SESSION CANCELLED Animals in the Early Modern Atlantic World

AHA Session 64
Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham, West Lobby)
Molly A. Warsh, University of Pittsburgh
Marcy Norton, University of Pennsylvania

Session Abstract

Nonhuman animals appear everywhere we look throughout the early modern Atlantic world: they circulated on global markets as commodities, served as objects of scientific study, spread the reach of European empires, and helped humans reflect on their own position in the natural order. This panel foregrounds the worlds of early modern animals by examining how creatures like horses, hummingbirds, fish, and murexes undergirded Atlantic commerce, science, and empire. In keeping with the “Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Global Perspective” theme for the 2018 American Historical Association meeting, all of these papers interrogate questions of race or slavery alongside investigations of animals, ecologies, and natural history, especially by uncovering lived interactions between slaves and animals. Studying nonhumans can shed light on a number of questions important to histories of science, slavery, and empire, including: How did on-the-ground interactions between people and animals change indigenous and European visions of nature and technological control? What happened when divergent cosmologies of humanity’s place in nature collided? How did animals shape the authority of various human forms of expertise? In what ways did animals and their circulation as objects generate new forms of scientific knowledge, and how did this, in turn, shape commerce and empire? How did engagement with New World ecologies and beings transform ideas about human difference? How can we address the archival challenges of writing about historical animals?

United by a focus on the early modern Atlantic, these papers explore methodological questions about nonhumans, agency, material culture, labor, and race that speak to many historical periods and geographic sites. A number of these papers integrate New Materialist scholarship by tracing physical interactions between people and other animals. We also draw from modern-day scientific studies to illuminate these encounters and consider the challenges of doing so. Christopher Blakley uncovers how British naturalists in the West Indies relied on enslaved African collectors to accumulate specimens of marine animals, and how collecting animals increased their scientific credit and functioned as a form of leisure. Whitney Barlow Robles examines the creation and circulation of flattened fish specimens pressed on paper—a technique that relied on various forms of lay and enslaved labor—and reconstructs this historical preservation method using a fish from the grocery store to consider natural history’s material practices and interpersonal interactions of particular people and animals. Charlotte Carrington-Farmer connects New England’s horse trade to the wider currents of the Atlantic economy, notably the market for sugar and slaves, and also considers how horses and slaves labored together on sugar plantations. Finally, Iris Montero Sobrevilla examines why the Mexica—or Aztecs—chose a hummingbird as their main deity through offering a reading of the Florentine Codex that emphasizes both the empirical vein of the naturalist tradition of the Mexica and the preeminence of visual thinking for conveying findings about nature.

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