Jesuit naturalists: Nature, evangelization, and propaganda in South America, 1588--1676

Date of Completion

January 2006


Literature, Latin American|History, Latin American|History of Science




The Jesuits that lived and worked in South America made important contributions to the knowledge about New World nature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This knowledge was reflected in several published and unpublished natural histories, as well as in herbals and letters that circulated among the members of the Society of Jesus. Although the production of knowledge about the natural world was not one of the stated goals of the Society of Jesus in South America, the work of José de Acosta (1540-1600), Bernabé Cobo (1580-1657), Alonso de Ovalle (1601-1651), Diego de Rosales (1603-1677) or Nicolás Mascardi (1624-1673), among others, demonstrate that the study of American nature was constant during the seventeenth century. All of them made their contributions to the study of American nature while fulfilling academic, pastoral or administrative duties within the different Jesuit missions and colleges in Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay. The variety of tasks that these South American Jesuits carried out allows us to understand the importance that the study of nature had for the spiritual, pastoral, missionary, and political goals of the Society of Jesus in South America. In this dissertation, I trace the links of Jesuit science in South America with contemporary scientific ideas and practices in Europe, as well as with native knowledge about the natural world. At the same time, I study how the colonial condition of South America shaped the institutional development of the order, which made possible the production of scientific knowledge by its members. By studying the natural histories written by the Jesuits in South America, I aim both to re-inscribe the science produced in the Spanish colonies within the larger frame of current debates about seventeenth century Jesuit science, and to understand the centrality that the study of nature had for the Jesuit educational and missionary agenda. ^