Natural history in the Spanish New World

Natural history in the Spanish New World

Natural History in the Spanish New World The exploration of the New World by Spanish explorers resulted in the discovery of numerous plants and animals previously unknown to European natural history. The Spanish crown created institutions to facilitate the distribution of new knowledge. The Council of the Indies and the Casa de la Contratacion functioned as repositories of knowledge and constructed methodological guidelines for empirical research. Spanish physicians working in the New World provided detailed descriptions of the plants they encountered and conducted numerous experiments to determine the efficacy of these plants in treating diseases. While the discussion of natural history in the Scientific Revolution tends to focus on the research of Italian and English scholars, Spain was also engaged in an active pursuit of new knowledge about the natural world. However, the previously unknown nature of these plants forced an emphasis on empirical data as opposed to existing textual knowledge. Furthermore, the emphasis on profitability encouraged an emphasis on the commercial applications of new plants and influenced the manner in which these plants were described.



The primary objective of Spanish exploration of New World flora was to discover commodities with commercial applications - specifically, spices and medicines. The sale of these products would finance further explorations. However, commercial concerns often intersected with the more practical issue of the health and welfare of the European explorers. Upon arrival in the New World, the Spaniards were confronted with diseases to which they had no prior exposure and no immunities. Many of the medicines the explorers had brought from Europe were ineffective in the treatment of New World diseases. Spanish physicians sought out local physicians in search of local medicines that would treat these “new” ailments.

Production of Knowledge

The emphasis on experience as a means of producing knowledge and verifying claims was an emerging trend in European natural history. In contrast to the established system that categorized new discoveries within the context of existing knowledge, this new approach emphasized firsthand experience to confirm that which had been recorded by ancient scholars such as Pliny, Dioscorides and Avicenna. The discovery of previously unknown plants and animals elevated the importance of experience and experiment. However, issues of authority and the verification of new knowledge continued to complicate the process. Because many of these plants were unknown to Europeans, the knowledge of native populations was necessary in order to identify useful plant material and determine proven remedies. What distinguished the New World efforts from those on the European continent was the increased dependence on empirical evidence to describe the commodities they encountered as well as the fact that this knowledge was constructed with the intent of exploiting potential commercial applications. With this in mind, unlike many of the natural history communities in other areas of Europe, the Spanish crown had considerable influence on the type of knowledge that was sought and the manner in which it was constructed.

Hispaniola Balsam

Egyptian balsam was known to European natural historians and was sought after for its healing properties. When Antonio de Villasante discovered a similar product in the New World there was immediate interest on the part of the Spanish crown. Villasante’s “discovery” of balsam in the New World represented a possible source of a plant that was no longer readily available to European physicians. In 1528, Villasante “obtained permission from the crown to exploit balsam on the condition that he present before the Council of the Indies a long and very complete report about the tree to obtain the already mentioned liquor, and what its shape is and where this tree is found and what method is used to obtain the liquor; and similar [information] about other drugs”.[1] The “discovery” of Hispaniola balsam by Antonio de Villasante illustrates the challenges of verifying the efficacy of New World resources and the ongoing debate within the natural history communities of Europe on how to classify new knowledge and how to place it within the existing body of medicinal knowledge. Villasante had identified a plant that appeared to possess the same qualities as the Egyptian balsam and had conducted numerous field experiments in order to ascertain the most efficient means of extracting the plants medicinal qualities. In his analysis of the plant, he suggested that over time “it may be shown by experience or reports from physicians whether it might be beneficial for other things”.[2] This assumption on the part of Villasante that knowledge about the plant “was cumulative and would be based on the experience of physicians” was based upon the model set down by the Casa de la Contratacion and was the common approach to knowledge production in New World natural history.[3] The idea of developing knowledge over time through continued experimentation and subsequent corrections to information later found to be erroneous was considered acceptable. This is In contrast to traditional Aristotelian methods that privileged existing texts. This difference in methodology caused friction within the community of physicians and natural historians who were concerned that lack of complete information could possibly be harmful to people who were treated with these new remedies.

While Villasante based his knowledge of the plant on his own first hand observations and experiments as well as information provided to him by the native population, his observations were challenged by Licenciada Barreda, a Spanish physician. Barreda’s report, published in 1529 focused primarily on the willingness of physicians in Spain to accept Villasante’s claims without first conferring extensively with physicians in Santo Domingo.[4] Barreda felt that confirmation of Villasante’s findings and the determination of the accuracy of these findings should be the task of individuals with extensive experience with these plants, not the members of an organization in Spain that had commercial interests at stake. Barreda’s concern about the validity of Villasante’s claims in many ways echoes the concerns of Niccolo Leoniceno and the Ferrara debates between Leoniceno and Collenuccio. The obvious difference being that published information on the plant was nonexistent. This forced the debate into the realm of experiment and empirical knowledge. Specifically, physicians were forced to consider what constituted reliable data, who could be considered reliable sources and at what point they were comfortable in recommending the use of these new medicines for their patients.

The Politics of Knowledge

The challenge of pleasing an aristocratic patron was nothing new to Renaissance scholars and physicians. Competition for patronage was an ongoing struggle. Galileo’s relationship with the Medici court provides a classic example of the need to communicate one’s discoveries in a manner that conforms to social standards and reflects positively on the individuals or institutions sponsoring the work. However, unlike the Italians, Spanish explorers and physicians were dealing with a royal court that was more concerned with the discovery of products that would prove financially advantageous. While the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was noble, the Spanish crown approached the discovery of new plants and animals from a primarily commercial perspective.

This approach on the part of the Spanish crown was reflected in the manner in which Villasante and others communicated their discoveries and how they structured their reports. Again, questions of empirical methods were crucial due to the lack of existing information on New World plants. However, Villasante chose to describe the plant he found as balsam because it was the name of an existing plant with known commercial value. In addition, he compared this plant to cinnamon and pepper, valuable spices that were sought after by the Spanish crown.[5] The tests that Villasante performed demonstrated the viability of his discovery and his empirical data contributed to a growing catalog of knowledge sponsored by the Spanish crown. By standardizing a methodology to be followed by experimenters in the New World, the Casa de la Contratacion not only encouraged continued exploration, but began to assemble a base of knowledge against which future discoveries could be compared to determine not only their medicinal value, but their commercial value as well.


  1. ^ Barrera-Osorio, Antonio (2006). Experiencing Nature. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 16. 
  2. ^ Barrera-Osorio, Antonio (2006). Experiencing Nature. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 18. 
  3. ^ Barrera-Osorio, Antonio (2006). Experiencing Nature. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 18. 
  4. ^ Barrera-Osorio, Antonio (2006). Experiencing Nature. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 2006. 
  5. ^ Barrera-Osorio, Antonio (2006). Experiencing Nature. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 17. 

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