Wednesday’s Book Review: “Empire and Science in the Making”

51YnqaRjYpLEmpire and Science in the Making: Dutch Colonial Scholarship in Comparative Global Perspective, 1760-1830. Edited by Peter Boomgaard. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

As co-editor of the series, Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology, my comments will be quite positive. This is a very fine book. It is a collection of essays, written by eleven different scholars, most of them with a Dutch background. It deals with a fascinating subject, the state of colonial science in the Dutch empire, especially in the years near the turn of the nineteenth century. An explicit purpose of the collection is to weigh the value and meaning of Dutch colonial science at that time in comparison with what was happening in other European countries and their colonies.

Editor Peter Boomgaard, currently Senior Researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southwest Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden, argues that there has been a dearth of scholarship about science in the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth century era period. He appropriately notes the need to emphasize colonial science in the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century and the institutionalized science of the Dutch colonial state in Indonesia in the nineteenth century. While we may know much about Enlightenment science elsewhere, especially Great Britain and Germany, such is not the case with Dutch imperial studies.

Accordingly, Boomgaard brings to light in this collection of essays the fruits of recent labor investigating an area in which scholars from the Netherlands had been making inroads into the area, but writing in Dutch and therefore inaccessible to most other scholars. These essays demonstrate the relative weakness of organized scientific work in the Dutch empire between 1770 and 1815 and provide a fascinating account of the re‐invention of the Dutch, especially their intellectual grasp of foreign lands, in the face of cultural stagnation, economic decline, political crisis, and repeated military defeat. These case studies are especially good at showing what this weakness meant in comparison to science in Britain, Sweden, and Germany (and to a lesser degree in Spain and France).

I was especially taken by Gerry van Klinken’s essay, “Why Was There No Javanese Galileo?” Van Klinken explores the history of astronomy in Java while the Dutch were present and finds that the scientific inquiry was neither institutionalized nor effectively communicated. While there was no effective communication system, and that was largely a Dutch colonial problem, Javanese elites did not see the need for significant scientific inquiry and did not support it. Accordingly, the accoutrements of Enlightenment science did not root in the Pacific Southeast region of the Dutch empire.

I also enjoyed Michael Laffan’s essay, “‘A Religion That Is Extremely Easy and Unusually Light to Take On’: Dutch and English Knowledge of Islam in Southeast Asia, ca. 1595-1811.” It explains how most western knowledge of Islamic knowledge and culture was generated well before 1770 and the Dutch empire adopted a fundamentally dismissive attitude toward it. Laffan focuses on the lives and research of the Dutch leaders who challenged all things Muslim and therefore ignored the scientific knowledge present in Islamic culture.

At sum, science in the Dutch empire is highlighted in this volume more effectively than in any other study currently available. It was during the time period under review here that modern science emerged as a mainstay of Western Civilization and from the West traveled to every other part of the world. Empire and Science in the Making makes clear how this took place in the region control by the Netherlands.

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