My first book manuscript examines the science of medicine in Portugal’s empire between 1450 and 1700.
Using case studies drawn from Portugal’s earliest and most important tropical colonies—Goa (India), Salvador da Bahia (Brazil), and Luanda (Angola)—I show how contradictions between an idealized colonial order and the exigencies of settlement patterned debates over the practice of medicine and, in the process, redefined scientific authority, credibility, and the study of nature. This story began in the Atlantic, where the unexpected virulence of certain fevers along the West African coast challenged European ideas about the causes of disease. To survive, the Portuguese turned to indigenous medical specialists, often women. With colonization in Asia and the Americas, this practice intensified and grew more controversial. Hindu and Muslim physicians in Goa as well as Amerindian and, later, African-descended healers in Bahia mediated Portuguese access to local flora and its curative uses. There were differences in how and why this happened, and the comparative dimension of my study helps me draw these out and make sense of them. But everywhere, I argue, colonial medicine was built upon an opposition inherent in the project of colonization itself: Portuguese communities became dependent on forms knowledge-making that they simultaneously sought to displace. At issue was the authority (and therefore power) that women and non-Christian peoples wielded in the production and verification of truth claims about the natural world.
This is an unusual history of imperial science to be sure. It does not emphasize metropolitan ideas and institutions. Nor is it principally concerned with European imperialists, colonial administrators, and university-trained physicians. Such an iconoclastic tale of ‘scientific revolution’ will, I hope, challenge conventional interpretations of the history of both science and medicine.