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PhD Thesis

Conquering Nature in Spain and its Empire (c.1750-1850)

My PhD thesis examined the study of natural history in the Spanish Empire in the years 1750-1850. During this period, Spain made strenuous efforts to survey, inventory and exploit the natural productions of her overseas possessions, orchestrating a series of scientific expeditions and cultivating and displaying American fauna and flora in metropolitan gardens and museums. My thesis considered how and where knowledge about the natural world was created, assessing the relative merits of the field and the botanical garden or natural history cabinet. It emphasised the figurative and utilitarian value that eighteenth-century Spaniards attached to the collection and study of natural objects, from globetrotting elephants to extinct giant sloths. It also considered how the creation, legitimisation and dissemination of scientific knowledge reflected broader questions of imperial power and national identity.

Taking a transatlantic approach to the history of science, my thesis examined the contribution of colonial subjects to the wider imperial research project. The analysis extended into the post-independence period, when northern European visitors descended on the former Spanish colonies and the fledgling states sought to establish their own museums of natural history. Among other things, my work, exmphasises the ambiguous position of creole (American-born Spanish) naturalists, who were simultaneously anxious to secure European recognition for their work, to celebrate the natural wealth of their homelands and, in some cases, to vindicate local forms of knowledge against universal European systems. My thesis is currently being converted into a book, and is due to be published by Manchester University Press in 2011.

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