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Empire's experts : the politics of knowledge in Spain's royal monopoly of quina (1751-1808)


In the 1630s, Europeans encountered a medicinal tree bark in South America known as quina. This bark cured fevers - one of the most prevalent illnesses in the early modern world. While many were interested in quina, only one European state had direct access to it. Spain's viceroyalties of New Granada and Peru were the only place in the world to find the cinchona tree, from which the bark was harvested. In 1751, the Spanish Crown capitalized on this situation by establishing a royal monopoly (estanco) of quina from the province of Loja in New Granada - the region reputed to produce the best bark. Environmental, technological, social, and epistemological obstacles all stood in the way. The case of Spain's royal monopoly of quina enriches our understanding of the ways in which the scientific and imperial enterprises interacted in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World. In comparison to other empires at the time, Spain had a distinctive style of integrating science and empire. Part One of Empire's Experts describes an imperial culture of knowledge production that pervaded imperial governance and influenced the structure and development of the quina monopoly. As the Spanish Crown engaged and coordinated many different groups of experts including botanists, bureaucrats, and indigenous bark collectors, tensions and conflicts over natural knowledge and the administration of the monopoly emerged. The role of science in the Spanish empire is best understood with reference to the broader politics of the imperial government. In the late 1770s, major shifts in the botanical leadership and imperial bureaucracy led to an unprecedented intertwining of botany and state - the other distinctive feature science and empire in the Spanish Atlantic. As a result, imperial governance shifted emphasis from the local expertise of officials and informants in South America to the learned expertise of botanists and pharmacists in Spain. Part Two of Empire's Experts examines the nature and consequences of this shift, and shows that bureaucrats as much as botanists played key roles in the production of natural knowledge. Ultimately, the royal monopoly of quina not only shows Spain's participation in the larger projects of Enlightenment and modernity but also puts Spain at the forefront of moving science out of the rarified environment of European court culture into the quotidian world of imperial governance.

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