Organized Session

Colonial Science in Louisiana and Beyond: Patronage, Commodities and Expertise in the 18th Century French Atlantic World

Organizer

Jordan Kellman

University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Chair

Neil Safier

John Carter Brown Library/Brown University

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Session Abstract

This panel explores the interactions of travelers, commodities, patronage and expertise in the creation and exploitation of natural knowledge on the 18th-century French colonial frontier, particularly the Louisiana territory. The creation of expertise about the properties, cultivation, and transportation of natural commodities, such as coffee and wax myrtle, brought together indigenous informants and metropolitan systems of analysis and control. The search for useable knowledge that served the interests of the French crown stretched from elixirs to medical cures to astronomical observations, and was always deeply embedded in the tenuous commercial and political patronage networks of Louis XIV's ministers and intendants and their successors. The Paris Academy of Sciences played a crucial role in structuring knowledge gathering and creation for all of these scientific travelers, who attempted to translate its methods and epistemological framework into a world that bore little resemblance to the Parisian metropolis, and frequently undermined the stability that it tried to impose. Other institutions, including the Paris medical establishment and the French monastic orders, also shaped and vied for control of the scientific reconnaissance of New World territories like Louisiana and Amazonia. Each of these papers also demonstrates, however, the many ways in which science on the Atlantic colonial frontier was highly contingent and dependent on local actors and conditions.

Presenter 1

These Are the Sorts of People That Promise Everything but Have No Difficulty Forgetting: Transplanting Specimens in Eighteenth-Century Louisiana

Chris Parsons

Northeastern University

Abstract

In 1736, it was with these words that Jean Prat, New Orleans-based botanist, described the sorts of people upon which he relied for new plants and information about them to send to his Paris-based patrons at the Académie Royal des Sciences. This paper will trace out and analyze the intercultural networks that botanists such as Prat attempted to stretch into the interior of the North American continent in order to acquire medicinally and commercially valuable plants. I will pay particular attention to the circulation of the "arbe à cire" or wax myrtle that was first identified by indigenous informants and became, between 1720 and 1760, a leading favorite of naturalists and administrators looking to diversify the colonial economy and profit from Louisiana's natural riches. In following this shrub from a potential medicine found among indigenous communities to colonial plantations where it was cultivated by enslaved Africans, this paper will foreground the labor question that occupied colonial naturalists and shaped strategies to both locate valuable specimens and relocate them to manageable spaces.

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Presenter 2

Coffee, Science, and Colonial Prosperity in the French Caribbean, 1710-1890

Stuart McCook

University of Guelph

Abstract

This paper asks questions about the intersection of history of science and agricultural history in the early eighteenth century. How did Europeans -- especially the French -- learn to cultivate coffee in their colonial possessions in the Americas? At the beginning of the eighteenth century, virtually all of the coffee Europeans consumed came from Yemen; none was cultivated in the New World. In the early 1710s, live coffee plants were brought to Amsterdam and then Paris. These plants arrived stripped of context; the people who received the plants at botanical gardens in the Netherlands and France knew little, if anything, about how coffee was grown. A decade later, a French officer successfully transported a live plant from Paris to Martinique. From there, coffee cultivation spread through the Americas; by 1780s St. Domingue had far surpassed Yemen as the world's largest coffee producer. Yet nobody--either in Paris or France's New World colonies -- had any prior experience of coffee cultivation. How did this happen? To what extent-if any-did the first generation of New World coffee farmers draw on field reports such as Jean de la Roque's 1716 account of coffee farming in Yemen, or the works of naturalists, such as Antoine de Jussieu's 1715 "Histoire du café". Finally, this paper asks what later manuals published in St. Domingue, especially Brevet's 1763 "Essai sur la culture du café" and Laborie's Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo tell us about the construction and circulation of agricultural knowledge and practice in this period.

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Presenter 3

J.-B. Patris and Enlightenment Medicine in the Amazon

Francois Regourd

Uniiversity of Paris X - Nanterre/ESNA-UMR Mondes Américains

Abstract

The journey of the French Médecin du Roi Jean-Baptiste Patris, between September 1766 and March 1767, is known today only to a few specialists of French Guyana - historians on the one hand, ethnologists and anthropologists on the other. The few maps and the original manuscript of more than 100 pages that document this expedition and form the basis of an edition in progress allow us to follow the day-to-day progress of a scientific expedition deep into the Amazonian forest in the 18th century. In so doing, they reveal scientific problems as they were translated from the metropolitan institutions of Paris deep into the colonial frontier, and as travelers attempted to translate them into the Amazonian context. Producing knowledge under these circumstances involved forming a bridge between native and European systems that was always contested and contingent. The expedition's documents also provide valuable information on the populations encountered, reveal the complex motivations of such an undertaking in a colonial territory, and allow us to explore the intellectual, political, scientific and technical contexts that shaped European scientific interactions deep in the New World colonial frontier.

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Presenter 4

Jesuit and Franciscan Scientific Exploration in the Early Louisiana Territory

Jordan Kellman

University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Abstract

The rivalry between Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries for influence and religious control of the eighteenth-century Louisiana territory also played out in the scientific reconnaissance of the colony. With very different monastic precepts, education, scientific training, organization, and relationship to Rome, to the French Crown, and to European scientific institutions, Jesuits and Franciscans approached the strange natural landscape and complex network of indigenous communities in Louisiana with dramatically different perspectives and results. While the role of Jesuit education, discipline, and special relationship with the French Crown has long been understood as part of early modern French scientific travel, Franciscans have been less visible, but traveled the Atlantic with a set of aims and tools that made them uniquely suited to certain kinds of scientific observation. Using and the Recollect naturalist Louis Hennepin who traveled in New France and explored the wildlife of upper Louisiana in 1675-1680 and the Jesuit astronomer Antoine Laval who charted the lower Louisiana coast in 1720 at the moment of the founding of New Orleans, this paper explores how these two monastic cultures interacted differently with French scientific institutions and led to dramatically different models of knowledge gathering and creation. Both voyages also allow us to trace the gradual breakdown of these models as the methodological, epistemological and religious assumptions that had motivated them evolved as they became increasingly entangled in webs of colonial and indigenous interactions and contests of authority.

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