Science in the Jungle: The Missionary Mapping and National Imagining of Western Amazonia

Roberto Chauca Tapia is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Florida. In 2015-2016, he was a dissertation writing fellow of the Consortium. Read more about his research as a fellow of the Consortium below. I was a dissertation writing fellow at the CHSTM between September 2014 and May 2015. I occupied one of the offices at the Consortium in Philadelphia and was able to conclude my dissertation during those nine months. I wrote a dissertation about the history of Franciscan and Jesuit cartography in early modern Western Amazonia, between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. I focused on three main aspects: (1) the body of theories and methods that missionaries received, discussed, and applied to construct the geographic and cartographic knowledge of the region, (2) the participation of Amazonian natives in the missionary cartographic production of this region, and (3) the transmission of the missionaries’ Amazonian knowledge from the jungle to urban centers, particularly Quito and Lima, and how this process engendered multiple and, at times, simultaneous but contradictory visions of Amazonia. I found out that the most symptomatic feature of the crafting of the geographic and cartographic knowledge of Amazonia is precisely the impossibility of reducing such process to the development of one single concept or to a simplistic linear story of scientific growing perfection. There were many “Amazonias,” sometimes due to the construction of specific missionary Amazonian canons—in its Jesuit or Franciscan variant—, sometimes due to the resulting relationships that friars established with local Amazonian societies, and at times due to the specifics of the networks that linked the Amazonian missionary knowledge with urban centers and scientific institutions throughout the Spanish Empire. To highlight the ambivalent nature of Amazonia is not only important for studies on science and technology but also for the examination of the construction of notions of space and place and how supposed concepts of scientific fixity and exactitude are inevitably intertwined with processes of contingency and contradiction. My stay at the Consortium was particularly fruitful because it gave me the resources and time to finish writing my dissertation in an adequate and timely manner. I found the office assigned to dissertation writing fellows very comfortable and with good illumination for long periods of writing. Although I did not properly conduct research during my stay in Philadelphia, the Consortium is strategically located near some of the main repositories in the city such as the libraries of the American Philosophical Society and the Library Company of Philadelphia. As fellows, we were also granted access to the University of Pennsylvania’s libraries and collections. Well connected to other urban centers and academic institutions in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, my stay in Philadelphia allowed me to participate in many symposiums and conferences in the region. I presented different chapters of my dissertation at the Consortium’s Introductory Symposium in Philadelphia (September 2014), at Princeton University’s Early Modern Workshop in New Jersey (February 2015), and at the annual meeting of the Association for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (March 2015). My dissertation also benefited from different conversations and discussions that took place at the Consortium. The Consortium organizes an introductory symposium every September for everyone, fellow or non-fellow, who wants to share their work on the history of science in Philadelphia. I found the 10-minute limit to present our research very appealing and more useful than the traditional conference-like 20-minute talk because you are encouraged to discuss from the beginning the specifics of your project instead of rambling here and there for 20 minutes with information that is usually not relevant for your project and for your audience. There are also monthly brown-bag meetings to briefly discuss the work of research fellows who are investigating with funds provided by the Consortium. In addition, there are about ten monthly working groups where an array of scholars—from graduate students to experienced professors—discussed, in person or online, specific topics such as the history of early science, science in non-western settings, theory and philosophy of science, and the history of technology, among others. I found both type of meetings, brown-bags and working groups, particularly important and productive because I was exposed to different perspectives on dissimilar topics on the history of science and technology that, otherwise, I would have never known. I have been trained in Florida as a historian of Latin America. After taking a class on the history of science in Latin America with Professor María Portuondo, when she was still working in Gainesville, I started to delineate what later became my dissertation on the history of missionary cartography in early modern Amazonia. I found this transition from the history of Latin America to the history of cartography very rewarding because it forced me to move beyond the traditional geographical restrictions along with most History Departments are organized in the United States and abroad. This allowed me to learn from different points of view and case studies dealing with diverse parts of the world but centered on the historical analysis of cartography and geography. This global perspective, in turn, helped me situate my work into a larger context of multidisciplinary works, from history, anthropology, geography, and philosophy, dealing with processes of cartographic knowledge production as well as the cultural and political formation of notions of place and space that finally came to constitute the theoretical and methodological framework of my dissertation. My stay at the Consortium constituted the ending of this long journey expressed in the gradual transformation of my research into a dissertation that seeks to address first and foremost issues of scientific production, circulation, and consumption of cartographic works. Although my research is focused on early modern Amazonia and the crafting of Franciscan and Jesuit cartographic and geographic knowledge, the questions that I address in my dissertation are relevant not only for the history of Latin America but for the study of historical cartography and the production of geographic knowledge in general. At the Consortium I concluded this process of learning how to situate my work into a larger, transnational, and interdisciplinary framework, which is what actually makes any type of academic work less provincial and ordinary and, as a result, more relevant and useful for everybody interested in the study of science, technology, and societies. Lastly, the city of Philadelphia, where the Consortium is located, presents many possibilities to enjoy living in a city—going for a walk in one of the parks in Center City, theaters, restaurants, pubs, markets, museums, street festivals, etc. I took advantage of any of these possibilities whenever I could, which helped me forget at times that I was working on a dissertation—moments that are actually very necessary when you are writing a dissertation.