What follows below is the original project description and list of references for the grant application to the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond in May 2010 (”stage 2”).

Pehr Löfling

Pehr Löfling (1729–1756) was one of the most prominent students of renowned Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus. In 1751, he travelled to Spain at the invitation of the Spanish government and spent the next three years in the Madrid area pursuing botanical research. In the spring of 1754, Löfling accompanied the Orinoco expedition led by José de Iturriaga to present-day Venezuela, then a Spanish colony, where he continued his scientific work until his death in a tropical disease almost two years later. He left behind substantial collections of plant specimens, journals, descriptions and drawings, most of which is today preserved in the Archives of the Real Jardín Botánico in Madrid but with some manuscripts also extant in Stockholm, Uppsala, Lund, London, Bogotá and Caracas. (Rydén 1965; San Pío Aladrén 1998; Nyberg 2008)

During his time in Spain, Löfling maintained an extensive correspondence with many Swedish naturalists. Most notably he stayed in very close contact with Linnaeus, who at this time was working on the global flora Species plantarum, first published in 1753 and later established as the formal starting point of all botanical nomenclature. It has often been suggested that Linnaeus had a special regard for this former student of his, and it was to Löfling that he had earlier dictated the manuscript of another major work, the Philosophia botanica (1751). It also seems clear that Löfling exerted some influence on Linnaeus in the final stage of writing on the Species plantarum, but this topic has never been investigated in any detail.

Linné till Löfling, 13 mars 1753, RJB Madrid, II,1,6,17

Letter from Carl Linnaeus to Pehr Löfling dated 13 March 1753, reporting some changes made in Linnaeus’s global flora Species Plantarum, then being printed, on Löfling’s suggestion. Despite the latter’s objections, Linnaeus here confirms that he has named a plant found by Löfling in Spain ”Loeflingia”. (Archivo del Real Jardín Botánico, CSIC, Madrid, II.1.6.17, detail; © RJB-CSIC)

Altogether, Löfling’s activities in the years around 1750 make him a significant figure in the history of science, particularly botany, in the 18th century, and some of his work is also directly relevant to taxonomists of today. In his lifetime, however, only a few minor papers were published in Swedish scientific journals, while some of his more substantial manuscripts were edited and published by Linnaeus a few years after his death (Löfling 1758). There have been a few modern works dealing with various aspects of his life and work, particularly the Orinoco expedition, but they are mostly very limited in scope (Pelayo López 1990; Lucena Giraldo 1993; San Pío Aladrén 1998) or lack a more coherent purpose and structure (Rydén 1965). As a result much of the details regarding Löfling, his research in Spain and South America and the extent of his influence on Linnaeus remain unknown. What seems to be certain, however, is that a study of Löfling’s life and the manuscripts and letters he left behind can shed new light on many aspects of the emerging globalisation of knowledge in the 18th century. Such a study is what I propose here.

Globalising history and the significance of place

A strong current in recent historical research (and other areas of the social sciences and humanities) is the renewed interest in what is called the history of globalisation. The international literature in this field has exploded in the last few years, with a generally agreed starting point being the widespread sense that the world we live in today is one of unprecedented economic, political, cultural, social and technological ”globalisation.” This has led to a discussion of whether globalisation is a new phenomenon or not, when it began and what the major phases in its development have been. Various definitions of globalisation and interpretations of its history have been offered, some more narrowly focusing on economic developments and others positing a much broader cultural, political and – not least – technological process. Many scholars argue that today we live in a globalising (or even globalised) world and that the ”take-off” stage of this process can be traced back to the period of 1750 to 1780 or 1800 (Bayly 2004; Osterhammel & Petersson 2005; Colley 2007; Rönnbäck 2009). Co-incidentally – or not – the same period has previously often been identified as the transition from a “traditional” to a “modern” society.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of this decisive phase in the history of globalisation is often said to be global integration of markets for certain commodities: sugar, tea, cotton etc. A parallel development of great significance, one could argue with reference to the many recent studies of the relationship between early modern science and colonialism, is the globalisation of knowledge on terms mainly (but not entirely) dictated by Europeans. In this process the Linnaean sexual system in biology, with its universal taxonomy and nomenclature, played a pivotal role (something I will discuss in more detail below). The globalisation debate has also contributed to a “global turn” in the wider field of history, whose proponents seek to transcend (more or less successfully) the nation-state framework we traditionally have applied in writing about and interpreting the past. (Eklöf Amirell 2008) In this emerging vein of scholarship individuals, organisations, phenomena and events on a local level from widely different parts of the world are also (re)connected in order to show how worldwide networks of communications, trade and cultural influences took form. Nordic historians have only begun to contribute to this discussion (cf Müller, Rydén & Weiss 2010, ch. 1), but it seems safe to assume that this will be a rapidly expanding field of research in years to come.

In much of the work on Linnaeus and his travelling “apostles,” however, a narrow Swedish or at least Eurocentric history of science perspective continues to dominate; rarely is it directly connected to the wider global implications of Linnaean (and other European) science. This is also true of much of my own work related to the disciples of Linnaeus (Hodacs & Nyberg 2007; Nyberg 2005). There are exceptions, i.e., examples of studies that discuss the link between Linnaeus and his students and the globalisation of knowledge, but often treated only very briefly or as a minor aspect of research focusing on other themes (Pratt 1992; Miller & Reill 1996; Fara 2003; Müller-Wille 2005; Sörlin 2006). The project outlined here is a more extensive study along the same lines of enquiry where Löfling (and the milieus in which he moved) is related as an empirical example to the recent surge of research that has argued for the intimate interconnections between science, nation-states and the building of colonial empires (Pimentel 1998; Stepan 2001; Schiebinger 2004; Schiebinger & Swan 2005; Safier 2008 to name a few).

The purpose of the study is to analyse Swedish-Spanish natural history against the backdrop of this scholarship on “European” early modern botany and colonialism, with the ambition of contributing to a more truly global interpretation of European natural history and its relationship to the colonial “periphery,” where the effects of metropolitan, imperial science were increasingly felt during the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In that context it is not without significance that the sources are mainly Swedish and Spanish, since much of the research on these processes in general as well as Linnaeus’s contribution to them has mainly been based on British and French examples that often are quoted and used as if they were representative of “European” science as a whole. Spain and Sweden, meanwhile, have belonged to what one might call “historiographical peripheries.”

In the case of Spain there are several reasons for this state of affairs, historical as well as historiographical. Spanish science at this time has long been regarded and represented as being “backward” and isolated from the broad European currents, a discussion which was being waged already in the 17th and 18th centuries – particularly, perhaps, in Britain and France. Such perceptions have lately been challenged in several major studies (e.g. Cañizares-Esguerra 2006, Bleichmar et al 2009), which have attempted to reconnect Spanish developments with the mainstream of European scientific history. For example, Cañizares-Esguerra (2006) has argued that 16th century Spanish natural history was crucial to the ideas underpinning 17th century British physics, which is usually identified as the starting point of the scientific revolution. Regardless of how Spanish achievements or contributions are measured as such, however, it seems clear that the scholarly and scientific world of the Iberian peninsula to some extent was cut off from the European “Republic of Letters” that was supposed to be “place-less” in its universality but in fact was heavily dominated by Britain, France and the Netherlands. In this sense and from this perspective, there is reason to ask whether Spain was a “southern periphery” of the European scientific community in a manner comparable to how some historians of science have described Sweden as belonging to its “northern periphery.” (Sörlin 2000)

This is just one of several aspects and levels of the project that points to the importance of space and geography, a recurring perspective throughout various parts of the study (cf below). Another, more specific theoretical concept that will be brought to bear is Bruno Latour’s notion of ”centers of calculation” as used by Miller (1996) in connection with voyages of exploration such as the Orinoco expedition of which Löfling was a member. In Miller’s interpretation, Latour sees such voyages as ”attempts to re-create at sites in Europe as much information as possible in a form which would extend the imperium of European powers” by using knowledge or objects to exploit and control distant peoples and places. (Miller 1996:23–25, quot. 23) These attempts were organised in “cycles of accumulation” by persons or institutions called “centers of calculation” (Joseph Banks is given as one example, and Linnaeus could surely be seen as another). Such cycles require “mobilizing and disciplining economic and political resources, administrative procedures, and museums and other centers of collection, as well as astronomers, botanists, zoologists, and the like.” (Miller 1996:25)

However, it should be noted that while it cannot be denied that the universalist aspirations of Linnaean botany – both in its claims of global validity and in its ambition of universal adoption at the expense of local alternatives – ultimately were more or less successful, it was not always an effortless or “smooth” process. On the contrary, it was challenged not only by indigenous knowledge systems in overseas colonies but initially also by competing European paradigms of classification and terminology, not least in Spain. (Gómez de Enterría 2000) In the Americas, it was not simply a question of applying Linnaean ideas but a much more complex situation where the deployment of theories and methods depended on the assistance of local collectors and local knowledge. Although clearly the Europeans and their scientific ideas had the upper hand, there may have been more of interaction and interdependence between universal and local epistemologies than is often recognised today, and this is an important aspect of the project.

Research questions

In the context outlined above, the apostles of Linnaeus in general and Löfling in particular constitute one of the most interesting opportunities for involving “Swedish” history in a more globalised history. Pehr Löfling may not have been a very important historical figure in the conventional sense of the word, but it is clear that he is a potentially significant person due to the trajectory of his life and the wealth of materials he left behind. Most of all, by following that trajectory and those materials (and sources from the people surrounding him), we may analyse and intimately connect the widely different aspects and stages in the process of knowledge globalisation that Linnaean natural history represented.

Löfling was closely involved in the formulation of some of the Linnaean principles and one of the most gifted and well trained of Linnaeus’s students; he contributed to the spread of Linnaean botany in Europe; and finally he was given the rare opportunity of applying these principles and practices in a colonial context where they both challenged and were challenged by indigenous epistemologies. How did he approach Linnaeus, and how did the latter influence Löfling? Similarly, what was the outcome of the encounter between him as a “Linnaean apostle” and the Spanish botanists, and between him as a European (colonial) naturalist and the indigenous people(s) of America? What do these exchanges and their outcomes tell us about the theory and practice of Linnaean botany as an example of the globalisation of knowledge in the middle of the 18th century and about the different stages of that process? How did these greater phenomena in turn impact on Löfling and shape his life journey(s)?

Those are some of the questions I hope to answer in this project, which will be carried out in loose co-operation with Spanish historian Manuel Lucena Giraldo, a research fellow at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas in Madrid. While I study the issues outlined above, he will simultaneously work on some other, but related aspects mainly connected with the two years Löfling spent in Venezuela: the notion of “the Tropics” which began to take hold at this time (Stepan 2001); the shift from a Renaissance to an Enlightenment vision of America as the “New World” or as a “Paradise” (Reill 2005); and how scientific expeditions were used as a tool of empire by the Spanish government in the efforts then underway to reform and consolidate control over the colonies, with the Orinoco expedition as an example (Lucena Giraldo 2010). Depending on the outcome of our respective projects, we hope to jointly write a book in English on Löfling discussing the various aspects mentioned here. Lucena Giraldo already has research funding through his position at the CSIC, so I am only applying for a grant intended to fund my own research as outlined above.

Biography and “life geographies”

While the proposed project has a strong biographical accent it is not a “biography” in the conventional sense. In its organisation and execution it is more inspired by some recent works from prominent historians such as Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh (2007), which is a (very successful) attempt to discuss the global interconnectedness of the late 18th century world by closely studying a truly ”global life” and placing it in its historical context. This might be seen as an example of how “transnational individuals” can help us to challenge and transcend the boundaries of nationality in which we are so often trapped. More generally, as Banner has argued, “studying the life story of an individual might be seen as akin to studying the history of a city, a region or a state as a way of understanding broad social and cultural phenomena.” (2009:582) In other words, it is merely a way to organise and interconnect a large number of specific data by using an individual (instead of a corporation, or a village) as the point of departure and the principle of selection.

Also, the ambition here is to use geography or space as a structuring principle – how did space, location, place affect the allegedly “universal” science of Löfling? As Livingstone has pointed out, we are always influenced by where we are, how we are (quite literally) situated. Thus human lives do not only have a history but also what he calls “life geographies” or “the spaces of biography.” Livingstone contends that by drawing on these in scientific biographies, we can “open up new and revealing ways of taking the measure of a life.” (2003:182–183) Few lives seem to be so amenable to this approach as Löfling’s, whose adult years can be divided into three clearly defined phases with each connected to a specific place. These, in turn, can be tied to three distinct “arenas” (cf Kessler-Harris 2009:627) where he made an impact and which impacted on him: Uppsala 1743–1751 (training with Linnaeus), Madrid 1751–1753 (a Linnaean among the Spanish botanists) and the Orinoco 1754–1756 (colonial science meets indigenous knowledge).

Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela

Pehr Löfling spent the last weeks of his life near the confluence of the rivers Orinoco (above) and Caroní (below), today the site of the Venezuelan city of Ciudad Guayana, shown here in a 2010 photo from the International Space Station. (NASA Photo ISS022-E-24617 [detail]. Image courtesy of the Earth Sicence and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center.)

Each of the places represents a different milieu with very different conditions and situations for Löfling. He journeyed from an obscure beginning in the “northern periphery” (Sörlin 2000) of Europe, to the university of Uppsala at the very moment when the Linnaean system was being propagated throughout the continent(s). Thus, he became caught up in the emerging globalisation of knowledge that Linnaeus and his botany represented and that was one of the hallmarks of the period. Then he went on to Madrid, in the early 1750s still the centre of a major imperial power, where he was active in promoting the Linnaean system among Spanish scientists advising the government. Finally he was sent as a research agent by that government on an expedition whose purpose was to reinforce Spanish control of the American colonies. The last years of his life he spent in the colonial periphery, applying and re-assessing the lessons of his training in a context marked by the birth of ”the Tropics” as an idea and a reality (Stepan 2001). There, he also encountered colonial subjects, who became important to him not only in collecting specimens and performing menial tasks but also in sharing of their pre-colonial knowledge of plants, animals and other natural resources that might be of interest to imperial surveyors.

Projected research and its significance

The basic structure of the project is concurrently chronological and geographical as outlined above, which means that three related but separate case studies will be carried out. The first is centred on Uppsala and the intimate relationship between Löfling, his professor Linnaeus and a few other fellow students; the setting is a northern periphery of Europe that, at this time, was at least temporarily a scientific centre of the first order (it was soon going to lose that position, particularly after Linnaeus’s collections were sold to London). The second focuses on Löfling’s years in Madrid and highlights the question of the “Republic of Letters” in theory and practice, as tensions between its transnational tendencies and nationalism (or rather, patriotism) played out and Löfling worked to convince Spanish botanists to adopt the Linnaean system of botany (something the Crown eagerly did as it saw the potential for colonial prospecting). The third and final phase is Orinoco, where the relationship between purportedly universal (Linnaean) science and “local” (indigenous) knowledge and culture becomes the centre of attention.

The main three phases (and thus places) in Löfling’s adult life are generally well documented, with his own accounts from his time in Madrid being particularly rich. In Uppsala, the Linnaean circle produced copious amounts of sources that still survive, not least writings by Linnaeus’s own hand. In Madrid Löfling wrote a great deal of letters, of which most are still extant in the form of summaries or more or less verbatim copies, which is also true for many of the letters he received there. The last phase, Venezuela, can be studied both in some manuscripts and preserved letters by Löfling (but not as many as for the previous period) and other sources left by the expedition, including account books and other materials that show the interaction of expedition members with both Spanish colonial officials and indigenous populations.

The first part of the study, tentatively called “A reluctant apostle, 1729–1751,” is the most traditionally biographical one as it provides Löfling’s family background and a basic chronological outline of his early life. Mainly, however, this phase is focused on science as a career choice, the relationship between Löfling and Linnaeus and the origins of the Spanish journey. One aspect that will be briefly touched upon is the importance of Linnaeus’s experiences of teaching for some of his research findings and Löfling’s role in this regard. The chapter also investigates how and what budding naturalists learned in the more informal setting of Linnaeus’s household, where Löfling spent much of his time while in Uppsala, especially the last two or three years. Here, the professor gave private lessons and tutored his students, who also learned more intangible aspects of what it meant to be a naturalist: how to behave, how to build and maintain networks etc. As Löfling was one of Linnaeus’s favourite students and worked (uncertain for how long) as a private tutor for Linnaeus’s son, he was immersed in this learning and training environment more than most. He also contributed to some of Linnaeus’s work on, among other things, Philosophia botanica and binomial nomenclature, and this will also be part of the investigation of this phase.

The second part has the preliminary title “A Swede at the Spanish court, 1751–1753,” and will address issues of Buffonian and Linnaean science as well as European research networks within the larger framework and concept of the “Republic of Letters.” This republic was, in theory, as universal and “placeless” as Linnaean science itself, but in practice it was a much more complex geography made up of regions, centres and peripheries where the centres tended to be France, Britain or the Netherlands. (Clark et al 1999 and Koerner 1999; cf Sörlin 2000 and Goldgar 1995). In that geography both Sweden and Spain tended to belong to the northern and southern periphery, respectively, although for a few decades in the middle of the 18th century it cannot be denied that in the increasingly important field of natural history Sweden had an unusually “central” status. On the other hand it was a weak power in political terms, while Spain was still without comparison the leading imperial power of the continent (both countries were about to lose these respective positions soon).

In this phase one focus will be on the motives of all the involved parties for placing Löfling in the Madrid area: the Spanish Crown, Linnaeus and Löfling himself. The main centre of attention, however, is the encounter between Spanish science and Linnaean botany and the role Löfling played in that encounter. According to previous research, the struggle for supremacy of Linnaean botany did not end until well into the second half of the 18th century or even, depending on point of view, the first half of the 19th. Gómez de Enterría has speculated that the enduring support for Tournefort’s system in Spain was in part due to the early death of Löfling, and this deserves closer examination (2000:284–285). Also, here will be discussed the issue of potentially competing “centres of calculations” from Löfling’s point of view, as he was a student of Linnaeus (a powerful such centre) but employed by the Spanish Crown (clearly an emerging centre of this kind). An interesting point raised by Gascoigne (1996) is the tendency for centres of calculation to move from private individuals (Banks, Linnaeus) to more or less official institutions over the course of the 18th century (the Spanish cabinet, the British Royal Navy) – and here of course one cannot deny that Spain was very early in actually applying Linnaean botany in a colonial context in a way so typical of a much later period in many other countries. It was mainly in the early 19th century that Linnaeus’s system began to be used more widely by colonial powers in their surveying operations. (Müller-Wille 2005)

The third and final phase – and place – to be investigated has the working title “Colonising ‘Paradise’, 1754–1756.” The main focus here is the meeting of “universal” and “local” epistemologies that has been the focus of so much attention in recent research both in a European (Cooper 2007) and global (Schiebinger 2004; Hollsten 2006; Safier 2008; and others) context. The chapter will explore Linnaeus’s and Löfling’s ideas or “visions” of America and their encounter with American reality. Also, the aim is to study the practical aspects of organizing and maintaining collections in the colonial setting and, not least, to what an extent and how such efforts were dependent on indigenous assistants and local knowledge. Previously, it has often been stressed how the Linnaean system tended to eliminate all locality or sense of place from botanical descriptions and classifications (Bleichmar 2007 is one example of many), a claim that in certain respects should be examined in more detail.

Further, as suggested in the previous phase, one might argue that the Orinoco expedition was the very first instance of the Spanish government acting as a ”centre of calculation” with the Linnaean system as a primary tool, which in many ways was a harbinger of a future to come. As Lafuente and Valverde point out, there were 57 expeditions sent by the Spanish Crown to survey the flora of its colonies in the period 1760–1808; the first to use the Linnaean system was the one in which Löfling took part a few years prior, Iturriaga’s Orinoco expedition. (2005:136) Thus, in Spanish – and by extension European and global – colonial history this episode carries a special significance which merits closer study.


Some 200 botanical and zoological illustrations, completed during and in the years following the Orinoco expedition by specially trained draughtsmen, are preserved in the Löfling collection at the Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid. This example shows Annona palustris, today considered a synonym of the scientifically accepted name Annona glabra L. (Archivo del Real Jardín Botánico, CSIC, Madrid, Div. II lám. 37; © RJB-CSIC.)

Finally, in the South American colonial periphery at this time, Lafuente and Valverde have identified “two conflicting biopolitics: Spanish imperial botanical policies emanating from the metropolis; and Creole political botany homegrown in the colonies.” The former was driven by interest in the yield of economic resources from the land, the latter by how botany could help improve civic life in their respective “kingdoms” (2005:135). This tension between two essentially “Spanish” or “European” ethnic groups complicates the discussion, as we cannot use here a simple dichotomy of “European” and “indigenous”; instead, there were Spanish imperial interests, local (but ethnically European) Creole groups, indigenous (as in Native American) people and often Creoles of African descent as well. In the case of Löfling and the Orinoco expedition, it is unclear how substantial such “complications” were, as it operated in border areas between Spanish and Portuguese settlements where the colonial infrastructure was still very weak or non-existent and the Spanish and Creole populations were both small and recently established (if at all). Thus, it seems likely that in Löfling’s encounter with American reality it was mainly a matter of a meeting between Europeans and indigenous Americans.

In summary, the significance of the proposed project would go much beyond just the contribution to existing scholarship on Löfling, Linnaeus or Swedish history of science. It would also highlight the relationship between northern and southern peripheries of science within Europe and between colonial peripheries and the imperial metropolis of Spain. The study would explore, in a way that very few works so far have done, how the knowledge globalisation of the period affected and shaped individual lives and what it meant to them on different levels. Finally, it would bring together scholarship in English on Swedish and Spanish aspects of a global(ising) history in a manner that is very unusual in a historiography dominated by studies based on British and French examples.


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