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Inventing ingenios: experimental philosophy and the secret sugar-makers of the seventeenth-century Atlantic

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This article examines how the Barbadian sugar industry was interpreted by the English scientific community in the latter seventeenth century. In particular it focuses upon the spread of ingenios (sugar mills) to Barbados from Brazil, and how this process was understood and chronicled by England’s early scientific community of experimental philosophers. It then contrasts these narratives against archived plantation documents from this period, demonstrating how these writers, despite explicit claims to the contrary, were relatively unconcerned with creating an objective account of sugar-making. Rather, they highlighted specific elements of the industry in order to make the ‘invention’ of sugar appear congruent with their new experimental methodology. These scientific narratives thus ignore a host of factors within the early Barbadian industry, particularly the critical sugar-making knowledge embodied within the plantation’s servile workforce. Rather than illuminating this facet of the industry, experimental philosophers efface these workers and portray ingenios as the laudable product of a few ingenious, experimenting white planters.
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Keywords: Barbados; Francis Bacon; Royal Society; distributed cognition; embodied knowledge; experimental philosophy; immutable mobiles; plantations; slavery; sugar

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 June 2012

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