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The Secret of Imperial Failure? The Case of Quina and Epistemic Tolerance

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( III 

The Andean Wonder Drug by Matthew James Crawford centers on a mystery that has puzzled historians of Imperial Spain for generations. After having invested massively in botanical research over the course of the eighteenth century, the Bourbon crown had little to show in the way of concrete, positive economic results. The Andean Wonder Drug seeks to explain some of the causes of these failures by exploring one specific case: the crown’s involvement in the production and distribution of cinchona bark (quinine), one of the most important febrifuge drugs available in a world besieged by contagious disease and malaria.

Mutis Expedition-1790s-Jardin Botanico de Madrid

Trade on cinchona bark had long been controlled by private interests. Merchants would advance markup commodities to local laborers who would, in turn, collect the bark from Andean forests to pay off their debts. The merchants would then bring the bark back to Spain or sell it to British and French smugglers in Portobello, Panama. The quality of the bark, however, varied wildly. Producers and merchants agreed that the quality of bark was highly uneven, depending on the species of the tree, the part of the tree exploited, and the regions from where the tree came.  Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a consensus emerged among apothecaries and physicians that the trees of Loja (in southern Ecuador) yielded the best bark. Unsurprisingly, most producers and merchants promptly and misleadingly claimed their bark to be from Loja. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the crown, set out to gain greater control over the production and distribution of the bark to guarantee a reliable, high quality supply for the crown to hand out as gifts of charity and patronage. Crawford explores several archives on both sides of the Atlantic to reconstruct how the crown sought to establish control over the production and distribution of the Andean wonder drug.

The crown first sent administrators in the 1750s to confirm that the bark was not tampered with by corrupt officials and merchants. Despite the best efforts of crown bureaucrats, however, royal apothecaries would complain that the quality of the bark kept changing with every shipment. In the 1770s the crown turned to the expertise of botanists on the assumption that the variability was caused by ignorance, not corruption as it had originally been thought.

Yet, even after botanists and naturalists took over, the crown kept on getting shipments of alleged unreliable quality. Science proved ineffectual to settle the issue of whose quina was best. The book offers a counter to the triumphant narrative of science and empire that dominates the historiography on the Enlightenment. In the case of quina, science did not solve anything, it actually compounded the problem. Crawford breaks sharply with the growing historiographical consensus that science was a handmaiden of empire.

Crawford offers a tantalizing and novel interpretation of the connections between bureaucracy and knowledge in the Spanish monarchy: the crown constantly reached out to all parties, who often held antithetical views, in order to adjudicate among them. This was part of the constitution of the empire itself. This procedure made empire long lasting but also ineffectual. The case of quina highlights the tensions of the system and the way science worked. Crawford reconstructs the views of all parties involved (local healers, collectors, merchants, administrators, apothecaries, physicians, botanists, and chemists). Various physicians and apothecaries got different results and promoted different types of bark as a result; different corregidores, visitadores and viceroys put forth contrasting policy solutions that favored either the crown or local merchant interests; botanists classified the plant in many different ways, favoring rival merchant groups in different regions of the Americas.  Crawford’s illuminating analysis shows that science and knowledge never worked as an outside, adjudicating arbiter. In the global Spanish Monarchy, science tended not to develop within academies, museums, and salons (although there were plenty of those too), but as part of the bureaucratic contest. The record of science and knowledge in the Spanish monarchy has remained invisible because it lies buried in hundreds of thousands of unpublished mundane bureaucratic records, accumulating dust in archives.

The Andean Wonder Drug boldly challenges historiographical consensus. The book offers an alternative to the facile narrative connecting science to empire. It shows that an empire that invested inordinate amounts of resources in botanical expeditions and clinical trials was not necessarily more effective at increasing agricultural productivity. Unlike “scientists” in the British and Dutch Empires, who came to be seen as ideologically detached from the social and political contexts in which their practices were embedded, “scientists” in the Spanish Empire did not enjoy any greater cultural epistemic authority than did other social actors. Bark collectors, local healers, merchants, and bureaucrats wielded as much epistemic power as did leading court physicians, metropolitan naturalists, and worldly chemists. In fact, Crawford’s book shows that the Enlightenment scientists became bark collectors, merchants, bureaucrats, and policy advisors themselves. By untangling the “epistemic culture” of the early modern Spanish global monarchy, Crawford offers a sweeping counter narrative to any simplified account of the rise of scientific modernity as a tool of empire. Crawford shatters the Spanish Black Legend. The Andean Wonder Drug fully brings to light a Spanish Empire that was constitutionally far more tolerant of epistemic diversity than, say, the British, largely because the former never developed the simple-minded discourse of scientific “objectivity” as modernity that the latter did. There were many other ways of living the Enlightenment than those the historiography narrowly peddles.

Matthew James Crawford. The Andean Wonder Drug. Cinchona Bark and Imperial Science in the Spanish Atlantic, 1630–1800. xi + 284 pp., illus., tbls., bibl., index. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. $45 (cloth).

Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra is the Alice Drysdale Sheffield Professor of History at the University of Texas Austin. His books include How to Write the History of the New World (2001), Puritan Conquistadors (2006), and Nature, Empire, and Nation (2007)