Postprint version. Published in Atlantic Studies, Volume 8, Issue 1, March 3, 2011, pages 29-48.
Copyright © 2011 Taylor & Francis. This is an electronic version of an article published in Atlantic Studies.
The definitive version is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14788810.2011.541188.
Encounters between diverse peoples and knowledges were one of the defining features of the early modern Atlantic world. This article examines some of the implications of these encounters by focusing on the place of indigenous and African knowledge in eighteenth-century natural histories of British plantation societies (from the Chesapeake to the Caribbean). It builds on recent scholarship to argue that while colonials acknowledged the authority of their black and indigenous informants as experts about American nature, they represented such expertise as merely the raw materials out of which they fashioned new natural knowledge. Naturalists credited their informants not as individual authors, but as members of groups whose collective experiences and observations gave them unique understanding of New World nature. Colonial naturalists appropriated such expertise while simultaneously asserting that it represented mere know-how, rather than genuine knowledge. Colonials suggested that their own ways of knowing were necessary in order to turn the collective know-how of enslaved and free Africans and Amerindians into stable, universal knowledge suitable for enlightened European audiences. By translating vernacular knowledge into a universal key, colonials suggested that they became authors of new matters of fact about American nature.