Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850 – STRANG (THT)

STRANG, Cameron B. Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850. Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 376p. Resenha de: CLUXTON, Hadley Sinclair. The History Teacher, v.52, n.4, p.728-730, ago., 2019.

On the cusp of the nineteenth century, astronomers employed by Spain and the United States set out to survey the boundary between Spanish Florida and the United States as negotiated in the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo. Armed with a variety of scientific apparatus and a bevy of enslaved black men, the two imperial parties—both, ironically, headed by men of British descent—began the arduous task of making the astronomical observations that would establish the new line between nations. Each side boasted of their astronomical prowess, and each side denigrated the other’s supposed failures. However, it was not these imperially funded astronomers who ultimately decided the fate of this expedition. By their own admission, the surveyors never could have hacked their way through the dense foliage or persevered through the Mississippi River’s swamplands without the involuntary assistance of the enslaved black men rented out from nearby plantations. Furthermore, the entire expedition came to a screeching halt in 1800, when the armed resistance of Creek and Seminole peoples forced the empires to abandon their boundary survey. This is but one of many fascinating case studies that historian Cameron B. Strang presents on the production of natural knowledge in the Gulf South in Frontiers of Science: Imperialism and Natural Knowledge in the Gulf South Borderlands, 1500-1850.

Taking cues from one of his mentors, the inimitable historian Jorge Cañizares- Esguerra, Strang joyously exhumed from the archives rich and entangled narratives on the production of natural knowledge in the Gulf South borderlands and presented these histories in all their glorious complexity. The positive influence of other mentors can also be seen in Strang’s work: Jan Golinski’s constructivism, James Sidbury’s work on race, and Julia Rodriguez’s histories of science in Latin America. In Frontiers of Science, Strang presents a mosaic of case studies highlighting a diversity of Gulf South borderlands places, voices, and branches of natural knowledge. Incorporating a variety of knowledge practices—including astronomy, cartography, conchology, now-debunked phrenology, botany, and ethnography—these case studies defy the myth that only Anglo-Americans in the original thirteen colonies participated in the production of natural knowledge in America, or that scientific knowledge merely diffused outward from metropole to periphery. Rather, Strang argues that “natural knowledge and imperialism evolved together” (p. 21) and that indigenous peoples; free and enslaved blacks; Europeans from France, Spain, and Britain; Anglo-Americans; and creoles all formed part of a rich, polycentric network of intellectual exchange often characterized by loyalties as malleable as political boundaries.

The case studies in Frontiers of Science could make worthwhile readings for undergraduate or graduate classes in the history of science, intellectual history, U.S. history, Latin American history, indigenous history, or black history, just to name a few. Although Strang regularly emphasizes the interconnectedness between imperialism and the production of knowledge, he also builds a strong case demonstrating the importance of free and enslaved blacks in the history of natural knowledge that could (and should) be included in any classroom, given appropriate professorial curating. Until U.S. imperialism ossified the United States’ control over the region, blacks in the Gulf South participated at nearly every level of natural knowledge production. In addition, Anglo-American plantation owners who generously supported the advancement of science did so with wealth created through the labor of enslaved blacks—blacks who were actively oppressed intellectually as well as physically. To this end, Strang presents evidence that white supremacists in the Gulf South wielded science to actively construct the lie of black intellectual “inferiority” in order to justify slavery. As Strang stated, “the routes that supported slavery and science were often one and the same throughout the greater Caribbean” (p. 178). Students at every age deserve to learn about the historical ways in which Anglo-Americans created and perpetuated the structural inequality that persists to this day.

One challenge with incorporating this book into a pre-existing curriculum is the fact that it defies easy categorization. While the book flows well through a variety of case studies, Strang does not oversimplify his narratives. Furthermore, the histories stretch from 1500 to 1850 and include multiple imperial, indigenous, and African or African-descended groups, which poses serious issues of periodization.

This (much-needed) presentation of the entangled nature of knowledge production creates problems when trying to squash a round story into a square framework.

If a curricular rewrite is not feasible, one suggestion might be to excerpt case studies where they fit into a pre-existing outline. Another suggestion is to change the frameworks within which we study and teach history.

Strang calls for diversity in places and voices, as well as a more inclusive understanding of what constitutes “science.” Apart from a dearth of female perspectives, this book achieves that goal. Frontiers of Science is an intellectual love song to the Gulf South’s forgotten histories of natural knowledge, a quilt of intriguing case studies that relish in their inability to be readily categorized and constrained within our narrow historiographic frameworks. Strang’s book is a solid contribution to a burgeoning field—the history of natural knowledge in the Atlantic World—a field perhaps not in the process of consolidation, but rather in the process of decolonization.

Hadley Sinclair Cluxton – Odyssey School (Asheville, North Carolina).

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