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  • 9 / Mapping Jesuit Science: The Role of Travel in the Geography of Knowledge


    Introduction: The Geography of Knowledge

    Ever since the work of Cornelius Wessels, Herbert Bolton, and especially Franois de Dainville, we have known a great deal about Jesuit contributions to geography and natural history.1 As great travellers and field observers as well as authors and educators, Jesuits of the Old Society hold a special place in the history of the exploration and description of non-European lands and peoples. We need only recall that Francis Xavier's Letter from India, first published in 1545, was not only among the earliest publications of the Society but also the first letter from the East ever to be printed in Europe.2 While only briefly touching on matters that might be considered geographical, it was nonetheless the beginning of Jesuit- mediated, literary descriptions of what Francis Bacon some seventy years later would call 'the remote and heterogeneous instances of nature.' What is more, this pre-Baconian Baconianism was sanctioned by Ignatius himself, though for rea- sons only partially motivated by the desire for the advancement of learning. As early as 1547 we find Ignatius urging missionaries in India to send information about 'such things as the climate, diet, customs and character of the natives and of the peoples of India.'3 Some years later, again in directives sent to India, Ignatius made clear the rationale behind his request:

    Some leading figures who in this city [Rome] read with much edification for themselves the letters from India, are wont to desire, and they request me repeatedly, that something should be written regarding the cosmography of those regions where ours [i.e., Jesuits] live. They want to know, for instance, how long are the days of summer and of winter; when summer begins; whether the shadows move towards the left or towards the right. Finally, if there are things that may seem extraordinary, let them be noted, for instance, details about animals and plants that are either not known at all, or not of such a size, etc.

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    And this news - sauce for the taste of a certain curiosity that is not evil and is wont to be found among men - may come in the same letters or in other letters separately.4

    In 1782, almost ten years after the Society's general suppression and almost 230 years after Ignatius's instruction, Joo de Loureiro returned to Lisbon after forty years as a Jesuit missionary in Cochinchina (Vietnam). De Loureiro had served the king of Vietnam as both court mathematician and physician, and his search for indigenous herbal remedies led him to gather more than a thousand local plant specimens for his garden and herbarium. He added another three hundred on his return journey, which took him to China, the Malabar Coast, and Mozambique, making him one of the most important - if most neglected - botanical collectors of the eighteenth century.5 Between the first voyage of Francis Xavier and the last of de Loureiro, the Society produced a good deal more 'sauce' for those stay-at-homes back in Europe insatiably curious about the remote regions of the world. There were, to name but a few of the best-known representatives of this tradition, Jos de Acosta's firsthand description of the lands and peoples of Peru and Mexico, 6 Antonio de Andrade and Bento de Goes's accounts of their treks across the Himalayas,7 Pedro Paez's travels to Ethiopia and the Upper Nile,8 Samuel Fritz's journey down the Amazon River,9

    Jacques Marquette's partial exploration of the Mississippi,10 Martino Martini's report of his travels in China,11 Ippolito Desideri's sojourn in Tibet,12 Eusebio Kino's exploration of northwest New Spain,13 and Joseph Tieffenthaller's exten- sive geographical observations in India.14 Less exotic, though no less relevant to the geographical sciences, was the work of Jesuit mathematicians who in the mid-eighteenth century were commissioned by secular and ecclesiastical rulers to conduct painstaking cartographic and meridian surveys of the Palatinate, Austria, Hungary, Silesia, China, and the Papal States.15 Before de Loureiro, dozens of other botanizing Jesuits had gathered and described plant specimens from as far away as China, the Philippines, and Ceylon in the east and from Paraguay, Peru, Mexico, and Canada in the west.16 Finally, Jesuit professors had, from the mid-seventeenth century onward, assembled cabinets, botanical gardens, and multivolume compendiums on natural history and taught geo- graphy in their classrooms all across Catholic Europe.

    The written works of these men are representative of the nearly eight hundred titles in geography and natural history published by Jesuits of the Old Society, a figure which accounts for about one-seventh of the entire Jesuit scientific corpus. The sheer number and variety of works in these fields compels us to ask the obvious: Why would a religious order of clerks regular invest so much of its collective energy in the profane (and non-mathematical) sciences? To say that they were acting at the direct command of Ignatius is of course to answer

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    inadequately; like so much else in the Society, the intellectual ramification of the Society cannot always be so easily reduced to, or explained by, an Ignatian seed. Rather, the development of a robust tradition in the natural sciences took place in the daily and local contexts in which Jesuits found themselves. In this respect, we need to remind ourselves of three basic facts: none of our Jesuit explorers and authors were naturalists or geographers by training or profession, none travelled or worked as naturalists or geographers per se, and even in the eighteenth century none travelled at the behest of any of the major scientific academies.17 With few exceptions, they worked as missionaries and/or served, in one capacity or another, as educators - though not necessarily as professors - within the Society. The knowledge of the natural world they produced was knowledge that arose in the course of their work, their 'profession,' as Jesuits. Thus neither their practice of, nor their contributions to, nor their publications in geography and natural history can be separated from their travels as agents of the Society.18 In other words, the question, Why did an order of priests and theologians produce so many works in the natural sciences? is, in my view, only a corollary of the more basic question, Why (and how) did Jesuits travel?

    Thus, while there is still much for us to learn from the travel reports and published treatises of these and other Jesuit naturalists and geographers, the question I wish to explore here is not primarily about Jesuit knowledge of geography, but about the geography of Jesuit knowledge. These are by no means unrelated questions, and there is more at stake here than simple word-play. What I mean by 'geography of knowledge' is simply a systematic account of the spatial distribution and motion of the people, texts, and objects required by Jesuits in their production of knowledge, specifically knowledge of the natural world. By casting the problem of knowledge production in terms of geography, I am really asking a question about the role of travel in the making of scientific knowledge.19

    The Society, after all, was a disciplined corporation whose members were far- flung, well travelled, and well informed. We might therefore expect to find that knowledge production depended not only upon the specific conditions of a given local context (say, the intellectual and political tensions attending mathematical and experimental knowledge-claims of Jesuits working in the Collegio Romano in the decades after the trial of Galileo)20 but also upon the material and informational resources made available to local actors by virtue of a spatially distributed network of trusted confrres.

    At least in the case of the Society of Jesus (and I suspect in a number of other well-defined and well-run corporations of the early modern period),21 there is great advantage in thinking of scientific knowledge as simultaneously - and reciprocally - local (i.e., 'embedded' or 'situated') and distributed. While I shall focus largely on the distributed character of Jesuit natural knowledge and specifi-

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    cally on the role of travel and the movement of texts and objects constitutive of such knowledge, I would suggest that the strength, longevity, and flexibility of the Jesuit scientific tradition owes much to an organizational structure that effectively combined spatially distributed networks (the Society's overseas mis- sions) with multiple nodal points or nexuses (Jesuit colleges and universities) which served as the locally conditioned centres for the gathering, collation, distillation, and dissemination of much of Jesuit science. No other early modern corporation (either religious or secular) engaged in overseas activities had as part of its corporate mandate such an extensive program of higher education. The circulation of people, texts, and objects between European administrative and intellectual centres and the peripheries of Jesuit overseas missions gave the Society what was in essence a unique institutional geography, and its production of natural knowledge arose within and simultaneously helped sustain that institu- tional configuration.

    Before questions regarding the interface - if that is the right metaphor - between global networks and local sites can be addressed, however, we must first establish with some precision the macroscopic geography of place, or rather the geography of spaces controlled by the Society.22 The basic framework is of course given by the geographical locations of those Jesuits who made observa- tions and published their accounts of the natural world. For Jesuits engaged in such work, we need to ask, on t