Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers

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Accidental geographers: nineteenth-century British travellers in South America

Following the end of Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule, South America became a focus for Europe’s scientific curiosity and commercial ambitions. Although the geography, economy, and natural resources of that continent were well understood on the Iberian Peninsula, in other parts of Europe, as well as in North America, South America was largely terra incognita. The early nineteenth century witnessed an enthusiastic scramble to secure commercial and geographical knowledge of a continent which—as a consequence of political change, and the scientific revelations of Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland—had effectively been made new again.

The focus of this paper is on the written accounts of British travellers to post-revolutionary South America. These travellers were variously soldiers, speculators, and merchants—the “advance scouts for European capital” (Pratt 2008, 143). Although few had written travel accounts before, their published testimony came to serve as the basis for popular understandings of South America. Attending to those travellers published by the London firm John Murray, this paper considers how the knowledge they acquired in the field became established, through a series of epistemic and material translations, as reliable knowledge on the page. Given that Murray’s travellers were only ever partial and imperfect witnesses, my concern is to understand how they assured themselves (and their audiences) of the truth. My interest is in the epistemological bases to their claims, and how they differently evaluated the significance of direct observation, the oral and textual testimony of third parties, and indigenous knowledge.
Period22 Mar 200927 Mar 2009
Event typeConference
LocationLas Vegas, United States