Empirical empire

The Experiental Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic
Pablo F Gómez
2017, University of North Carolina Press
291 pages, plates, paperback

IN 1816 a team of Spanish royal functionaries inventoried 104 boxes in Santa Fé de Bogotá containing thousands of paintings and descriptions of botanical, mineral and animal specimens gathered as part of a series of botanical expeditions sponsored by the Crown.

This work reflected a European trend at the end of the eighteenth century in which new, empirical methods were being employed in the first recognisably “modern” efforts at scientific classification of the region’s flora and fauna.

The expeditions’ work was seen as a process of “discovery” by which disciplines originating in Enlightenment thought and shaped by imperial experience claimed intellectual prowess for European culture and imposed a Eurocentric epistemological framework upon knowledge.

The problem is, as author Pablo Gómez, points out, many of the animals and plants that the Spaniards and criollos “discovered” and “classified” had already long been in use by other non-indigenous newcomers, the black Caribbean communities of slaves, former slaves and free black peasantry throughout a region that was itself already something of a crucible of ideas between Old and New Worlds.

It was their own knowledge based on experience – a proto-empiricism, but none the lesser for being so – that had established real intellectual prowess in the region well before the official Spanish botanical expeditions.

Black ritual practitioners had embarked on revolutionary strategies to generate knowledge about their natural world and the human body that combined spiritual, analytical, descriptive and classificatory practices – all dervied from experience – that had turned them into veritable intellectual leaders in this region.

The author makes a compelling and original case for a different kind of epistemological revolution during the long seventeenth century (ca. 1580–1720) led by black ritual practitioners who created and developed authoritative knowledge that would ultimately have a global impact.

This story contains the seed of a radical challenge to Eurocentric intellectual complacency, but also to how we understand modernity. As the author points out, it affords the ideas espoused by people of African descent the same treatment historians have previously given to contemporaneous sources created by Inquisitors, missionaries, learned physicians, natural historians, and natural philosophers.

Gómez writes: “Practising in a world in which the wondrous and experiential dominated, migration was constant, and the need for physical alleviation was unrelenting, this region’s black ritual specialists most freely and thoroughly pushed the boundaries of knowledge creation. Paradoxically unbound in comparison to other knowledge-making experts in the region and inhabiting a world in which their own knowledge catalyzed reality creation, black Caribbean specialists explored the New World and placed their findings at the unequivocal centre of their explanations for the workings of nature.” [p 8]