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Transplantation of Asian spices in the Spanish empire 1518-1640: entrepreneurship, empiricism, and the crown


Author: Bassewitch Frenkel, Omri
Under the direction of: Gwyn Campbell
University McGill
English Language English text

Keywords: History Southeast Asia, Domestication, Asian spices, Spanish Empire, Philippines.


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This dissertation focuses on the way in which Crown-sponsored attempts to transplant or domesticate commercially valuable Asian spices throughout the Spanish empire generated production, circulation and institutionalization of empirical knowledge throughout Spain’s imperial domains. Although largely unsuccessful, Spaniards perceived spice transplantations as an important component of Spain’s imperial expansion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ventures for the introduction or domestication of spices were often initiated and run by networks of settlers, entrepreneurs, officials, friars, and natural historians, who, through empirical observation and experimentation, acquired specific expertise in that field. Successful spice transplantations attracted the attention of Spain’s imperial establishments, namely the Council of the Indies and the Casa de Contratación [known also as the "House of Trade"], which, in turn, engaged colonial administrators in Spanish America and the Philippines to call upon relevant experts for information regarding spice cultivation and processing. Consequently, experiments in the introduction and cultivation of spices were conducted in private and Crown estates in Spanish America, the Philippines and Spain, and the results thereof helped formulate Crown policies regulating spice cultivation and trade. It is maintained here that spice transplantation projects reflect an organizational culture in which policies were formed and decisions were made based on expert opinions obtained through empirical observations and experiments. Essentially, the Crown has adopted a scientific approach to direct its policies. Therefore, this study argues that as early as the 1570s, Crown establishments assessed and analyzed complex empirical evidence in variable economic, political, and diplomatic contexts, to form decisions which were perceived to bear critical consequences to Spain’s economy and its imperial expansion.