The military and commercial conquest of the “New World” involved extraordinary encounters that upended what European scholars considered to be self-evident truths. The history of colonization therefore involves not only missionaries and explorers, but also astronomers, cartographers, botanists, and doctors.
The interactions between Europe and the Americas that began in the 16th century challenged the framework of knowledge that Europeans had inherited from the Ancient World. For the first time, Europeans were encountering continents and islands located at the edges of the known world, along with new plants (tomatoes, potatoes, corn, tobacco), animals (armadillos, sloths, eels, iguanas), civilizations, and people. This wealth of new information led to the proliferation of Natural Histories, which fed Europeans a potent mixture of myths and realities that captured their imaginations. Soon enough, Indigenous people were presented at every court in Europe, while European collectors scrambled to acquire North American objects like colored seeds, shells, and taxidermized specimens for their cabinets of curiosities.
The earliest expeditions and commercial exchanges, followed by the establishment of a lasting French presence in the Americas in the 17th century, created opportunities for both scholars and curious amateurs to study the newfound worlds of the Americas. As early as the 16th century, ports such as Le Havre, Dieppe, Rouen, and La Rochelle became rich and active centers of knowledge thanks to the cosmographers, sailors, shipowners, and merchants who brought these places to life. Specimens, manuscripts, and precious practical information were exchanged there; increasingly precise maps were produced. Cabinets of curiosities flourished, contributing to the development of a market for objects that Europeans deemed “exotic.” At the same time, French travel writing and descriptions of the Americas proliferated, often authored by clerics interested in nature and anthropology. These interests were not long confined to the coast, spreading rapidly through the private libraries and scholarly circles of Paris.
In the 17th century, Paris gradually became the center of French colonial scholarship, owing to its dynamic printing industry, booming cartography sector, and, of course, proximity to royal power. The founding of the Académie Royale des Sciences (1666), the Observatoire Royal (1667), and the Jardin du Roi (which was set up in 1635 and reorganized in 1671) were major milestones of Parisian centralization. Established under the leadership of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s Comptroller General of Finance (1665-1683) and Secretary of State for the Navy (1668-1683), these three institutions enabled the growth of a veritable “colonial machine” in the 18th century. Working closely with the administrative agencies running the Navy and the colonies, they organized and galvanized the collection of knowledge about the Americas, which they then processed, organized, authorized, and disseminated.
Administrative entities such as the Dépôt des cartes, plans et journaux de la Marine (1720) and scholarly institutions like the Académie royale de Marine (1752) and the Société royale de Médecine (1778), to name but a few, reinforced this system in the 18th century. To further scientific knowledge and expand the influence of the French monarchy, these royal academies and societies sent an increasing number of correspondents to the French colonies in the Americas: missionaries, doctors, botanists, engineers, astronomers, naval officers, and educated amateurs constituted an increasingly well-trained army of field researchers and reporters, informed by the most recent publications and equipped with ever more precise instruments: sextants, Réaumur thermometers, marine chronometers, repeating circles, refracting telescopes, and so on.
One cannot overstate the importance of royal power and the intellectual institutions it endorsed to the scholarly colonization of the French Americas, from the Antilles through French Guiana and Louisiana to Canada. Maps, scientific instruments, maritime and technical innovations, studies of agronomy, and collections of botanical or medical prints were generally evaluated and authorized by the Académies and served as tools in French colonial conquest and exploitation throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
Yet it would be reductive to cling to a strictly Parisian view of the dynamics of knowledge in the American world, however formative and fundamental it was. It is just as important to understand what was happening on the ground in the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries.
French colonies engaged in very little of the institution-building that has been observed in English (then British) and Iberian colonies, which boasted universities and dynamic learned societies. But there is one notable exception: Le Cercle des Philadelphes, founded in 1784 by the colonists of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), which became La Société Royale des Sciences et des Arts du Cap Français in 1789, had over a hundred members and correspondents, published studies, held academic competitions, and hosted public sessions. Most French scholarly activity in the Americas, however, took place in hospitals, administrative offices, the circles of certain newspapers and reading rooms, or through various private networks – and most importantly and commonly, on the outskirts of towns, in plantations, within religious establishments, on rivers, and in the hearts of forests.
Created and mobilized by historians of cross-cultural and scholarly exchange over the last thirty years, the concepts of the “Middle Ground,” “zones of contact,” and “Go-Betweens” have successfully highlighted local actors who were often omitted from the scholarly accounts and narratives printed at the time. These groups include, to name but a few, the Indigenous informers that Charles Marie de La Condamine encountered while traversing Amazonia, the Black women who fought with the insurgents in Saint-Domingue, the fur traders of New France who traveled well beyond the confines of French sovereignty, and the Indigenous peoples who suffered constant interrogation by missionaries in Guyana and the Antilles. Their contributions lay bare a veritable archaeology of knowledge: the names of plants are connected to their healing or harmful properties, as relayed by Indigenous people or enslaved Africans; descriptions of animals evoke how they were raised, hunted, or fished, indicating the circulation of technology and the exchange of expertise; studies of human beings give us glimpses into the complex cultural and intellectual impulses that motivated them.
Nevertheless, misunderstandings frequently distorted the transfer of information about religion, magic, and healing, as well as the data required for botany, cartography, and astronomy. In some cases, different forms of knowledge remained incommensurable. So, for example, we see the Jesuit Le Breton, at his mission on the island of Saint Vincent in the early 18th century, deriding Kalinago navigation techniques, which he never even tried to understand: “Everyone, except the Karaybes [Kalinagos], knows that arithmetic is almost the first step toward an understanding of the stars […]. They content themselves with making a few marks on their boards to help them navigate: only a Karaybe could understand this method.” Obviously, some local forms of knowledge fundamentally eluded the centralizing model of the European sciences, not to mention the mindset of most educated Europeans encountering “otherness” at the time.
Published in may 2021
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