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Nature, networks, and expert testimony in the colonial Atlantic: The case of cochineal

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This article examines the early modern debate over whether cochineal, the source of vermillion dye, was a plant or an animal, a seed or an insect. It explores how the debate played out differently in the contexts of the microscopic laboratory and the Royal Society of London and the Paris Academy of Sciences, the metropolitan pharmacy, French colonial botanical travel, the metropolitan merchant culture of Amsterdam, and finally Spanish colonial plantation society. It argues that these distinct epistemic spaces, or loci, each of which competed for authority in the debate, can only be understood in the context of the Atlantic world as a diverse but coherent epistemic theater. Tracing the contest between microscopic observations of anatomical features presented as universal knowledge and local experience of the harvesting process, it shows how successful claims to authority of leading microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), apothecary Pierre Pomet (1658-1699), and naturalist Charles Plumier (1646-1704) depended as much on their relationship to the transatlantic production and trade of natural commodities as on their technical training or scientific status. The debate's resolution in Amsterdam and Oaxaca demonstrates how inseparable the intertwined legal, cultural and scientific apparatus for establishing matters of fact in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century were from the Atlantic world itself.
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Keywords: Antony van Leeuwenhoek; Charles Plumier; Pierre Pomet; cochineal; indigenous knowledge; microscopy; spice trade

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2010

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