empirical knowledge about Spain's American possessions had two far-reaching effects. It overturned the medieval understanding of nature derived from Classical texts and helped initiate the modern scientific revolution. And it allowed Spain to commodify and control the natural resources upon which it built its American empire.

In this book, Antonio Barrera-Osorio investigates how Spain's need for accurate information about its American colonies gave rise to empirical scientific practices and their institutionalization, which, he asserts, was Spain's chief contribution to the early scientific revolution. He also conclusively links empiricism to empire-building as he focuses on five areas of Spanish activity in America: the search for commodities in, and the ecological transformation of, the New World; the institutionalization of navigational and information-gathering practices at the Spanish Casa de la Contratación (House of Trade); the development of instruments and technologies for exploiting the natural resources of the Americas; the use of reports and questionnaires for gathering information; and the writing of natural histories about the Americas.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Searching the Land for Commodities
  • 2. A Chamber of Knowledge: The Casa de la Contratación and Its Empirical Methods
  • 3. Communities of Experts: Artisans and Innovation in the New World
  • 4. Circuits of Information: Reports from the New World
  • 5. Books of Nature: Scholars, Natural History, and the New World
  • Conclusions: The Politics of Knowledge
  • Appendix 1. Pilots and Cosmographers at the Casa de la Contratación
  • Appendix 2. Instruments
  • Appendix 3. Spanish Scientific Books
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Antonio Barrera-Osorio is Associate Professor of History at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.


In 1592 King Philip II of Spain received a sample of a tree with aromatic properties from Puerto Rico. The governor of Puerto Rico had sent the sample, suggesting that physicians study those properties to determine the tree's economic value. Philip II ordered his physician, Doctor Mercado, to conduct tests and report back to the president of the Council of Indies. On the basis of this report, the president of the council would make a decision about the economic potential of the tree and then inform the governor of Puerto Rico.

In this book, I explore the history of scientific experience during the sixteenth century and examine various aspects of its development through the study of the Spanish empire. By the late sixteenth century, royal institutions and a network of bureaucrats, royal officials, physicians, merchants, adventurers, pilots, and friars from Spain were circulating information about natural entities and samples from the New World. Through these activities, a set of rules and practices for the collection, organization, and dissemination of information regarding the natural world of the Indies developed. I look at the institutions established for conducting this work; the mechanisms adopted for testing and establishing accurate information; and the ways in which empirical information was used for the production of new knowledge. From a larger perspective, I seek to integrate the Atlantic world into the history of science.

The Atlantic world fostered the development of one key element of modern epistemological practices: empirical observation. Numerous accounts and descriptions of the New World, together with the increased circulation of natural entities such as my opening example, helped to establish this empirical tradition, which, in its turn, helped to break the late medieval and humanist dependence of knowledge upon textual interpretation and exegesis. The establishment of this tradition took place during a crisis of authority and the rise of material culture in Europe. In both events, the Atlantic world, and in particular Spanish America, played a significant and decisive role.

This was the Spanish-American contribution to the development of sixteenth-century science: the institutionalization of empirical practices at the House of Trade and Council of Indies, together with the books that were then written about these practices. These books would eventually arrive in England, where natural historian Francis Bacon would continue this tradition in the next century and launch an empirical program at the Royal Society of London tantalizingly similar to those launched in Spain. The Spanish contribution to the development of science consisted of the institutionalization of empirical practices rather than the theoretical development of science—those developments would come only during the seventeenth century in England, Holland, and France and by the late seventeenth century in Spain.

I refer to the emergence of empirical practices and their institutionalization as the "early Scientific Revolution." The Scientific Revolution did not start with Nicolaus Copernicus and his heliocentric ideas; or with the publication of books by artisans and painters. I argue that it started in the 1520s, in Spain, when merchants, artisans, and royal officials confronted new entities coming from the New World and had to devise their own methods to collect information about those lands: there were no avocados in Pliny's pages.

Many events fostered the aforementioned crisis of authority taking place during this period, which made conditions ready for this early Scientific Revolution. Humanists unearthed books and texts that, when printed, opened up the horizon of cultural cognitive models. Popular and noble revolts from Germany to Spain questioned royal authority and proposed new ways of exercising political power, bringing new social groups with their own claims about social order into the courts and city councils. Mystics, monks, and saints everywhere, from the Spanish Iluminados to Martin Luther, tried—or managed—to reform religious practices and redefine the role of God in human and natural affairs. Protestants and Catholics brought new ideas about the Christian God and new religious practices—and invented new forms of persecution. National and religious identities not only reshaped international relations but also confessionalized religious practices. Within this context of fragmentation, Atlantic travels brought news from hitherto unknown lands. People began to question the great classical narrative about the natural world.

It is well known that European naturalists during this period developed different programs for investigating discoveries in the New World. Following Aristotle, Pliny, and the classical medical tradition, some naturalists emphasized empirical evidence and the collection of new information and items to confirm and support their texts. Others emphasized Aristotle's conception of essences and developed a method to determine the essences of natural entities, as the physician and botanist Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603) did with plants. The Hermetic tradition, dealing with astrology and magic, had many followers. The physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) and his disciples rejected traditional medical authorities to rely only on a Christian approach to nature based on empirical observations. In connection with the commercial culture of the sixteenth century, alchemists developed their own program of research based on the empirical study of natural products to control hidden natural forces. Sixteenth-century scientific practitioners began to leave aside traditional textual-medieval practices and to search for empirical methods of understanding nature.

Perplexingly, historians of science tend to overlook the program for researching nature developed by the Spaniards in the Atlantic world. Yet during the sixteenth century Spain mobilized most of its energies in search of riches and domination. A by-product of this mobilization was the emergence and institutionalization of empirical practices; thus, the story of how these practices emerged is interconnected with the politics and economics of the country in that period.

To establish the setting in which the events of this book occur, I provide a brief description of the political events of the period. In 1516 Charles of Habsburg (1500-1558) was proclaimed king of Castile and the Spanish kingdoms. His dominions extended to the Netherlands, the Spanish possessions in Italy, and the New World. In 1519 he was elected Holy Roman emperor. The Castilian crown came to him because his mother, Juana of Castile, became mentally unstable after the death of her husband, Philip I, who ruled Spain for a year (1506). The imperial crown came to Charles because he was able to obtain enough money from German bankers to buy the electors. Madness and money made possible Charles V's empire. But the Spanish kingdoms that Charles inherited came to be those kingdoms by design: Charles's grandparents, Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Isabella (1451-1504), had been working since the late fifteenth century on the unification and expansion of Spain. By 1492 the Catholic kings had expelled the Jews from Spain, captured Granada from the Moors, and sent Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the East.

After 1492 the Catholic kings began the expansion of royal power in Spain, in Italy, and in the New World. They were able to control Spanish town councils and religious orders by appointing their own representatives in those political and military bodies. The military orders, in particular, provided the crown with access to land and patronage. The appointment of royal officials to town councils extended the royal authority to cities, a source of revenue as well. By the time Isabella died (1504), the Spanish kingdoms were in the process of unification. Her son and heir, Juan, had died in 1497; and her grandchild Miguel, who could have united Spain and Portugal, had died in 1500. The heiress to the throne was now Juana (1479-1555), married to Philip of Habsburg. Ferdinand assumed the regency of Castile until 1506, when Philip I arrived in Spain. Philip died that year, "after drinking a glass of very cold water, sweating, at the end of a ball game." Juana's mental instability gave Ferdinand the opportunity to control the crown as regent. When Ferdinand died in 1516, the crown passed to his grandson, Charles I (1500-1558), son of Juana and Philip.

Charles received several Spanish kingdoms, each with its own set of laws and traditions. His base was the kingdom of Castile, which provided most of the funds he needed for his imperial designs. Charles moved from a world where the preservation of empire and church had been an ideal worth fighting for into a world that was breaking them apart. He sought to preserve both the Catholic Church and the empire against the religious and state elements that were threatening them: Protestantism and central (expansionist) states. Charles fought against the Ottomans, who were expanding in central Europe and the Mediterranean; against Francis I, who sought to contain Charles in Italy; and the Protestant lords in the Holy Roman Empire, who sought to establish their own areas of jurisdiction against the emperor. Charles used money from Castile, the Netherlands, and the New World to pay for his policies and wars.

Charles sought to increase his revenues by expanding commerce with the New World. By the early sixteenth century, entrepreneurs were looking for sources of revenue in the New World and were approaching the crown with proposals such as the commercialization of new medicines and the making of instruments (fishing rakes, for instance) for a more efficient exploitation of resources. From the interaction between entrepreneurs and royal officials emerged a set of empirical procedures to determine the value of these projects. Eventually these procedures were formalized in the royal institutions responsible for the government of the American kingdoms. Charles V's need for revenues and the entrepreneurs' willingness to find sources of revenue in the New World created the context in which empirical practices in the study of nature could emerge. Charles V's successor, Philip II (1556-1598), inherited his goals, his wars, and his constant need for resources to build his European world order.

Philip II was thus constantly pressed for funds: from the 1560s to the 1570s Spain was engaged in wars in France, the Mediterranean, and the Low Countries—and this war would last beyond his reign. In the 1580s Spain annexed Portugal and sent an armada against England; Philip needed funds to accomplish this. The New World was a source of wealth (primarily silver but also potential commodities), and Philip continued his father's policy of fostering and supporting commercial activities there. The center of these activities was the search for commodities and the improvement of previous technologies and instruments. These activities were based in turn on the empirical study of nature. Philip II's reign saw the consolidation of empirical scientific activities that emerged in the context of commercial expansion and empire formation under Charles V. The literature on the Scientific Revolution does not take into account the significance of this consolidation. On the contrary, the silence about Spain is perplexing: it was the ruling kingdom in Europe during the sixteenth century—and it did make a lot of noise.

The Italians, French, and English were constantly interested in Spain's activities in the New World, especially its scientific pursuits. For instance, books by Pedro de Medina and Martín Cortés were translated into Dutch, French, Italian, and English; in 1558 Stephen Borough visited the navigational school of the Casa de la Contratación in Seville with the intention of establishing a similar institution in England; and the natural historian Carolus Clusius traveled in Spain in the 1560s, collecting samples and books and establishing professional relations with Spanish natural historians. Spanish books were translated into other European languages; foreigners visited Spanish institutions; and Spanish scholars received visits and letters from foreign scholars. Sixteenth-century Spain was at the forefront of the development and institutionalization of empirical activities in Europe.

Spanish efforts to control the New World were also part of an effort to control the fragmentation in authority taking place in Europe. By establishing an empire in the New World and opening new sources of revenue there, the Spaniards sought to maintain their predominance in Europe—fighting Protestants, protecting Europe from the Ottomans, and fostering Catholic religious practices everywhere. There was a strong sense of mission in the Spanish enterprise of the sixteenth century, linking Tenochtitlán with Vienna via Seville—all centers of Charles V's empire.

Thus, with the establishment of the Spanish empire in the New World came the need for a practical understanding of the natural world there through institutions, practices, and mechanisms for exploring nature, mapping new lands and the oceans, and collecting commodities, curiosities, and information.

Royal authorities and merchants did not know anything about the New World—about its geography, natural history, or peoples. They needed practical information. From the point of view of the Spanish rulers and people engaged in the American enterprise, the accumulation of empirical evidence constituted a sensible basis for political and economic decisions and for dealing with the increased flow of things and information circulating in the Atlantic world. Spaniards began to study the New World: using, collecting, and organizing empirical information and collaborative practices and institutionalizing them at the Council of Indies and the House of Trade.

The development of empirical practices was not only the result of long-distance strategies for controlling the New World. At the time of its early encounters there, Spain already had rich cultural and intellectual resources. Spanish courts and universities (such as Salamanca and Alcalá) discussed humanist and nominalist ideas, exposing the clergy and the royal bureaucrats who traveled to the Indies in the early years to these ideas. For example, the humanists Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557) and Bernardino de Sahagún (ca. 1499-1590), who collected empirical information about the New World and wrote natural histories, both came out of this cultural milieu.

In addition, sixteenth-century Spain had inherited rich Arabic scientific traditions. After seven centuries of Arabic domination (700s to 1400s), Spanish scientific culture had been strongly affected by Arabic science, particularly in astronomy and medicine. The astronomical tables known as the Alfonsine Tables, which were part of a corpus based on medieval Arabic astronomy, constituted one of the most important astronomical almanacs in Europe until the mid-sixteenth century. Arabic books on medicine and philosophy were preserved at the University of Alcalá, according to the instructions of its founder, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, who ordered the burning of all other Arabic texts after the fall of Grenada. This inheritance was reinforced by Jewish investigations in medicine and cosmography. Both influences were still present in sixteenth-century Spain. By the time Spain began to colonize America, it had at its disposal cultural resources favorable for the development of natural history, cosmography, navigation, medicine, and mathematics.

These scientific activities became indispensable in mastering the ocean and lands of the Atlantic world. Yet, in that context, practices were reinvented in light of information coming from there and its practical uses rather than in relation to classical texts. In this new configuration of aims and interests, new mechanisms for gathering, organizing, and disseminating information about the world were developed within activities such as natural history and cosmography. Classical traditions became relative points of reference in an ever-increasing circuit of information.

Most of the scholarship on changing conceptions of nature in the wake of the Columbian accident has focused exclusively on published natural histories: in this book, I contextualize this body of literature in its broader setting by exploring unpublished materials. The idea of writing the natural history of the Indies, for instance, grew out of a collective enterprise: Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo's and José de Acosta's histories were actually complex pastiches, involving compilations, glosses, and translations of a number of different sources.

I recount two overlapping stories. The first is the story of how empirical practices emerged from the relationship between the crown and its subjects. Imperial and commercial activities such as navigation, agriculture in the New World, and instrument-making fostered a culture based on experiential and collaborative practices supported by royal officials and merchants. These activities—conducted by people representing a variety of causes and concerns—intersected with each other and included the promotion of practices such as sending questionnaires and expeditions to gather empirical information, requesting reports from witnesses, establishing juntas of experts for organizing information, and performing tests to determine claims of truth. Out of the convergence of these imperial activities around the New World emerged this empirical culture that, in turn, supported the development of modern science. And while the crown established institutions to maintain and promote these cultural practices, these practices did not depend solely on state institutions—merchants, explorers, and royal officials also participated in their creation and development.

The second story details how the crown institutionalized these empirical practices and their embodiment in procedures and methods. These practices and institutions were linked to the development of Spain's long-distance strategies for controlling the New World. At first they were an unintended consequence of interconnected actions, emerging from state officials' and private actors' plans, decisions, and projects. But later the crown appropriated many private initiatives and launched them as state projects, beginning the process of institutionalizing mechanisms and offices for gathering, organizing, and disseminating information. In fact, empirical practices eventually constituted a strategy for controlling, exploring, exploiting, collecting, and studying the nature of the New World—a dimension that is still part of science today.

My work builds upon the work of the Spanish historians José María López Piñeros and Raquel Alvarez and the work of David Goodman, among others. These authors, building upon José Antonio Maravall, stress the connection between the Spanish crown and the development of scientific fields in Spain. López Piñeros is the leading figure in the study of the history of science in Spain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Raquel Alvarez studies the development of science in the New World; and David Goodman looks at the scientific practices supported by Philip II. My aim is to understand how empirical practices became the tool to study nature—how personal experience became the center of knowledge production. Contrary to Robert Merton, who "advanced the hypothesis that Puritanism in particular and ascetic Protestantism in general served to legitimate the new science," I argue that the commercial and empire-building culture of this period legitimized the new empirical practices of the new science. Modern science was the result of state and commercial activities, which did legitimize the new practices.

Edgar Zilsel argues that the decisive factor in the emergence of modern science was the interaction between artisans and scholars, through which scholars began to hold artisans and their methods in higher esteem than in the past. I argue that this process took place within the European imperial and commercial expansion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Merchants, royal officials, artisans, natural historians, pilots, and cosmographers came together in institutions such as courts and academies, where their economic and political interests overlapped.

The Casa de la Contratación of Seville is a clear example: in the early sixteenth century it became the place—the institution—for pilots, cosmographers, and experts to produce knowledge about the New World. The Casa established a veritable Chamber of Knowledge, the first of its kind—in many ways different from the ancient model of Solomon's House as a place of knowledge. For example, pilots and cosmographers hired by the Casa needed to interview pilots and travelers to the New World and used the information they collected for the making of charts. In many cases, the Casa pilots and cosmographers had to organize special meetings (juntas) with the regular pilots to determine locations and routes for the making of charts. In both cases, through interviews or in meetings, it was in the Casa that these actors produced knowledge about the New World. This institution emerged as the result of Spain's commercial and imperial expansion in the New World—and there was not anything Puritan about it.

My work also expands upon the work of Lucile Brockway and Mary Louis Pratt, who argue that scientific practices in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries served economic and political goals. Brockway studies the case of botanical practices in London and the English Asian colonies; and Pratt studies European expeditions and sample-collecting practices in Spanish America and how these practices helped to foster imperial and commercial interests. I place my argument before the institutionalization of modern scientific practices: it considers problems such as the validation of empirical practices and how empirical practices, in particular, emerged within the context of commercial and imperial expansion. Once these practices were institutionalized, they continued to serve the purpose of empires and commercial groups (and nations, for that matter: for instance, the newly created American nations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), as Brockway and Pratt have shown. I argue that empirical science was originally a product of commercial and imperial expansion—then, once it was institutionalized, science served, in turn, the interests of the empire and nation states.

The chapters of this book are thematic; the goal is to build a thick narrative about the emergence of empirical practices by adding a new layer to the previous discussion with each chapter. The emergence and institutionalization of empirical practices in Spain (and, for that matter, in Europe) did not concern one single aspect, such as navigation. Instead, the emergence of empirical practices became rooted in several different areas, such as navigation and natural history, instrument-making and patents, and questionnaires and reports. While repeatedly covering a similar chronology within the sixteenth century, each chapter adds another layer to the understanding of how empirical practices emerged during that period. Although the chapters can be read independently, it is only together that they sustain the larger claim presented in this book.

I focus on five areas of Spanish activity in America: the search for commodities in and the ecological transformation of the New World (Chapter 1); the institutionalization of navigational and information-gathering practices at the Casa de la Contratación (Chapter 2); the development of instruments and technologies for the exploitation of natural resources in the New World (Chapter 3); the use of reports and questionnaires for gathering information (Chapter 4); and the writing of natural histories about the Indies (Chapter 5). In general, the Spanish royal institutions responsible for the American enterprise adopted and enhanced the idea of empiricism; published and unpublished reports and chronicles of the New World sharpened this idea. Their practices were shaped largely by the needs of the market and the exploitation of natural resources for commerce, especially minerals, tropical commodities, and medicinal plants. My approach shows that the activities discussed in this book were not isolated practices but rather the result of changes transforming the way in which Spaniards in the New World studied and approached the natural world.

By the early seventeenth century the demands of empire surpassed the resources of Castile and the New World. Spanish scientific activities remained rooted in commercial and political interests without completely establishing its goals, rules, and epistemological conditions. By the mid-seventeenth century the political reality of the European and the Atlantic world had become too mobile and uncertain for the Spaniards to direct its course. The growing complexity of the Atlantic world produced a remarkable change in Spanish attitudes toward nature, knowledge, and empire. In the sixteenth century the Spanish felt that they could control the Atlantic. In the seventeenth century they realized that they could barely maintain control over a portion of it. The arbitrista (economist) Martín González de Collerigo defined early-seventeenth-century Spain in these terms: "It seems that these kingdoms had been reduced to a republic of enchanted men who live outside the natural order."

The political and economic uncertainties of the period, exacerbated by new wars against France, England, and the Low Countries, resulted in declining support for projects that would have enjoyed support in the previous century, such as the steam machines invented by Jerónimo de Ayanz (1605). Rooted in international economic and political contexts, Spanish science enjoyed variable support. Moreover, the Spaniards of the seventeenth century had lost faith in their own ability to transform the world around them. Since Spain's science was distinctively about transforming and controlling nature, it, too, lost its sense of purpose in this changing climate.

A sense of American identity (e.g., Mexican or Peruvian identity), however, began informing the work of natural historians and physicians. From the late sixteenth century onward, texts dealing with natural knowledge highlighted American themes and problems. The physician Agustín Farfán, for example, wrote a treatise on medicine for the "benefit of this kingdom [of New Spain] and its republics, and to help poor people who lack the service of physicians." Farfán used Doctor Francisco Hernández's work on natural history—written for the benefit of natural historians in Europe—but instead wrote his book for the benefit of New Spain and the "poor people" who lacked access to physicians. Farfán identified his audience not only in New Spain but also in the larger group of poor people—making his knowledge accessible to a nonspecialized audience. Perhaps knowledge was not for all people, but certainly it was for many people in New Spain. By the end of the seventeenth century Spanish America was moving in a different direction than the Old Country. The empirical activities or early Scientific Revolution discussed in this book would eventually support the development of "enlightened" ideas in America; in other words, there was an internal culture already in place for the development of the Enlightenment in Spanish America. This book shows the establishment of that culture during the sixteenth century.

In conclusion, this book provides an approach to the study of the history of science that takes into account the influence of the Atlantic world in the development of sixteenth-century empirical practices. In the early sixteenth century most of the empirical practices emerging in the European context were bound to the humanist and Aristotelian understanding of empiricism or craft traditions. Yet how exactly did empiricism become a tool to understand and study nature? I suggest that the expansion into the New World constituted one element that allows for the understanding of this process. There is a chronological coincidence between European expansion and the institutionalization of empirical practices in European kingdoms. For instance, Bacon's later proposals for the study of nature coincided with the English expansion into the New World. Through the Spanish translations that began in the 1550s with Richard Eden and continued in the 1620s with Samuel Purchas, he knew about this empirical culture established around the study of the New World.

Our understanding of the history of science is incomplete if it is restricted to Protestant achievements—as it briefly was in the heyday of the Merton thesis—or closed to European practices that do not situate the emergence of empirical practices in its Atlantic context. This work integrates into the history of science not only the history of the Spanish American enterprise but also the history of state formation in the development of science. Science is not always a neutral activity in pursuit of the truth but rather a political activity aimed at controlling nature. Most scholars of the history of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries still continue to focus on developments solely within Europe. They are producing some of the most interesting work in history today, yet most of this work still fails to take into account the emergence of empirical practices in the context of European expansion. This book seeks to bridge that gap.

A final comment on terms is required. The term "America" refers to the American continents. This usage was already in place in the sixteenth century and is still current in many American countries, with the exception of the United States, where "America" means only the United States. The term "science" refers to natural history in particular but also to medicine and cosmography. I have tried to avoid the use of this term in the body of my work, because sixteenth-century scientific practices were more flexible, interrelated, and diffuse than our understanding of scientific practices is today.


Experiencing Nature is a significant contribution to recent scholarship on the history of science and technology during the early period of transatlantic imperial expansion.”
Technology and Culture

“A very significant contribution.... This book tells a story that is usually left out of the master narrative of the history of exploration.... Moreover, it tells a story based on real expeditions and experiences, and it quotes liberally and effectively from engaging reports and sixteenth-century treatises, so it should appeal to general readers as well.”
Carla Rahn Phillips, Union Pacific Professor in Comparative Early Modern History, University of Minnesota


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