Empire and Scientific Survey in Puerto Rico


A review of American Empire and the Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico, by Darryl E. Brock.

This dissertation skillfully examines the intersection of imperialism and science, through an analysis of the Scientific Survey of Porto Rico. Proposed in 1912 by Nathaniel Britton, founder and president of the New York Botanical Garden, the Survey was conducted over two decades (into the early 1930s), and its results continued to be published as late as 1960. Funded by a variety of public and private sources in Washington and San Juan, the scientists of the Survey made expeditions to collect and catalog exhaustive information on the island’s botany, mycology, anthropology, zoology, geology, and more, all in an effort to conquer the “scientific frontier” of Puerto Rico. Brock’s dissertation mines a source base previously untapped in studies of the Survey: scientific publications, such as Science, Scientific American, and Popular Science Monthly. These sources allow him to establish not only the scientific details of the Survey, but also its socioeconomic context in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, its reception by the scientific community, and the resulting public policy proposals.

The first three chapters of the dissertation provide a background of the history and historiography of empire and science in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico. Chapter 1, “Introduction: Science, Imperialism, and the Caribbean,” provides an expansive and intricate overview of the three predominant literatures to which the dissertation is responding: studies of U.S. imperialism; the history of science; and inquiries of modernization and the cultural imagination of nationhood in Puerto Rico. In addition to moving beyond the concerns of “old imperial history” (which focused on politics, the economy, and military expansion) to those of the “new” imperial history (culture, race, and gender), the dissertation further explores imperial expansion and the operation of power through the agency of non-state actors, like scientists. For, as Ann Stoler and Frederick Cooper have shown, “empire attempted to reorganize the local, including relations of gender and approaches to nature” (Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper, “Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda,” in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Culture in a Bourgeois World, ed. Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997, p. 19). In sum, Brock’s dissertation seeks to demonstrate that the Survey served as “an influential aspect of informal empire” (p. 37).

Chapter 2, “Imperial Circuits: Science in the Caribbean,” uses a comparative frame to establish differences and similarities between the several empires operating in the Caribbean and their deployment of scientific expeditions to catalog, collect and develop imperial gardens and botanical knowledge. Brock marshals a variety of scientific publications and several intellectual and political treatises to paint a picture of the complex forces driving these botanical missions and the eventual establishment of Puerto Rico as a scientific and economic outpost by the U.S.: Darwinism, imperial rivalries, ideas of racial superiority, militarism, and the desire for commercial profits based on the extraction of botanical products. Through tabulations of data, Brock shows that after centuries of neglect, Puerto Rico began to receive increased scientific interest and expeditions during the nineteenth century, especially from Germany and the United States. While Nathaniel Britton’s New York Botanical Garden used Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as a model for the Scientific Survey to emulate and supersede, Brock argues that the motivations of each garden were different. Sponsored by the state in Britain, the Kew Garden scientists predominantly worked to advance the economic interests of empire; on the other hand, Britton’s Scientific Survey was driven primarily by a “local metropolitan agenda” emanating out of the New York community of scientists and public and private patrons.  Brock posits, “[T]he idea of conquering a scientific frontier would provide the animus for the American Kew” (p. 80-81). For the Puerto Rican scientists involved in the Survey, their participation in international dialogues about (social) Darwinism prepared them to be enthusiastic participants in the Scientific Survey and to conceive of themselves “as agents for the associated civilizing mission, but, more importantly, as advocates for Darwinist natural science” (p. 76).

Chapter 3, “Puerto Rico: Yankee Institutions, Elite Receptions,” demonstrates that U.S. imperialism in Puerto Rico developed the infrastructure and institutions of tropical medicine and agriculture in order to establish control over the island’s people and environs to advance imperial economic interests. Despite conflicts between local populations and metropolitan administrators, the eventual successful development of these “technically-based insular institutions” relied on the cooperation between metropolitan and colonial scientists (p. 97). The Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico leveraged these human and institutional resources as it pursued its own private mission, but it also had to negotiate and collaborate with Puerto Rican scientific elites. Brock summarizes, “As Americans sought to impose their medical and agricultural vision onto Puerto Rico, the insular elite created rival medical authorities and agricultural experiment stations. Over time, elements of the Puerto Rican professional class collaborated with U.S. experts” (p. 144). Additionally, this chapter contributes to the trend in historiographies of science and medicine that disputes the center-periphery model of knowledge diffusion from the empire to the colonies. Instead, scholars now highlight the multi-directional circulation of knowledge, people, and policies (Anne-Emanuelle Birn and Raúl Necochea López, “Footprints on the Future: Looking Forward in the History of Health and Medicine in Latin America in the Twenty-First Century,” Hispanic American Historical Review 91, no. 3 (2011): p. 519). Scientific work on the periphery allowed for the successful scientific developments that helped advance both imperial and national interests. For example, Carlos E. Chardón, a Puerto Rican scientist working at an insular agricultural station, helped to stem the sugar cane mosaic disease that ravaged cane fields (and threatened the sugar economy) on the island and off, through experiments that proved the theory that aphids were the agent of transmission. In addition to his influential role as a participant in the Survey, Chardón’s accomplishments meant that “Puerto Rican agricultural science secured unprecedented political power throughout the Spanish Caribbean” (p. 139).

The last three chapters of the dissertation analyze the Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico in greater depth. Chapter 4, “Metropolitan Science: NYBG and ‘The Scientific Survey of Porto Rico’,” offers new ways to interpret and understand the Survey and its scientists. Nathaniel Britton was motivated to establish the New York Botanical Garden as a scientific paragon, in order to unseat European centers and “to emancipate American botanists from reliance on European collections as the arbiters of taxonomy” (p. 149). In the end, the Survey did become an authoritative text on the region for the scientific community. Furthermore, based on its composition, funding, and “more immediate scientific objectives,” Brock argues that the Survey should be categorized as a third-sector venture, much like foundations, as it was not a state or business endeavor (p. 184). Although the Survey scientists were building scientific networks with predominantly scientific (and not political) ends, Brock still contends that they were private agents of extending empire. Furthermore, he applies Dennis Merrill’s framework of American tourism in Latin America to Survey participants, arguing that they can be categorized “under soft power notions of scientific tourism” (p. 148) (Dennis Merrill, Negotiating Paradise: U.S. Tourism and Empire in Twentieth-Century Latin America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009, p. xiii-xiv, 8, 11). Scientists engaged in “meaning-making” interactions with each other and local populations, and the Survey “fostered the (urban) exploration of empire” (p. 185, 193).

Chapter 5, “The Scientific Survey: Negotiations with Insular and American Elites,” places the Scientific Survey within wider processes of modernization, economic development, and insular professionalization. Brock argues that the Survey benefited from such processes, but, more importantly, it contributed to the consolidation of scientific authority and a professional class on the island, to the establishment of scientific institutions, and to the performance of national pride in Puerto Rican science on an international stage. Brock argues, “Finally, by the time of the New Deal, this imperial scientific program organized from New York—the Scientific Survey of Puerto Rico—could witness its modernized, professional, scientific progeny take leadership positions, seeking to leverage FDR’s relief initiatives into accelerated modernization and reform” (p. 286). Puerto Rican scientists drew on two sources of political capital. First, their position as participants in the Survey—widely known and lauded–conveyed upon them an aura of scientific authority and expertise. The Survey and its participants had both profited from and participated in a cultural shift that valued technical scientific expertise over literary achievements in determining governmental and academic appointments. Second, they were now linked into networks of patronage and political connection between Washington and San Juan that the Survey had helped to build. Through these contacts, they came to occupy positions of great import, influencing debates of national policy and identity that transcended matters of science. For example, FDR appointed three men connected to the Survey to head the Puerto Rico Policy Commission. Also, Chardón was appointed as assistant director of the PRRA (Puerto Rican Reconstruction Agency), from which he doled out more funding to the ongoing Survey and implemented some of the Survey participants’ policy suggestions, such as Britton’s reforestation designs. This chapter convincingly demonstrates the role of local agency, negotiation, and appropriation of scientific authority.

Chapter 6, “Conclusion: The Legacy of Imperial Scientific Ambition in Puerto Rico,” concludes the dissertation by establishing the import of the Scientific Survey. Although the number of participating scientists was relatively small (only a few dozen at any time), Brock contends that they had a considerable modernizing influence on Puerto Rican institutions. Scholars Gregg Mitman and Paul Erickson have argued, “Financiers, politicians and business people are often credited with making American empire a reality, but they could not have done so without the tools, language, and vision of tropical biology that emerged hand in hand with the economic transformation of nature and nations” (Gregg Mitman and Paul Erickson, “Latex and Blood: Science, Markets, and American Empire,” Radical History Review 2010, no. 107 (2010): pp. 50, 68). Brock’s dissertation sheds light on the essential, yet often overlooked, work of biologists in advancing empire.

This dissertation contributes to understandings of the operation of imperial power by examining the role of non-state metropolitan scientists and local intellectuals in extending processes of modernization and economic development in colonial settings. Moving beyond the old imperial history of political economy and the more recent cultural turn, Brock convincingly establishes the agency of technology and science in imperial history. The dissertation also contributes to historiographies of Puerto Rico by recapturing local agency and negotiation – Brock disputes the traditional dichotomy of Puerto Ricans as victims or passive observers – while still acknowledging power asymmetries.

Kelly Urban
History Department
University of Pittsburgh

Primary Sources

The New York Academy of Sciences
The New York Botanical Garden
USDA Tropical Agricultural Research Station (TARS)
Scientific Survey of Porto Rico and the Virgin Islands

Dissertation Information

Fordham University. 2014. 314 pp. Primary Advisor: Christopher Schmidt-Nowara.

Image: School of  Tropical Medicine, University of Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Author.

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