In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Science and Empire in the Iberian Atlantic

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Indigenous Cosmologies and Practices
  • The New World
  • Understanding and Defining Space
  • Natural History
  • Pragmatism
  • Knowledge Networks
  • Science and Institutions
  • Theories of Science and Empire

Latin American Studies Science and Empire in the Iberian Atlantic
Brian Jones, Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0150


Traditionally, narratives of the development of modern science have excluded the history of scientific activity in the Spanish and Portuguese empires. In particular, colonial Latin America has been doubly cursed by traditional assumptions about colonies as peripheral places and historical assertions of Iberian backwardness. Beginning as early as the Enlightenment, and continuing into the 20th century, scholars have defined the rules of scientific modernity by its permutations north of the Pyrenees and, later, in the United States. The Spanish and Portuguese empires and their inhabitants, however, applied scientific thinking to many aspects of life in the Americas. As early explorers and settlers of the New World, they had a famously privileged role in observing and developing theoretical strategies to explain its natural wonders to fellow Europeans, but, more generally, science was the pragmatic motive force of these two globe-encompassing empires. As a result, the social, practical, and political organization of scientific investigation in the Iberian empires rarely resembled the gentlemanly culture and experimental interests of the scholarly academies of France and England whose study had previously guided historians’ assumptions regarding modern science. Within a decade of Columbus’s return from his first voyage, the Spanish monarchy had already established the Casa de Contratación de Indias, partially modeled on the Portuguese Casa da Índia, to organize the wealth of data returning from the Americas. Continuing in the 16th century, the Habsburg monarchs, particularly Philip II, promoted the study at their courts of mathematics, engineering, cartography, and other sciences with practical applications for a growing empire. The Bourbon monarchs of the late 18th century oversaw a resurgence in officially directed scientific activity, particularly in the form of botanical expeditions in the Americas and the Pacific. So far, these centrally organized responses to the 16th-century encounter with the New World and their late Bourbon resurgence have dominated historians’ chronologies. However, scholars increasingly recognize the great diversity of actors, pursuits, and motivations for scientific practices and knowledge-making in colonial Latin America, a diversity that suggests the limitations of this chronology. It is only in the last three decades that this broadly defined range of scientific endeavor has attracted historiographical attention, first in Spanish, and much more recently in English. The bibliography for this topic, particularly as the English-language literature catches up, promises to change swiftly with the current generation of scholarship.

General Overviews

The geographic, disciplinary, and chronological breadth encompassed by the category of “colonial science” in Latin America has precluded any comprehensive survey of the topic. There are, however, common historiographical questions and paradigms that have defined the field over recent decades. It is convenient to mark this shift into the contemporary era of histories of science in the Iberian empires with the work of the Spanish historian José María López Piñero, who in the late 1970s challenged assumptions regarding early modern Spain’s supposed scientific backwardness (López Piñero 1979). Following this example, and in preparation for the quincentenary of Columbus’s first transatlantic voyage, the Spanish government sponsored a wide array of studies of scientific discovery in the Spanish Empire, frequently in the form of collections such as Lafuente and Sala Catala 1992. These sometimes nationalistically motivated projects provided the breadth of scientific activity in the Spanish Empire with its first sustained and wide-ranging attention. Collectively, their unifying theme was to engage with López Piñero’s “polemic of Spanish science,” primarily seeking to establish the existence of scientific activity in the Spanish empire or to establish Spain’s modernity by affirming its participation in the Scientific Revolution, as in Trabulse 1994. During the 1990s, this research was still primarily pursued by Spanish historians, but, as the list of contributors to Navarro Brotóns and Eamon 2007 attests, a growing minority of scholars working in English began to participate in the field. Emblematic of this transition are Cañizares-Esguerra 2006 and Bleichmar, et al. 2009, whose authors collectively represent the growing scholarly community and the progression of the field into new areas of interest for historians of science in general. Deans-Smith 2006 provides an effective introduction to the common questions of this flowering of new research on both sides of the Atlantic, and in both English and Spanish, since 2000.

  • Bleichmar, Daniela, Paula De Vos, Kristin Huffine, and Kevin Sheehan. Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, 1500–1800. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

    Fifteen collected essays covering the Iberian empires across three centuries, along with an introduction and afterword that effectively summarize current trends in the history of early modern Iberian science. Arranges essays loosely in four thematic sections: historiographical overviews, the disruptive role of the New World, the local and the global in geographies of knowledge production, and the circulation of natural commodities and scientific knowledge.

  • Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Nature, Empire, and Nation: Explorations of the History of Science in the Iberian World. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

    This collection of seven essays (six previously available as journal articles) spans areas of current interest to historians of science in early modern Spain and Spanish America. Common threads include the revision of history of science narratives that privilege the “hard sciences” over natural and mechanical sciences, and the intellectual independence of Creole scientific circles.

  • Deans-Smith, Susan. “Nature and Scientific Knowledge in the Spanish Empire: Introduction.” Colonial Latin American Review 15.1 (2006): 29–38.

    DOI: 10.1080/10609160600607416

    A succinct, clear, and informative introduction to current trends in the historiography of science in Spanish America, including increasingly inclusive understandings of scientific contributors, the unbalancing of notions of core and periphery, and challenges to stereotypical representations of Spain’s obscurantism.

  • Lafuente, Antonio, and Jose Sala Catala, eds. Ciencia colonial en América. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1992.

    Collected essays cover a well-distributed variety of subject matter, organized around the thesis that the institutionalization of science is of central interest to studies of “colonial science.” The editors argue that this approach protects scholars against ahistorical splits between the traditional and modern or the core and periphery. Organized in sections under the labels “Metropolitan Science,” “Viceregal Science,” “Creole Science,” and “National Science.”

  • López Piñero, José María. Ciencia y técnica en la sociedad española de los siglos XVI y XVII. Barcelona: Editorial Labor, 1979.

    Foundational work that begins with an introduction on the historical evolution of the stereotype of Spain’s scientific backwardness, while the book’s core outlines the community of scientific practitioners in 16th-century Spain and its members’ participation in a variety of disciplines. Ends by crediting socioeconomic changes and intellectual repression in the Counter-Reformation for a 17th-century decline in Spanish science.

  • Navarro Brotóns, Víctor, and William Eamon, eds. Más allá de la leyenda negra: España y la Revolución Científica. Valencia, Spain: Universitat de Valéncia, 2007.

    Amassed from papers presented at a conference held in 2005, this collection presents an overview of contemporary scholarship of early modern Spanish science in regard to the Scientific Revolution. Not explicitly oriented to colonial science, it is still a helpful overview of topics of contemporary historiographical interest.

  • Trabulse, Elías. Ciencia y tecnologia en el Nuevo Mundo. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1994.

    A concise but thorough overview of the physical and mathematical sciences in the New World. Written with a now dated interest in the diffusion of the Scientific Revolution in the New World, it nonetheless provides an introduction to fields of scientific enquiry beyond Natural History and other life sciences to which scholars have begun to turn their interests.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.