The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1982, Volume 28, Number 1
Edited by Thomas L. Scharf

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Spanish Scientists in the New World: The Eighteenth-Century Expeditions. By Iris H.W. Engstrand. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 1981. Appendices. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 220 pages. $25.00.

Reviewed by Gary L. Cunningham, research historian, University of California, Santa Barbara, and instructor, Santa Barbara City College and Oxnard College.

When one thinks of the national contributions to the great Age of the Enlightenment, those of Spain do not readily come to mind. Yet as Iris Engstrand has so aptly demonstrated in this fine work, Spanish achievements were of the first magnitude, and altogether worthy of historical recognition.

Engstrand has chosen here to focus on the two great Spanish expeditions of the period: the Royal Scientific Expedition (1785-1800), which traveled to Mexico, California, the Pacific Northwest, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Central America; and Alejandro Malespina’s celebrated journey (1789-94) to South America, Mexico, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, California, the Philippines, Australia, and various Pacific Islands. The leaders of these peregrinations, reflecting the pervasive naturalism of their era, viewed Spain’s still vast colonial empire as a great laboratory in which they might directly observe the components of the world and the lessons of the universe. Ideally their scientific contribution would be nothing less than the complete cataloging of all flora, fauna, minerals, rocks, and inhabitants of New Spain, documenting the characteristics of each species by the collecting, preserving, and/or reproducing of individual specimens. Ever mindful of their king’s concern for national interests, such as new hydrographic maps, potential commercial products, and the fabled Northwest Passage, they nonetheless proved themselves to be entirely capable of plunging headlong into unknown jungles or up to the very rims of smoking volcanoes, all, presumably, in the name of science.

But theirs was no idle mission of abstract scientific curiosity, for their naturalism was cosmopolitan, idealistic, and yet practical. They believed themselves to be “engaged in the pursuit of truth by carefully observing, analyzing, and recording nature in all its aspects. They believed that their studies would yield beneficial products and unlock secrets to improve human existence . . . Observable nature, for them, held the key to man’s future success.”

Many of the specimens as well as the dress, habitations, trappings, and features of the native inhabitants of New Spain were recorded by artistillustrators who sought to visually duplicate, with scientific precision, what had been observed. They succeeded admirably. A generous selection of their work has been reproduced here, including a number of plates in color. And while there is nothing among them which will diminsh the reputation of an Audubon or a John White, their inclusion (and the author’s enthusiasm for them) is clearly warranted. They effectively convey what existed, and moreover, despite their overt scientism, they are not without a good deal of indigenous charm.

National developments in Spain near the turn of the eighteenth century and shortly thereafter – the ascension of the decidedly unprogressive Carlos IV to the throne and the threat, followed by the reality of a French invasion – abruptly ended political support for the scientific explorations. In the fostered climate of parochialism and suspicion the expedition leaders were not allowed to complete the critical work of cataloging, and so the great mass of specimens, documents, and illustrations were either sold, misplaced, or relegated to archival obscurity. Thus Spain’s great contribution to the scientific enlightenment – the Malespina expedition alone identified almost 16,000 plants and grasses – went unacknowledged up until our own time.

It is to the author’s credit that she has not only rescued these scientists and their work from historical oblivion, but that she has also written their story in a style which is clear, descriptive, uncluttered, and precise. Her subjects, one thinks, would have approved.