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The political anatomy of natural history: on Petty's contrivance of the Down Survey (1655–1659)

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The Down Survey was a cadastral survey, initiated in 1655 during the Cromwellian occupation of Ireland to redistribute confiscated Catholic lands among Protestant soldiers. Charged with this colonial cataloguing was William Petty, principally known today as a political-economist and statistician. This talk will examine the Down Survey as an exercise in natural history. Petty not only used the Survey to amass natural-historical information, but conceived surveying itself as an object of natural history. Following Bacon, the history of trades or the systematic description of mechanical arts became a privileged sub-domain of natural history. The Hartlib Circle and Royal Society produced histories that codified the craft knowledge of such diverse arts as bog-draining, iron-working, husbandry, mining, etc. An affiliate of both these associations, Petty likewise managed the Survey by breaking down the art of surveying into individual operations, tools, materials and their costs. Thus implementing a meticulous division of labour, he composed hundreds of specialized laborers into a hierarchical surveying apparatus. In Petty’s administration of the Survey, natural history emerged as a self-referential method for overseeing the process of observing Irish geography. I will argue that Petty’s contrivance illustrates a broader contemporary shift in natural knowledge which displaced questions of method from logic, aimed at disciplining individual reasoning, to logistics, concerned with managing a collective body of workers. Petty’s Irish stint further demonstrates that his later statistical writings were not simply an epistemological break in how he viewed data, but rather stemmed from the techniques he applied as a natural historian for organising surveying work and its intellectual products.

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