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Mainstream, VOL LX No 16, New Delhi, April 9, 2022

Review of Brockmann, Sophie, The Science of Useful Nature in Central America

Friday 8 April 2022


Reviewed by Paul Ramirez (Northwestern University)

The Science of Useful Nature in Central America

by Sophie Brockmann

Cambridge University Press
2020. xii + 267 pp.
$99.99 (cloth)
ISBN 978-1-108-42123-2

In 1772, the creole polymath José Antonio Alzate traveled outside of Mexico City to investigate the effects of a typhus outbreak. As he later reported in an issue of his literary journal, his reconnaissance included an interview with a “ladino” resident, who suggested that by burying victims in a cemetery rather than the parish church, parishioners of Santa Ana had largely escaped infection. But Alzate had reservations, and he invited readers to consider the risks that the pestilential airs emanating from this ex-urban cemetery posed to the many pilgrims who traveled the causeway to Guadalupe’s shrine. The issue marked a turning point, in which knowledge of an eminently practical nature arrived via print to a reading public, whose members were in turn enlisted to assist with matters of social crisis, governance, and nature.

In The Science of Useful Nature in Central America, Sophie Brockmann examines in granular detail the relatively neglected participation of Central America in this collaborative Enlightenment. In 1795, in a context of war with Britain, falling indigo prices, and a smallpox epidemic, a group of self-described men of luces formed a patriotic association known as the Real Sociedad Económica de Amantes de la Patria (Economic Society). Shortly after, the Gazeta de Guatemala (1797-1807) began publication to facilitate and broadcast the Economic Society’s activities. The effect was to augment a network of correspondence, exchange, and sociability among priests, landowners, governors, small farmers, naturalists, and merchants that aimed to improve and exploit nature in rural regions and along the coast. In so doing, participants attempted to bring prestige but also new wealth to Guatemala and its inhabitants.

Drawing on issues of the Gazeta, the plans, papers, and publications of the Economic Society and its correspondents, as well as maps, treatises, and government reports, Brockmann shows that the projects and epistemologies of Guatemala’s enlightened network both furthered the priorities of economic productivity espoused by Spain’s Bourbon rulers and offered novel solutions to social problems. The connections to the government were often explicit. Corresponding “patriots” frequently held official posts, used official records to study geography and population, and proposed projects that faithfully mirrored Bourbon statecraft, as witnessed in official proposals to settle and improve Guatemala’s territory. Simultaneously, economic projects and geographic reports were newly disseminated through print, a more expansive arena that facilitated novel participation. And rather than prioritize the European metropolis, the search for useful knowledge in Guatemala stressed the circumstances and particularities of the país, yielding indigenous uses of plants and plant names, local descriptions of geography, and tangible proposals to integrate coastal and interior regions. Perhaps the specificity of this knowledge helps explain why so little traveled outside the region. There was a feeling of distance, from Bogotá as well as Europe; a sense that Guatemala’s preternaturally rich human and natural geography was neglected and misunderstood by foreigners; and a conviction that its roads and waterways were unjustifiably second-rate. The Gazeta seems to have tapped into and reinforced these perceptions and brought into sharper definition a shared geographic and cultural territory—a “Guatemalan patriotic space,” Brockmann writes (p. 21).

Given its parameters, the book begins somewhat unexpectedly with the well-known discovery of the ancient Maya ruins of Palenque. Studies of stone buildings between 1784 and 1788 reveal home-grown preoccupations and explanations attuned both to the land’s potential and to Guatemala’s more recent experiences with disaster, including a devastating 1773 earthquake. The remaining chapters treat the projects, proposals, and broader conversations made possible by the opening of new circuits and forums for Guatemala’s “patriotic” reformers: the textual and physical movements of botanical materials, including cacao, the algalia plant (an antivenom used to treat the bites of spiders and snakes), and Sumatran rice (chapter 2); local applications of universal knowledge from Europe and Spanish America, as in the search for a local source of quinine and debate over the utility of the plantain tree, following a cautionary report by Nueva Granada’s José Celestino Mutis (chapter 3); plans for an updated geographic description of Guatemala, and improvement and expansion of trade routes by land and sea (chapter 4); and other attempts to tame nature by cultivating “wild” landscapes and habits of agricultural productivity among the populace (chapter 5). Specifically, efforts to make the Motagua River navigable for trade and improve the climate of the Caribbean coast of Honduras for settlement involved discussions about forest management and swamp drainage, and a failed attempt to populate coastal garrisons with free-black soldiers and part-time farmers. The final chapter traces these pursuits into the Federal Republic, when the Economic Society helped map and survey independent territory in dialogue with foreign investors until the federation’s dissolution in 1838.

Even as the book illuminates the legacies of colonial expansion of networks of knowledge production, Brockmann takes care not to suggest that the Enlightenment determined independence from Spain. There were important spatial and political divisions within Guatemala, a province that encompassed the intendancies of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Salvador. Marginalized parties included Nicaragua’s merchants, who condemned the dominance of Guatemala City in trade. The indigenous and African farmers who worked the land were apparently an afterthought when it came to the benefits of public happiness and enlightened reform. Indeed, the prominence of Guatemala City’s consulado merchants would seem to indicate a stronger thesis than one finds about the role of merchant capital and commercial interests in Guatemala’s Enlightenment. Was it really wealth for all of Guatemala that they were after, or for certain classes? Of course, patriotism and financial gain were never incompatible. For all their differences, men of letters in Guatemala had much in common with their counterparts in Mexico, Nueva Granada, and Peru. They emphasized the practical and empirical over theoretical, rejected the universalizing and Eurocentric classifications of plants and people, and challenged European publications and sources that they considered biased or empirically deficient. These resemblances and connections merit closer examination.

The effect of this thoroughly documented study of the practical applications of learning in Central America is to bring the region more firmly into the fields of applied sciences, Enlightenment studies, histories of science, and environmental history. Guatemalans were part of conversations about nature taking place simultaneously in the Carolinas, England, the Scottish Highlands, and Spain about climate change, nature’s improvement, and the creation of wealth. They formed an eclectically enlightened world, recalling the findings of Alain Corbin about a refined sense of smell that accompanied the spread of tools for measuring air quality in France.[1] In the current study, it is possible to imagine a priest from Granada, Nicaragua, tasting quinine to detect a local source of the drug, or to picture the correspondent who reported the viability of algalia seeds sniffing the samples in his possession to verify their smell. These embodied acts take readers beyond a republic of letters to forms of knowledge and discernment that did not emanate from printing presses and economic societies, and about which too little is known.

Guatemala’s Economic Society, in many ways central to this story, was remarkably long-lived. Suspended by royal decree in 1799, re-established in 1811 during the European crisis, and reborn again in 1829, members continued to seek profitable insects and plants for cultivation, commissioned new geographic descriptions of the national territory, consulted Bourbon surveys of rivers, and sponsored road-building projects. The rhetorical and material ramifications of their predecessors were everywhere, and British scientists and investors found much of interest. As in earlier debates over the need for indios to adopt Spanish clothing and the degradation of the environment, the concerns of Guatemala’s republican citizens remained profoundly rooted in Spain’s colonial project. Those newly committed to stitching an unwieldy landscape into a new nation reproduced geographies and models of nature that were inescapably of the colonial past. Brockmann’s work reminds us that the beginnings of an informal nineteenth-century empire must be located within the region, rather than outside it.


[1]. Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination, trans. Aubier Montaigne (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).

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