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Visions of useful nature in late-colonial Central America (c. 1770–1821)

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This talk explores how Enlightenment ideas of progress, improvement and utility were applied to the mapping of landscapes and the study of natural resources at the ‘periphery’ of the Spanish Empire. As this case study from the Audiencia de Guatemala shows, projects designed to improve the region’s infrastructure, from harbour works to road-building, were imagined not just as technological progress, but took into account the natural world of the region, re-imagining the climate and natural productions of the lands alongside planning new infrastructure. While the conceptualisation of the natural world in these projects drew on broader Enlightenment ideas about the perfectibility of nature, it also relied on the creation of locally specific geographical and natural-historical knowledge. By highlighting the networks of travel and correspondence around a local patriotic society that championed such geographical projects (the Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País) we can explore the relationship between the local production and regional travel of different types of ‘natural’ knowledge, and the broader intellectual and political context of the improvement projects.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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