Atlantic Discourses: Politics, Science, and Identities in Eighteenth-Century Spanish America

Conference on Latin American History 41
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Parliament Room (The Westin Copley Place)
Helen L. Cowie, University of Warwick
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel addresses the relevance and consequences of studying eighteenth-century Spanish America within a context that transcends the local or ‘national’ level. By looking at three different moments which span the Century in the fields of political history, the history of natural science and the formation of proto-national identities it explores how widening the lens reveals new facets of these different objects of study which would have otherwise remained hidden, and which often challenge the conclusions drawn by existing historiography.
The first paper explores how the interplay between local conditions in the Americas and court politics in Madrid determined the creation, and later suppression, of the first viceroyalty of the New Granada. By looking at this crucial event in the history of the geo-political organisation of Spanish America from a perspective that includes the internal politics of the Spanish court, the paper shows that while the creation of the new viceroyalty was officially meant to address specific circumstances in New Granada, the timing, personnel involved and manner in which it was created and suppressed were determined largely by the changing fortunes of actors deeply involved in the power struggles at the heart of the Monarchy’s decision making structures.  
As the second paper shows, a transatlantic approach is also illuminating in the history of science in the Hispanic World. In the eighteenth century, when the Spanish government orchestrated a series of research projects in the natural sciences, the New World was central to them as the site of coveted specimens for museums and botanical gardens back in Europe. Yet, it was also a site for knowledge creation in and of itself, where Creole naturalists, ex-patriot Spaniards and Jesuit missionaries propagated, and contested, scientific models and data circulating in Europe. A transoceanic perspective elucidates these complex interactions showing how the creation of ‘credible’ scientific knowledge was a dialogue between Spain and its colonies and not a unidirectional process in which the ‘periphery’ furnished specimens and the ‘centre’ produced knowledge.
By exploring the role played by discourses of racial categorisations in the process of inception of the Colombian nation, the third paper highlights these were the same discourses which underpinned the making of Eurocentrism. Adopting this perspective, the paper aims at destabilising the boundary between race and ethnicity, and the arbitrary separation between cultural and biological racism, thus challenging the longstanding conception of race as a by-product of late nineteenth-century scientific racism showing that its eighteenth century manifestations were neither fluid nor less “racist”. Simultaneously, this analysis demonstrates that it is necessary to understand the inception of Spanish-American nations from a perspective broader and more problematised than the traditional category of Creole patriotism.
            Jointly these three papers emphasise the impact which the circulation of people, ideas and interests between Europe and America had in the formation of the policies, epistemologies and identities which marked the history of Bourbon Spanish America; but also how the study of Spanish American history can affect our understanding of broader processes affecting the western world.