In his writings, Francis Bacon emphasized the interrelatedness between the migration of people and knowledge, arguing that Europeans of his time had surpassed the greatest civilizations because of their ability to traverse the world freely. Concentrating on Spanish observers who investigated New Spain’s flora, this article bridges theory and practice by examining the Iberian roots of Bacon’s views. The article examines scientific approaches for acquiring bioknowledge by Iberians who specialized in European medicine, including Francisco Hernández, Juan de Cárdenas and Francisco Ximénez. While the article recognizes the contribution of travellers and expatriates to Spain’s bioprospecting project, it also points to the ways in which the limitations of the transfer of botanical information was acknowledged and discusses its meaning. By presenting the complexities in the communication of knowledge, I argue, naturalists in the colonies could highlight their unique vantage point in relation to “armchair” specialists in the metropole.
The English natural philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) belonged to a generation that experienced first-hand the opportunities that resulted from the rise of European empires. In his De augmentis scientiarum, Bacon commented that “sciences migrate, just like peoples” (Bacon  1635, p. 91). The Iberian expansion into the Atlantic and the Pacific, in particular, served as the impetus for the Lord Chancellor to urge the English court to follow a similar imperial course with the intention of reconstituting a New Science (Marroquín Arredondo and Bauer 2019, p. 4; see also Findlen 2018, pp. 1–4; Cañizares-Esguerra 2004; Gaukroger 2004, p. 117). This seemingly simple contention by one of the most prominent champions of early modern science provides a starting point to connect geopolitical and demographic developments at the beginning of European colonialism with epistemological transformations that founded modern science.1
The beginning of the modern era was characterized by massive and unprecedent migration across the four quarters of the world. Among these waves of people in movement were the many refugees who sought asylum following religious wars and political strife that tore the European continent apart (Terpstra 2015). Additionally, the colonial expansion of Europe, for its part, connected the continent to Asia, Africa and America, consolidating a global economy that increased the movement of people and brought about, what Serge Gruzinski has described, “the first stage of globalization” (Gruzinski 2004). The socio-demographic changes that followed this process had undoubtedly negative impacts, even catastrophic ones, for many indigenous communities. Yet, these developments were fruitful for Western scientific activities, and especially for botanical and pharmacological exchange which developed mainly as a result of commercial interests and the desire to find new sources of revenues for European states (Cook 2007; Schiebinger and Swan 2004; On Habsburg Spain’s vision for imperial knowledge: Brendecke 2016; Pimentel 2000). Administrators, merchants, missionaries, soldiers, explorers, and emigrants, with the collaboration of indigenous populations and other ethnic groups (for instance, enslaved Africans),2 forged new, long-distance knowledge networks that “became a defining feature of the early modern world” (Findlen 2018, p. 4).
In this context, historians have devoted considerable attention to the processes of circulation and cultural translation of knowledge, seeing, especially in the natural sciences, a dynamic “form of communication” (Secord 2004). This paradigm privileges the social environment that supported the transmission of ideas and objects and highlights the information-gathering techniques that brought about “knowledge in transit.” Experience outside of one’s native country became a salient feature that frequently accounted for the move and exchange of knowledge. For instance, the historian of science, Peter Burke, in a sense corroborated Francis Bacon’s aphorism by elaborating on the connection between the displacement of knowledge and people. Focusing on the “disproportionate contribution” of exiles and expatriates to modern science, Burke viewed the experience of displacement as “a tough form of education” that supported the scientific program in the West. Expatriates, he explains, spread ideas between their original homeland and hostland, often by creating innovative hybrid studies which were marked by a detached approach and a more objective perspective of “the stranger” (Burke 2017, pp. 8, 12, 17, 22–31). This positive consequence of an alien gaze is true not only for exiles, but is also one that most distinctively affected colonial observers of nature.
The scholarly attention to the field of natural history, including the histories of ethnobotany, pharmacological and medical exchange plays no small part in the historiographical reorientation toward the migration of knowledge. The utility of the transfer of botanical knowledge for empire building became a prominent topic that sheds light on the interactions of regional, global, and commercial networks that supported the circulation of information and specimen (for instance, Schiebinger 2004; Drayton 2000). In particular, historians of the Iberian expansion have examined the intrinsic links between imperial endeavors, commerce and empiricism that matured by colonial bioprospecting in Asia and the Americas (Županov and Barreto Xavier 2014; Walker 2009; de Vos 2006; Bleichmar 2004; Barrera-Osorio 2001). These studies provided a complex understanding of science that emphasized both the utilitarian approach that emerged due to the desire to exploit natural resources and to the adaptations of bioknowledge for use in particular geo-cultural contexts in the Atlantic and the Pacific. The field of early modern botany thus became a prism through which colonial encounters are viewed as well as a mirror of the developments in the Iberian monarchies’ epistemic culture. The focus on the production of knowledge in the colonies has further helped to reveal the agency of local interlocutors who took part in the exchange of bioknowledge and botanical specimens. As Susan Parrish has asserted colonial subjects “were not mere collectors for the knowledge makers of the metropole” (Parrish 2006, p. 4).
In this context, this article revisits the topic of the mobility of bioknowledge in the age of modern science, roughly from the end of sixteenth century to the first decades of the seventeenth century (not incidentally, a period that coincided with the life of Bacon himself). Focusing on Iberian expatriates and travellers who specialized, formally and informally, in European medicine, including Francisco Hernández, Juan de Cárdenas, and Francisco Ximénez, my intention is to study Iberian scientific attitudes towards acquiring bioknowledge, and through this, bridge theory and practice regarding the mobility of knowledge in Bacon’s times. Studies about these medical practitioners and more broadly about the botanical and medicinal activities in the viceroyalty of New Spain have been central to the integration of Iberian and Amerindians scientific attitudes and systems of knowledge into the revised and globally-conscious narrative of modern science (for example, Fresquet Febrer and López Piñero 1995; for the geographical reorientation of modern science, see: Burns 2016; Raj 2007). Nevertheless, this article aims to go further than reiterating the role of travelers in the making of natural knowledge (on eyewitness and reliability in the knowledge produced by travelers: Pimentel 2003, pp. 25–109; see also Hayden 2016), or by stressing the links between Bacon’s ideas and earlier, Iberian global explorations (see Marroquín Arredondo and Bauer 2019, pp. 3–5). Studying discursive strategies of naturalists in the colonies, I argue, also allows us to nuance Baconian (read: metropole) views on the incremental accumulation of information by examining the multiple perceptions of movement of knowledge in early science. This shows not only knowledge migration as a multi-vectored process, but also highlights the limitations of the transfer of information. Contrasting distinct views of early science will point to instances in which the possibility of transferring bioknowledge was questioned by overseas observers and the limitations of the imperial bioprospecting project were acknowledged. I will begin the article by presenting Bacon’s ideas on the circulation of knowledge, stressing the impact of Iberian monarchies’ experience on his writings. Then, I will re-examine the concept of the transfer of knowledge, arguing that by claiming that not all knowledge was indeed movable, colonial observers protected their special position in relation to those of “armchair” specialists in the metropole.
1. Chamber of Knowledge and Merchants of Light
The famous frontispiece of Bacon’s Instauratio Magna (1620) offers a captivating visualization for the migration of science in the so-called Age of Discovery (see Figure 1). The image depicts a ship crossing through “the pillars of Hercules” (Gibraltar) that separates the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. The straits, which were perceived in past eras as physical obstacles for pilots and a metaphorical barrier to knowledge of the wider world, was represented in Bacon’s time as a gate through which ships would embark and return from the open seas, bringing new ideas and objects to Europe. Below the painting, a revealing inscription from the Book of Daniel 12:4—“Multi pertransibunt et augebitur Scientia” [“Many will pass through, and knowledge shall be increased”]—connects contemporary European expansion with biblical prophecy about the coming of a new era. The image and the epigraph together suggest the meaning of knowledge migration for Bacon and the European metropole at the dawn of modernity by associating scientific progress with maritime voyages and geographical expeditions, particularly in recently discovered America (see Grafton and Siraisi 1992, pp. 197–208). Whereas Bacon generally viewed knowledge as a practical tool for improving human existence (Vickers 1992; Pérez-Ramos 1988), he additionally recognized that new scientific discoveries entailed a religious, redemptive component for postlapsarian humanity (see Scalercio 2018, p. 80): a path for salvation in the spirit of the prophet Daniel whose words he quoted.3
For Bacon, the movement of people and the migration of knowledge were complementary and interrelated historical processes: Many will travel, and knowledge shall be increased. Bacon also used this quote from Daniel in his other writings in order to convey the idea that contemporary Europeans surpassed the knowledge held by the greatest classic civilizations, namely Greece and Rome, precisely because of the ability in his time to traverse the world freely.4 The movement of people, Bacon reckoned, perhaps with excessive optimism (and naivety), would safeguard the progress of science (scientia) for the benefit of all of humankind—not just for the select group of “travellers.” Without the flow of people, science would be stopped and with it, human progress.
Bacon further provided a blueprint on how to support the advancement of science by persistently carrying out and supporting the movement of people. In his posthumously published utopian work, Nova Atlantis, Bacon described how human societies should be organized and governed in a way that served science (For a discussion on these ideas and their impact on the British Empire: Irving 2008, pp. 1–46). The well-known fictional story tells about a group of English travellers who lost their way at sea and reached an imaginary kingdom on an island, Bensalem, where scientists receive utmost honor and the chief purpose of the state was to support science. The “lanthorn of this kingdom” is Salomon’s House, a semi-academic institution in which scientific experiments and observations are conducted in multiple scholarly fields with the intention of “enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”5 While the inhabitants of the isolated island keep their distance from the outside world, the “fellows” at Salomon’s House continuously gather reports, instruments and specimens from around the world by special crews that are sent overseas on secretive “spying” missions. These “Merchants of light,” as Bacon named these travellers, collect “books, and abstracts, and patterns of experiments” (Bacon “New Atlantis” (1627) in Bruce 1999, p. 183) from foreign countries that are later deposited in Salomon’s House, which functions as a state of the art archive of natural history and all human scientific accomplishments.6 Importantly, as Stephen Gaukroger has clarified, Bacon did not envisage public and universal access to the accumulated knowledge (i.e., on the part of all the kingdom’s subjects), but rather, he imagined this operation as a function that served the sovereign (the king of England) (Gaukroger 2004, p. 9).7
Nova Atlantis was a fictional story, yet the way of collecting information and natural objects was not totally imaginary and was at least partially based on a reality that had developed following the sixteenth-century Iberian maritime expeditions (Barrera-Osorio 2006a, p. 11; Cañizares-Esguerra 2004, pp. 86–92). In particular, two critical elements in Bensalem’s handling of data had a Spanish precedent, namely, first, the use of a centralized unit to accumulate massive amounts of information and, second, the recruitment of mobile agents for this purpose. The similarities are hardly surprising given that Bacon specifically addressed the Iberian expansion to the West and East Indies in his writings. The conquests of Spain are mentioned in Nova Atlantis when a ship that had embarked from Peru supposedly arrived at the island. Additionally, the residents of Bensalem spoke Spanish, the lingua franca which allowed them to obtain reports from afar. Spanish influence on Bacon can be seen also in the frontispiece of Instauratio Magna that was printed in 1606 in Regimiento de Navegación by the Spanish Royal cosmographer Andrés García de Cespedés (1560–1611), as Juan Pimentel reminds us (Pimentel 2000, pp. 23–4). In short, Francis Bacon’s scientific theories (and fantasies) articulated experiential methods that had been develop in previous generations, primarily across the Atlantic, as the Spanish administration devised innovative, long-distance empirical methods to overcome the vast maritime distances that separated Spain from its new possessions (Barrera-Osorio 2006a).
In this context, the activities at the House of Trade in Seville [Casa de la Contratación de las Indias], which was established in 1503 to oversee the movement of people and goods to and from America, demonstrates information-gathering practices in the Spanish world. The Casa collected and analyzed geographical reports as well as botanical and zoological specimens, taking advantage of the movement of people to the region and back for the utilitarian study of the Indies. For example, throughout the sixteenth century, the Casa gathered information on maritime navigation routes by demanding returning ships report upon their voyages and discoveries. The reports of longitude and latitude were copied onto a map of sea routes, islands and coastal areas that was preserved in Seville—the Padrón Real—and used as the basis for the creation and distribution of nautical maps among Spanish seafarers (Sánchez 2013). The Spanish administration supervised and regulated the flow of cosmographic information and functioned, inter alia, as a centralized “learning bureaucracy” that standardized knowledge (see Portuondo 2009). Such activities were characterized by “collective empiricism” (on this term, see Daston and Galison 2007, pp. 19–27) whose purpose was to accumulate the (partial) experience of individuals in order to piece together a broader geographical perspective. The project’s success depended, not only upon the existence of a centralized bureaucracy, but also upon the movement of skilled people (in the aforementioned example, pilots) who received appropriate training.
Spain’s experience paved the way for other European nations, who used similar scientific tools and programs to study colonial territories (Barrera-Osorio 2006b; Carey 2009). Antonio Barrera-Osorio and other historians have pointed to the similarity between the various empirical activities (and the secrecy) at the Casa and those that took place at Francis Bacon’s imaginary Salomon’s House.8 Indeed, similar measures were later taken by the Royal Society of London that, like Spain’s colonial administration, realized the importance of individual reports in compiling a large database on foreign lands (Gascoigne 2009).
2. Botany on the Move
From early on, the Spanish Crown recognized the potential of expatriates and travellers for valuable information on distant lands and issued decrees that aimed to take advantage of the mobility of people. The royal orders instructed in detail what kind of information was expected from the reports, including geographical and biological information that was necessary for governance and trade.9 Moreover, the Spanish crown directly promoted and encouraged mobility, including by financing the costs of overseas research. A famous example of state-funded study was the expedition of Dr. Francisco Hernández (ca. 1515–1587), the chief medical officer (protomédico general de todas las Indias) in the court of King Philip II and a well-known physician who was sent from Spain to Mexico in the 1570s to study American nature.
Realizing the commercial and medicinal potential of plants in the Spanish American possessions, the royal instructions explicitly requested Hernández, whenever possible, to “experience and test at first hand” the plants’ practical use.10 His instructions also reveal that the Crown was informed that the quantities of known valuable plants is higher in Mexico than any other part of the Indies, and as such assigned Hernández primarily “to gather information generally about the herbs, trees and medical plants” in that land.11 Like the “merchants of light” in Bacon’s New Atlantis who brought to their island new empirical findings, Hernández’s expedition expanded the botanical and zoological horizons of his days (Hernandez 1960; López Pinero 2007, pp. 115–30). After years of systematic field work in Mexico, Hernández returned to Spain (in May 1577) with the knowledge of over 3000 new plants and hundreds of species of birds and animals, which he described in detail in his manuscripts that were distributed across Europe (see López Piñero and Pardo Tomás 2000). The descriptions were supplemented by botanical specimens and additional paintings by artists who assisted Hernández in visualizing the unfamiliar nature for distant readers.
Facing the challenge of defining plants that had not yet been documented in existing literature, Hernández described his working method, which was also explained in the Royal appointment letter (unfortunately another essay in which he expanded upon the means to identify plants is lost) (Varey 2000, p. 52). The Spanish protomédico recognized that the experience of indigenous physicians with local plants was far greater than that of European immigrants, and therefore admitted that he preferred to learn directly from the natives about the properties of the plants, the climate and environmental conditions in which they grew, and their recognized medical use. His attitude stands in contrast with European botanists who tended to disregard and belittle the importance of the native informants in their writings (Pardo Tomás 2007, pp. 175–6, 181–2, 191–3). Unlike stories on the lack of cooperation among the Amerindians that were circulating in Europe, Hernández claimed to have found much assistance among them.12 He employed a large number of native assistants including Indian doctors [ticitl], pintores, intérpretes, herbolarios, and urged the king to pay the Indians who brought him plants and reports from the different geographic and climatic regions of the viceroyalty.13 While Hernández criticized what he considered to be the lack of theory in native medicinal practices,14 he not only collected relaciones, herbs and seeds15 from Indian doctors, he also incorporated Nahuatl classifications into his report (Bustamante García 1997).
As a trained doctor, Hernández understood the responsibility that rested upon his shoulders when he described species that were not found in the canonical botanical literature, including Pliny’s Naturalis Historia which he himself translated for the first complete Spanish edition.16 In addition to the priority Hernández gave to indigenous botanical knowledge, he also devised critical procedures for the verification of data, including testing specimens in different seasons and circumstances. Hernández describes the steps he took in order to avoid making a mistake in identifying the plants:
I have relied both on the evidence of other curious persons and of the doctors of this land and my own experiences, beyond what can be deduced using the rules of medicine. In all this, great care has been taken that no plant is painted unless I have seen it ten or more times in different seasons, smelled and tasted all its parts and asked more than twenty Indians doctors, each one individually, and considered how they agree and differ, and unless I have subjected it to the rigorous methods of identification and examination that I developed here for this project.17
The work of naturalist-travellers like Hernández, and its long-term effect on the so-called mestizaje cultural in New Spain’s medicine, can be compared to that of another famous Iberian physician, Garcia de Orta (ca. 1500–1568), whose experience outside of his native country helped him to integrate Far East medical knowledge into European consciousness.19 In the backdrop of discovery expeditions in Asia and the continual persecution of Jews in the Iberian Peninsula, de Orta’s life and book, Colóquios dos simples e drogas e coisas medicinais da India [Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India] (1563), reflect the connections between knowledge and people movements. De Orta, was a member of an exiled Sephardic Jewish family who had settled in Portugal, who returned to Spain to study medicine at the important universities of Salamanca and Alcalá (c. 1515–1525). After several years of teaching in Portugal, he moved in 1534 to Goa, the centre of the Portuguese Empire in India. In subsequent years, de Orta travelled and surveyed the west coast of India from Gujarat to Ceylon, before returning to Goa in 1538 where he practiced medicine for high-ranking clients until his death in 1568 (Fontes da Costa 2012; on de Orta’s work in the context of converted Iberian Jews see Arrizabalaga 2015). De Orta’s journeys on the Indian subcontinent and his position as a prominent physician in Portuguese India allowed him to gather a wealth of information on the Eastern materia medica (Pimentel and Soler 2014). Like Hernández, in the places that de Orta visited, he exchanged ideas and information with physicians, scholars, merchants, and officials, either Europeans or natives, who provided him with vital details on the properties and use of herbs, medicines and spices including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mangosteen and others.20 This information was presented in the Colóquios in the form of an imaginary dialogue in which de Orta himself explains the medical cultures of the East by applying them to academic teachings in medicine (e.g., the works of Pliny, Galen, Avicenna, etc.).
Similar to the way De Orta integrated bioknowledge of the East into the European medicinal consciousness, on the other side of the globe, physicians like Juan de Cárdenas, wrote about American nature by bridging new empirical findings with academic teachings (López Pinero 2007, pp. 135–6). Cárdenas, unlike Hernández’s and de Orta, did not aim to compile an exhaustive medicinal survey of local flora and fauna but sought, in his words, to “provide a solution and cause” for the “secrets” of the New World (Cárdenas 1591, fol. 63r). Born around 1563 in a village near Seville, Cárdenas migrated to the viceroyalty of New Spain while he was still young (approximately 1577) and studied medicine at the University of Mexico (he obtained a doctorate in 1590). At the young age of twenty-six, he wrote Problemas y secretos maravillosos de la Indias [Problems and Marvellous Secrets of the Indies] (1591), in which he employed Hippocratic-Galenic humeral principles to explain American natural phenomena. Cárdenas attributed the peculiar characteristics of his adopted home to the qualities of “heat and humidity that reigns in these Indies” (Cárdenas 1591, fol. 6v; see also 7r. 63r). According to his explanation, the close proximity to the equatorial sun had created the humoral conditions that were responsible for the frequent earthquakes, volcanoes, wind patterns, and even the qualities of the plants. From this perspective, he opposed “absurd stories” that attributed “magical” powers to indigenous healing practices, choosing, instead, to explain nutritional and other properties of local plants and herbs by the humoralism of Hippocrates and Galen (On the importance of humoralism in the Spanish world, and specifically to understandings of the New World, see: Earle 2012). In the case of herbs, he exclaimed, “we should doubt, and likewise explain how herbs can work and operate naturally in our bodies without the intervention of a pact with the devil or a miracle.”21
Cárdenas emphasized that nature operated within a framework of universally-applicable natural laws that could be discovered by joining academic theory and empirical facts through experience and reason (“experiencia y razón”). Written after another traveller-author, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478–1557), gave eyewitness accounts a privileged place, Cárdenas, too, stressed his special position as an “expatriate” who could provide “inside” information to Europeans about the fourth part of the earth (On Oviedo’s rhetorical strategies: Myers 2007, pp. 1–5, 63–81). While Cárdenas did acknowledge that the quality of his education in Mexico was not comparable to that available in Europe,22 he insisted that being present in the colony offered him a unique and advantageous perspective to see and experience things directly. This rhetorical self-representation was particularly important to the young physician who had to build his authority in relation to well-reputed European physicians like Monardes. In this uneven competition, Cárdenas compensated for his young age and lack of a supposedly highly esteemed diploma from a prominent European academic institution (for instance, the prestigious university of Alcalá de Henares from which Monardes graduated) with something that he believed was, in the end, far more valuable: personal experience in the field.
This can be seen in the way Cárdenas described the plants of the West Indies, especially corn which he considered to be the “most balanced and moderate” plant (from the perspective of its qualities) in the botanical world. Corn, Cárdenas emphasized, was neither hot nor cold, neither dry nor humid. He added that because of its qualities it could be used for a variety of “complexions and illnesses.”23 Studying the plant in situ, Cárdenas reported the many virtues of maize for the Amerindians: from the fact it could grow in a variety of terrains and seasons to the fact that one could use the entire plant. This position also allowed him to reveal his deep familiarity with the natives’ way of life, as he meticulously explored the different ways in which maize was prepared and used in Mexico. In one case, he offered a lengthy description of the various recipes of atole, a corn-derived porridge or drink. Using Nahuatl names and recipes, he differentiated between the “eight to ten most common” versions of atole (including mixed with chili, agave, fermented, and more), specifying for each the cooking technique and its digestive and nutritional advantages. Cárdenas argued that since atole was such a balanced food, the additives were what affected its humeral outcome, thus making it compatible to all complexions and “appropriate for every malady.” For example, he tells of xocoatole, a sour atole that was fermented for “two or three days” and that was according to the doctor “refreshing, quenched one’s thirst, and benefits all burning and great heat that one has in the human body” (Cárdenas  1998, pp. 175, 178).
Cárdenas obviously did not aim to write a colonial cookbook. By discussing the cultural use of the corn, rather than merely exploring its biological properties, Cárdenas could show his position as a man between worlds who could appropriate indigenous nutritional knowledge by providing it an additional European medicinal explanation. Unlike biological information on Aristotelian properties, shapes and colors of the plants, the information on specific sensations, such as “refreshing, quenched one’s thirst” attest for a unique feeling that was not transferable to interpreters of information in the metropole. This sensual information was not surplus or redundant data as it had the capacity to explain the use and benefits of the corn-derived porridge by native peoples.
Notwithstanding their epistemic differences (as well as format of writing), the works of Iberian physicians such as de Orta in the East or Cárdenas and Hernández in the West, made it possible to expand the boundaries of European bioknowledge both by recognizing the importance of multigenerational botanical knowledge that had been accumulated among the local communities and by adopting critical methodologies to analyse their findings. As with Burke’s insights on exiles’ scientific production, their distance and perspective as strangers enabled these physicians to compile hybrid works that were based on both European and indigenous knowledge.
Despite the historiographical focus on the Spanish administration’s empirical program, it should be remembered that the agents of knowledge were not solely the emissaries of the State. More than fulfilling evangelical duties, the Catholic Mission also took a leading part in the production and circulation of medicine and bioknowledge, as can be seen in the famous discovery of antimalarial Cinchona bark from Peru that Jesuit priests had introduced into European pharmacopoeia (Harris 1998, pp. 289–93; for a discussion on Jesuit accomplishments in natural history see Millones Figueroa and Ledezma 2005). The ability of missionaries to obtain valuable information and botanical resources from far-flung countries was an asset to both the Spanish monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church, which also underwent centralization processes during the Counter-Reformation period. In many ways, missionaries matched the ideal of the “empirical traveller.”24 They were mobile, erudite and literate and often excelled in foreign languages and natural sciences. Beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, royal decrees instructed members of religious orders and clergy to send detailed reports of their whereabouts (Jiménez de la Espada 1965, vol. 1, p. 50). Missionaries like the Carmelite Antonio Vásquez de Espinosa provided detailed reports based upon his experience in Spanish America to both the Spanish Crown and Rome. In his writings, Espinosa, who left for America in 1608, included information on American flora and indigenous medicinal knowledge, including one of the first descriptions of quinine (Segev 2018; Espinosa 1992).
Thanks to religious orders’ intellectual infrastructure (including colleges, hospitals), global networks and collaboration with local elites, missionaries took a leading role in Spain’s botanical activities. In fact, one of the earliest and most impressive examples of botanical transfer in the Spanish Atlantic is related to the evangelical activities of a religious order—the Franciscans at the Colegio de Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco, Mexico. The Colegio was established by the Franciscans in the 1530s as part of a large complex that included a monastery and library, in order to provide Christian instruction to the young Nahua elite of the Valley of Mexico. In 1552 the Franciscans there prepared a unique book for the Spanish Crown that explained the medicinal plants in Mexico, Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis [The Book of the Medicinal Herbs of the Indians] (Badiano  2000; on the Colegio and the production of Libellus Pardo Tomás 2014, pp. 24–9). This Aztec herbal was first written in Nahuatl by Martín de la Cruz, a native healer with extensive medicinal knowledge, and then was translated into Latin (the original in Nahuatl is lost). Influenced by Pliny’s Natural History, this book was nonetheless the first to be written about medical and botanical knowledge in central Mexico and included descriptions of some 250 Nahua therapeutic plants and many illustrations (Afanador Llach 2011, p. 21).
As with intercultural exchange in the Colegio, Colonial hospitales also contributed to the Atlantic bioknowledge production. The Dominican friar, Francisco Ximénez, worked at the Hospital de la Santa Cruz in Huaxtepec, Mexico, an institution that was associated with traditional Aztec herbal medicinal learning (Somolinos 1960, vol. I, pp. 202–3). Ximénez who was born in a village in Aragon, spent significant time outside the Iberian Peninsula including in Genoa, Italy, and Florida, before he arrived in New Spain in the year 1605 (For biographical notes: Varey and Chabrán 1994, pp. 128–9). Despite having no formal trainings in medicine, from his position at the hospital at Huaxtepec he succeeded in getting a selection of Dr. Hernández’s botanical writings (whose expedition was discussed above) and published a Spanish edition that aimed to provide practical, autochthonous remedies for settlers who lived in regions far from medical attention.25 In his book, Cuatro libros de la naturaleza [Four Books on Nature] (Mexico, 1615), Ximénez described the plants and herbs found in New Spain, emphasizing their therapeutic qualities and uses. In addition to relying on Hernández’s findings, Ximénez added comments from medical experience at the hospital, asserting that there is nothing in his work that “has not been certified by experience” (“no va cosa en esta obra que la experiencia no la aya certificado”). This clarification is particularly meaningful in the context of the authority that Monardes’s work had enjoyed in Spain and beyond, but whose “errors” Ximénez aimed to correct. In the preface Ximénez noted the advantages of using local medicinal plants because, as he claimed, during the long oceanic crossing, herbs and plants tend to lose their potency (“pierdan de su virtud”).26 Ximénez was here referring to the medicines that were shipped from Spain and not to it; however, his observation reveals his opinion about the many advantages of studying the properties of plants in their natural environment where they are significantly more potent. Ximénez’s contention is critical given the enduring data-gathering activities promoted by the Spanish administration and its visionary attempt to establish an Iberian “chamber of knowledge” that regulated and oversaw the process of knowledge-making. Historian Daniela Bleichmar is right to point out that Europeans acquired information about materia medica, as well as food and spices on European soil and thus “colonial botany was practiced not only in the Americas” but also in the courts, gardens, and pharmacies “throughout the world” (Bleichmar 2004, p. 84). Yet, as Ximénez noted, long distances could lead to incomplete knowledge and contradicting results. Joining Hernández who prioritized sense-based knowledge that could only be fully undertaken in situ, Ximénez added that the physical characteristics of plants also changed once they were picked and transported. This non-Eurocentric perspective problematizes Bacon’s ideas about the fluidity of knowledge and its possibly of arriving intact to an establishment like Salomon’s House. From the traveller’s or expatriate’s point of view, not all sciences could possibly migrate as easily and smoothly as people. There were clear advantages, both sensual and physical, to producing biological information in a particular location, and here globalization was hard-pressed to compete.
The movement of people around the world was a prominent feature of the early modern era, which contributed to a new paradigm of knowledge. As we have seen in Bacon’s writings, it helped establish the superiority of the “moderns over the ancients” and promoted the development of a consciousness of progress that, in subsequent years, stood at the heart of the narrative of the “scientific revolution.” By exposing the approaches of Iberian expatriates and travellers to the study of plants and herbs, this article has related theoretical aspects of knowledge creation (i.e., Bacon’s natural philosophy) to the pragmatism of the production of bioknowledge. Before Bacon envisioned the means to collect and compile global data in his fictional New Atlantis, Spain had already recognized the importance of people on the move, and devised tools to gather and analyze the resulting “wisdom of the masses.” Such agents, whether state officials, merchants, settlers, or missionaries, were seen as a part of a chain that initiated the migration of knowledge; a chain whose very existence was perceived by Bacon and his generation as the fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy. Of course, these European “merchants of light” did not work alone, but instead operated within broader local partnerships that voluntarily or under duress explained or “translated” local nature to European immigrants and travellers. Together with the violence and exploitation that shaped the colonial system, the migrations of knowledge and people played a critical role in the formulation of modern science based upon observation, experimentation and the critical interpretation of the findings, the fundamental conditions that set out what Harold Cook has labelled the refusal “to speculate beyond the observable” (Cook 2007, p. 409).
Nonetheless, while expatriates and travellers participated in imperial knowledge networks, they still had to justify their particular scientific position by articulating views that often problematized, if not undermined, the idea of the complete transferability of knowledge in a Baconian sense. After all, if information could truly and fully be transported, what were the advantages of botanical research conducted in the colonies? On what basis could a colonial botanist claim scientific authority over one in the metropole? What prevented a colonial agent, even an untrained one, from simply sending a biological specimen and materia medica to European specialists? As we have seen, as expatriates, missionaries, and travellers compiled information about local flora, they employed several arguments that aimed to confront this unresolved tension regarding the communication of knowledge. We can detect an “environmentalist” approach in Ximénez’s writings that suggested that due to the greater effectiveness of medicinal plants in their natural environment their observation is more accurate in situ. I also showed how migrants emphasized that their diverse experiences on the ground—from sensual experience to the observation and exchange of ideas with native specialists—had an indisputable advantage for acquiring reliable bioknowledge. These various discursive strategies ultimately favored the vantage point of colonial botanists by acknowledging that not all types of information were indeed transportable. Such claims mirror conflicting interests in the process of knowledge migration that emerged as a result of a dual position of those who came to newly colonized lands: on the one hand, they were essential actors in the bioprospecting project, who needed recognition for the valuable information they provided (hence, they supported the claim that the knowledge they gathered did and could migrate in some basic sense). On the other hand, they also were required to reveal the epistemic weakness and limitation of this same knowledge migration (i.e., not all information travels or travels well) in order to justify their position and any possible esteem which they felt they might be owed. In short, Bacon’s paradigmatic phrase “sciences migrate, just like people,” in fact depends on who’s asking, where and in what context.
The purpose of the study of nature was then to reinstate human’s dominium on the created world that was impaired as a consequence of Adam’s Fall. Francis Bacon, Valerius Terminus: Works iii.222; see discussion on Bacon’s concept of sacred history: Matthews 2008, pp. 51–8 and 90–8.
For example, Bacon stated: “This proficience in navigation and discoveries may plant also an expectation of the further proficience and augmentation of all sciences; because it may seem that they are ordained by God to be coevals, that is, to meet in one age. For so the prophet Daniel speaking of the latter times foretelleth [‘Many shall go to and fro on the earth, and knowledge shall be increased,’] :as if the openness and through-passage of the world and the increase of knowledge were appointed to be in the same ages” (Bacon  1974, p. 78; see also Francis Bacon’s New Organon. Bacon  2000, p. 78. On the contribution of travels to expand the “narrow limits of the ancients” Bacon  2000, p. 69).
Bacon described that Salomon’s House was perceived by the islanders: “the noblest foundation (as we think) that ever was upon the earth; and the lanthorn of this kingdom” (Francis Bacon, “New Atlantis (1627)” in Bruce 1999, pp. 167, 177).
Bacon saw a special connection of King Solomon to botany since the king, in his words, “was a man so seen in the universality of nature that he wrote an herbal of all that was green upon the earth” (Bacon quoted in Gaukroger 2004, p. 73). Bacon’s idea of taking advantage of passengers in foreign countries for gathering information under the aegis of a research institute was adopted by the Royal Society of London (est. 1660), which like Salomon’s House was informed about the world by collaborating with informants. Gascoigne 2009, pp. 539–62.
Bacon understood the collection of reliable data by the state as an essential element in the reform of natural philosophy: The King should take “steps to ensure that a Natural and Experimental History be built up and completed: the true, strict history (without philological questions) which is the path to the foundation of philosophy […] So that at last, after so many ages of the world, philosophy and the sciences may no longer float in the air, but rest upon the solid foundations of every kind of experience […]” Bacon  2000, pp. 4–5.
“The Casa evolved through its activities into a veritable chamber of knowledge […] The activities and programs of this chamber of knowledge pre-dated Francis Bacon’s depiction of ‘Solomon’s House’, as well as the knowledge gathering activities of such scientific institutions as the Royal Society of London” (Barrera-Osorio 2010, p. 134; on the secrecy of the Spanish cosmographic program: Portuondo 2009, pp. 6–7).
“Ordenanzas para la formación del libro de las descripciones de Indias,” San Lorenzo de El Escorial, 3 Julio 1573. Pp. 16–74 in Cuestionarios para la formación de las relaciones geográficas de Indias, siglos XVI–XIX, edited by Francisco de Solano, Madrid: CSIC, 1988. On the importance of the royal decree: Barrera-Osorio 2006b, pp. 47–8; Alvarez Peláez 1993, pp. 170–215.
The Royal instructions to Francisco Hernández, January 11. 1570. (Diego de Encinas 1945, vol. 1, pp. 224–25).
The Royal instructions to Francisco Hernández, pp. 224–25).
Regarding the natives’ lack of cooperation, consider the testimony of the soldier, Pedro de Osma y de Xara y Zejo, attached to Nicolas Monardes’ Historia Medicina. Osma stated that Indians, being “our enemy,” “would not disclose a secret [of plants] nor a property of an herb” even as “they saw us dying” (Monardes 1580, Fol. 62v; see also Monardes 1580, 58r. Compare with Viesca Triviño 1995).
Francisco Hernández’s Letter to Phillip II, after returning to Spain in 1577 (Toribio Medina 1968, vol. 2, p. 291).
Hernández viewed the Indian doctors (Titici) as “mere empiricists” [Son meros empíricos] who prescribed traditional medicine without proper understanding on how they functioned: “Estos ni estudian la naturaleza de las enfermedades y sus diferencias, ni conocida la razón de la enfermedad, de la causa o del accidente, acostumbran recetar medicamentos, ni siguen ningún método en las enfermedades que han de curar. […].” (Francisco Hernández, Antigüedades de la Nueva España edición de Ascensión H. de León Portilla, Madrid: Historia 16, 1986, p. 110).
Hernández quoted in Varey 2000, p. 52.
In fact, in one of Hernández’ last letters, he pleaded with the king to support the speedy publication of his work, stating that if this were not done, due to Hernández’ age and the pestilence that wiped out many of his Indian informers, the beneficial data would be lost. In his view, the loss would be irreversible. “Ni seria posible restaurar esta pérdida aunque fuese en muchos años, por haberse muerto en esta pestilencia última gran cuantidad de médicos y pinctores [sic] indios que dello han dado y pudieran dar razón.” Letter to Phillip II after FH returned to Seville in 1577 (Toribio Medina 1968, vol. 2, p. 292).
The term mestizaje cultural is borrowed from Fresquet Febrer and López Piñero (1995). Garcia de Orta’s Colóquios ( 1987) was reprinted and translated into many languages shortly after its publication. It was also the first scientific book to be published in India by a European subject (Pimentel and Soler 2014, p. 109).
Harold J. Cook and Timothy Walker remind us that spices and medicine were interchangeable concepts in Iberian languages (Cook and Walker 2013, p. 338).
“Me pareció declarar, y dar a entender al vulgo, qué sea esto que comunmente llaman todos hechizos, y enhechizar, o dar bocado, porque acerca desto, oygo dezir cada día dos mil quentos, y otras tantas historias patrañas […] lo mucho que acerca de todo esto ay qué dudar, y assí mesmo dar a entender, lo que las yervas pueden hazer, y obrar en nuestros cuerpos naturalmente, sin intervenir pacto con el demonio, o por ventura negocio de milagro […].” Cárdenas 1591, Fol. 234r–235r.
Cárdenas even apologized in his text that he lacked the “erudition, polish and ornament” because of “the lack of teachers that I have had in the Indies” (“la falta que en Indias he tenido de maestros”). Cárdenas 1591, fol. 79r–80v.
Cárdenas 1591, fol. 142v–143r.
This notion is borrowed from Joan-Pau Rubiés who used it to describe the sixteenth-century writers who produced and disseminated anthropological knowledge (Rubiés 1993, pp. 161, 168).
“las medicinas que traen de España, passando tanta inmensidad de mares, pierden de su virtud la mayor parte causa de que el effeto no sea el que los médicos pretenden.” Ximénez 1615, “Al lector.”