Society for the History of Discoveries

Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. Experiencing Nature: the Spanish-American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution. Austin; University of Texas Press, 2006. xi, 211 p. Illustrations. ISBN 0-292-70981-1.

Anybody teaching history to the general run of students in a university in the United States must surely have been struck by their anglocentricity; most of them simply cannot imagine a world in which anglosaxons of one kind or another did not rule the roost. Antonio Barrera-Osorio’s new book should be a powerful antidote to this frame of mind, for he aims to show Spain’s remarkable contribution to scientific knowledge in the sixteenth century. He takes up again the argument advanced by scholars like Gerbi, Elliott and Pagden, that the empirical observation of the New World played a central part in discrediting many ideas then only quite recently received from the scholars of antiquity, and in replacing them by new systems of knowledge. But he gives this argument a pronounced Iberian, and even Spanish, emphasis.

From the start, Spanish colonists like Antonio de Villasante were on the lookout for new economic and medical products. In Villasante’s case, it was balsam (recommended by the classical pharmacist Dioscorides) that he particularly brought from the Indies, though he also sought a monopoly for other drugs. Other substances like cloves, ginger and pepper, pastel and madder, were also sought out in this early period of what Barrera calls “searching the land for commodities.” The monarchy played an active role in this search, not only by encouraging investigators like Villasante, but also by arranging for the commodities that they brought to be tested in Spain.

Undoubtedly the organization that best fits Barrera’s argument about the rational collection of knowledge in early modern Spain was the Casa de la Contratación in Seville. This not only controlled the trade to the new lands, but also housed a navigation school, in which the discoveries of Spanish captains were systematically entered upon a general world map, so that here knowledge of the world seemed to increase with its successive versions, until a very large part of the coastal New World was well known. 

The Casa had its own “community of experts,” as Barrera puts it: pilots, chart-makers, cosmographers and so forth. In the third chapter he describes other such communities, in which sixteenth-century Spain was particularly rich, drawing as it could on the resources not only of Italy but also of Habsburg Germany. Part of this story has already been told in the short but rich book by David Goodman, Power and Penury: Government, Technology and Science in Philip II’s Spain (Cambridge, 1988), but Barrera enlarges our understanding of this phenomenon (p. 67-8).

In his next chapter, “circuits of information,” he sets out the way in which knowledge flowing into Spain was organized and published by authors like Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo and Antonio de Herrera. Barrera, concerned to emphasize the strengths of sixteenth-century Spain, does not mention the weakness of its printing industry, as a result of which the large maps setting out the progress of Spanish discoveries had to be published in Italy and in the Netherlands. He is surely correct, though, in affirming that by the end of the sixteenth century a great part of the Spanish New World had been well described in a number of publications that were disseminated throughout Europe.

In the final chapter, he explains the way in which some Spanish authors explained their possessions in the New World to European readers. Here the leading figures are José de Acosta and, for botany, Nicolás Monardes. As Barrera sees it, such Spanish historians, physicians and botanists laid the foundation for the new, empirical scientific practices of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He is thus at odds with what he called “the Merton thesis,” best expressed in Robert Merton’s Puritanism and the Rise of Modern Science (New Brunswick/London, 1990), according to which the emergence of modern scientific method was primarily an achievement of the Protestant countries. It has to be said that Barrera makes a good case for his sixteenth-century Spaniards.

David Buisseret
The University of Texas at Arlington

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