Imperial New York City: The Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico

AHA Session 74
Conference on Latin American History 10
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
New York Ballroom West (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Darryl E. Brock, University of Bridgeport
Mariola Espinosa, University of Iowa

Session Abstract

Scholars have lamented the relative lack of attention to U.S. colonial and imperial science, especially as compared to the colonial science associated with the British and French Empires. This panel seeks to address this lacuna. The United States participated in two overlapping trajectories at the close of the nineteenth century: nation-building colonialism and international empire. This panel advances understandings in both areas by examining the U.S. imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century and its projection through the prism of science. We explore the little-known “Scientific Survey of Porto Rico and the Virgin Islands,” as a notable example. Implemented by the New York Academy of Sciences—in coordination with The New York Botanical Garden and the American Museum of Natural History—the Survey commenced in 1913. While New York based Survey leadership approached the colonial government installed in Puerto Rico with a natural history survey plan, they also made it clear that metropolitan agendas could be served. Two decades of research expeditions would eventually culminate in nineteen comprehensive Survey volumes published by the New York Academy of Sciences.

The Scientific Survey in Puerto Rico represented not just the first major attempt at US imperial science conducted beyond its continental boundaries, but also the first of what would be a long history of use of the colony as a laboratory for a myriad of experiments, particularly in the fields of health and military sciences. Swarms of expeditionary scientists would catalog Puerto Rico, bringing samples for display to museums throughout the New York City area, tangibly demonstrating the USA’s far-flung imperium and power to a curious populace—a metropolitan populace. New Yorkers could vicariously embrace the new US Empire; the city could demonstrate its civic worth with comprehensive scientific catalogues. Orchestrated by the city’s scientific elite, it would be funded by the Wall Street elite, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, and the Vanderbilts. Envisioned as a five year project, the final Academy scientific results would be published in 1960, nearly five decades after the Survey’s commencement.

Puerto Rico remains, in the words of the late Puerto Rican jurist Jose Trias Monje, “the oldest colony in the world.” This panel employs diverse approaches to explore the Survey’s imperial scientific role as the United States projected its power into the Caribbean and the Pacific, and its scientific “legacy” in Puerto Rico to this day. We trace the Survey’s evolution from an imperial agent of the civilizing mission to one advancing a progressive agenda of professionalization, modernization and cultural identity into the 1930s—and the present. Our research also helps reconfigure understanding of FDR’s New Deal, with a generation of colonial scientists seeking to leverage the New Deal toward insular modernization. Similarly, this research drives new interpretations of today’s “cultural nationalism” in Puerto Rico. The Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico, though a private initiative, in aligning with U.S. imperial interests also anticipated and perhaps help set the stage for controversial United States governmental initiatives in the late twentieth century, especially those involving the U.S. military.

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