In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Science

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Essay Collections
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Archives
  • Studies of Specific Scientific Fields
  • Disease and Medicine

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Atlantic History History of Science
Susan Scott Parrish
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0031


The prevailing model that addressed the intertwined topics of science and empire until the 1980s was that of “diffusion,” the idea being that scientific knowledge flowed from metropolitan centers to imperial peripheries, where it gradually matured into independent scientific institutions. Along with this hubris about the superiority of European models and practices of knowledge was an uncomplicated Whiggish narrative about scientific progress. A first wave of dissent to this model appeared in the early 1990s as scholars saw the relation between center and periphery as one of domination and erasure of indigenous knowledge systems and practices. Much of this work involved 19th- and 20th-century colonial history in Asia and Africa. In the early 21st century, scholars investigating the early modern Atlantic world have shown that not only “things,” or raw stuff, emerged from non-European locales but also forms of knowledge (both indigenous and Creole) that contributed to the development of science. A more anthropological method studying cultural, or epistemological, exchange has tended to replace the narrow chronology of “scientific progress.”

General Overviews

These cover the French, British, Spanish, and to a lesser extent the Dutch Atlantic world as well as the Creole cultures that emerged from them in the Americas. Scholarship on Portuguese Atlantic science emerged in the early 21st century in edited collections (see Essay Collections). Coverage of African science (especially metallurgy and vaccination) appears mainly in journals devoted to the history of that continent; this is an area of the field needing much attention. In general the treatments in this section tend to focus on the natural sciences (botany, zoology, and so forth), medicine, cartography, cosmography, ethnography, and epistemology more broadly. Alexander 2002 gives the study of mathematics an Atlantic scope by linking it with voyaging. Important is the intervention by Ibero-Americanists to show the Iberian foundations (Barrera-Osorio 2006) and by scholars of the Dutch Atlantic (Cook 2007) to show the Dutch foundation of modern empiricism, a development typically associated with the Englishman Francis Bacon. Mary Louise Pratt offers an influential model of epistemological domination from center to periphery. Her work remains a highly influential study of European science as an agent of remaking imperial peripheries (especially Latin America and Africa) as it engulfs them within planetary systems. Pratt’s critique, based on a center-to-periphery exportation of science model, was the reigning argument for at least ten years and was adopted widely by historians of culture, science, and empire, but it has been challenged by arguments about epistemic partnering (Chaplin 2001), Creole resistance (Bauer 2003), or metropolitan dependence on colonial sources (Parrish 2006). Stearns 1970 is a comprehensive treatment of British American science. McLellan 1992 offers an early attempt to link colony building and science, looking specifically at the French Caribbean. Portuondo 2009 studies Iberian Atlantic cosmography.

  • Alexander, Amir R. Geometrical Landscapes: The Voyages of Discovery and the Transformation of Mathematical Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

    Covering 16th- and 17th-century voyages of discovery, Amir shows the intertwined development of cartography, navigation, exploration, and mathematical practice.

  • Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

    Argues for the important role of Spanish investigations of the Americas to the development of empiricism and the establishment of institutions of knowledge making, a function often reserved for England in the historiography of science.

  • Bauer, Ralph. The Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures: Empire, Travel, Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Excellent comparative study of conflicts over epistemology within and across the Spanish and British Atlantic empires. Argues that scientific exchange was structured by a mercantile logic and shows increasing Creole resistance to such a mapping of knowledge.

  • Chaplin, Joyce E. Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500–1676. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

    Shows that the British were quite open to intellectual partnering with Amerindians in the first era of colonization; points out the commonalities of Native American and English scientific concepts. Argues that the English eventually came to use Native American susceptibility to Old World diseases as an argument about their inferiority, circa the 1660s.

  • Cook, Harold J. Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

    Argues that the intense Dutch involvement in global commerce (in Africa, the Americas, and Asia) in the 16th and 17th centuries went hand in hand with a new valuation of objectivity, accumulation, and description—all habits of mind that encouraged the development of empirical science.

  • McLellan, James E., III. Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue in the Old Regime. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

    One of the first studies to draw back into the 18th century the important linkage between instrumental science and colony building. Covers medicine, botanical gardens, and popular science in the French Caribbean colony now known as Haiti.

  • Parrish, Susan Scott. American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

    Traces the British new science back to its colonial sources to show how important were Indian, African, female, and nonelite testifiers and collectors—and the circuits of exchange in which they were involved—to Atlantic science.

  • Portuondo, María M. Secret Science: Spanish Cosmography and the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

    Uses the central concept of cosmography through which to view the history of 16th-century Spanish adoption of New World information. Looks at individual cosmographers, navigation, houses of collection and knowledge making, the university, patronage systems, and epistemic shifts.

  • Stearns, Raymond Phineas. Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

    Still the most comprehensive source on the who, where, and what of colonial British American science.

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